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CU president, Vermont college chancellor resign in midst of controversial plan to close colleges 

By Katy Savage

After a week of uncertainty about the immediate future of Vermont colleges, the chancellor of Vermont State Colleges and president of Castleton University both resigned.

CU President Karen Scolforo is leaving May 31 while Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s resignation was effective April 29.

Both announcements were made at an April 29 remote Vermont State Colleges board of trustees meeting after Spaulding laid out a controversial plan to close three of the five Vermont State Colleges campuses to make up for an anticipated $10 million loss this academic year, plus a host of unknown pandemic-related losses. Northern Vermont University, with campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, would have closed under Spaulding’s plan. Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus would have closed and merged with the campus in Williston while programs from NVU would have shifted to Castleton.

Spaulding announced the plan April 17 before withdrawing it on April 22 after protests and pushback from students, communities and employees. Under his plan, Northern Vermont University President Elaine Collins would take the lead at Castleton University.

“Many people are disappointed with me and the process leading up to my recommendation  — specifically the speed, perceived lack of transparency and hurtful impacts on many people,” Spaulding said at the meeting April 29, explaining several people, including Collins and Scolforo, were “caught off-guard.”

“The process leading to my recommendations — later withdrawn — has not turned out how I’d hoped,” Spaulding said at the meeting. “I take full responsibility and apologize to those who were hurt. I’ve become more of a liability than an asset to the Vermont State Colleges system. My ability to be an effective chancellor has been eroded and I don’t think that can be repaired quickly, if ever. VSCS does not have time to find out.”

Still, Spaulding said he and his team laid out what they thought was the best plan to combat “serious financial challenges” in the higher education system that were exacerbated by Covid-19.

“Higher education is in the midst of a major sea change,” Spaulding said during the April 29 meeting. “I believe then and now it was the best available path forward. Time will tell whether I was right or wrong.”

Three Vermont colleges, including the College of St. Joseph, Green Mountain College and Southern Vermont College, closed last year.

Collins applied for a position as president of Lansing Community College in Michigan and she announced on April 27 that she was a finalist for that position.

Scolforo, a first generation college student, became the president of Castleton in December 2017 after spending four years as president at Central Penn College in Summerdale and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Scolforo became tearful as she said goodbye at the April 29 meeting.

“This has been the most dedicated team of professionals I’ve ever worked with” she said, later adding, “The circumstances that have occurred over the past couple weeks make me feel that I can’t lead at the same level.”

Churchill Hindes, the chair of the Vermont State Colleges System board of trustees, told Scolforo that she exceeded expectations as president. “We had a president in Castleton that was almost bigger than Castleton and we knew it would take a remarkably talented individual to move in and establish a new presidency, a new spirit at Castleton while honoring the past and still becoming, in short order, the new face of the university,” Hindes said. “And you pulled that off better than I ever could have imagined.”

During her three years at CU, Scolforo made teachout agreements with several Vermont institutions that closed.

Scolforo also helped launch more than 20 new academic programs at Castleton University, including a new cannabis studies program and an online MBA program. After Green Mountain College closed, Castleton University established a new Killington campus to continue offering Green Mountain College’s Resort & Hospitality Management degree in partnership with Killington Resort.

Scolforo sent a message to students the day after her resignation, assuring them that Castleton was on solid financial footing. “Yesterday and this morning I have received hundreds of emails, text messages, phone calls, and private notes in social media, all of which offer thoughtful words of gratitude and support,” she said. “We have achieved so much together!”

The Vermont State Colleges board of trustees will appoint an interim president at Castleton University until a new president is hired.  Sophie Zdatny, who has provided legal counsel for the VSCS for the past five years, was named interim chancellor until the board appoints a successor.

Legislative leaders have also announced a bridge funding program to keep VSC campuses open through 2020-2021 academic year.

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