Updated 7:10 p.m.
Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding has withdrawn a controversial recommendation to close Northern Vermont University's campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, as well as the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph.
Spaulding originally announced the consolidation plan last Friday as a way to address budget shortfalls caused by declining enrollment and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, however, he sent out a written statement addressing backlash to the proposal.
“Our Board of Trustees heard loud and clear from thousands of students, employees, communities, and the State’s elected leadership and determined that my recommendations would be damaging on many levels and would not be acceptable," Spaulding said. "I accept their judgment."
His proposal to the VSC board of trustees would have eliminated 500 jobs at the three campuses. While that plan is off the table, Spaulding said the system is still in a financial crisis, and he can't guarantee there won't be any jobs eliminated.
"We can't make a commitment that there are no job actions coming,” he said.
Spaulding also said the system will still need to adjust to changing college demographics.
"Over 30% of our student body in higher education on a national level are over 30 years old,” he said."Those kind of big changes are with us forever. So we do need to look seriously at a campus configuration, but do it in a thoughtful process."
Spaulding noted all state college campuses will open back up in the fall, unless COVID-19 causes further disruptions to in-person learning. In the meantime, he said he and the VSC board will work to formulate a new proposal with input from lawmakers and community members.
He added that the colleges will need $25 million to shore up their finances.
The Vermont Senate has indicated its support for providing additional funds to keep the state college system open. While they have not yet appropriated the money, the senators said they'd look to the $1.25 billion dollars coming to Vermont in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
“Some of the added costs for the state college system does relate to COVID-19, in terms of the amount of money they've had to return to students and the kind of burden that they've put on colleges in the short-term,” said Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina. "So we could look into using that money to get us out of the current hole."
Pollina is a graduate of Johnson State College, and is also the lead sponsor of a bill that would provide free tuition for Vermonters attending any of the state colleges. He added that if nothing else, the original proposal to close three campuses "shines a strong light" on public education funding issues.
"We need to put our heads together and come up with something that works for us in the long-term, and not just through this current crisis," Pollina said.
Senate President Tim Ashe said the legislative review should also include the University of Vermont.
“We have to take a broader view when we're thinking about a campus closure than just the particular mindset of the chancellor and board of trustees,” he said. “Because the impact goes beyond, to access to higher education on a geographic basis, but also speaks to the economic well-being of entire communities.”
Ashe added it was a misguided move if state college chancellor Jeb Spaulding tried to force the Legislature's hand by threatening to close three campuses.
“Because frankly, the worst outcome of this proposal that was put on the table Friday is to scare the daylights of potential students and existing students,” Ashe said. “So if it was brinkmanship to get the money, it was completely counter-productive in terms of actually sending a message to students that these are campuses you would want to enroll in in the fall.”
Gov. Phil Scott said that he didn’t know Spaulding had withdrawn the campus closure plan until he was asked about it at a press conference on Wednesday. Scott said he would work with the Legislature to develop a plan, and that “everything is on the table.”
But the governor cautioned he didn’t want to use money to prop up the existing system.
“We don’t want to just pour $50 million into the system, let’s say when a year from now, we’re just going to end up in the same spot,” he said.
Scott didn’t specifically say if he’d support the Senate’s plan, but he said he was wary of doling out funds until the state could assess the full scope of the economic fallout from the pandemic. He added every sector of the economy, including health care and education, is going to need money by the end of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We don’t know again the entirety of what we’re facing as of yet, because it’s still yet to come,” Scott said. “I believe the worse of it is still yet to come from a financial standpoint.”