New Proposal Would Merge Accreditation Of Three Vermont State Colleges
It’s been quite a year for the Vermont State Colleges System.
Back in April, then-Chancellor Jeb Spaulding surprised many with a proposal to close three campuses in the system. That was met with intense backlash; the proposal was eventually tabled and Spaulding resigned. He was replaced by Sophie Zdatny.
The system still faces significant fiscal issues, and earlier this month, a state committee recommended a slate of changes – which would include putting Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College under one accreditation.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny about what the committee proposal would mean. Their conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
The conversation began with Zdatny explaining the committee's proposal.
Sophie Zdatny: They do not recommend, for example, that the campuses be closed or be physically merged or eliminated. It really would be a way for us to function more as a system and less as a federation of institutions.
It would be an opportunity for our students to have greater access to programs across the system, while still maintaining a physical presence in our current locations across the state.
So the board of trustees has obviously received the report. They’re taking a look at it. They have asked me as the chancellor to work with our presidents to explore that recommendation, and we will be working on that over the next couple of months.
But in particular, over the next few weeks, we will be coming to the board's long-range planning committee on Jan. 8, having completed what essentially is a SWAT analysis, but looking [to see] if this is something that could work for us before we go to the full board.
Henry Epp: Well, as you begin that process, do you view this as something that is promising for the system, something that makes sense?
We have a little bit of experience with it, having gone through the unification of Johnson State College and Lyndon State College into Northern Vermont University and sort of seeing how that worked.
It does enable cost savings. But to be clear, those don't happen immediately. It takes time to achieve those savings.
You do get some immediate savings, obviously, from the reduction in administrators at the top, because you don't need two presidents or in this case, three presidents and three provosts and three business offices, et cetera. So it wouldn't be an immediate answer to the financial challenges that we're facing.
We do have a significant ask of the Legislature for this year, in order to execute on the proposal that's in the select committee’s initial report, [which] would require assistance from the Legislature and the governor, to give us the time that it would take to do that.
Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. What is the ask to the Legislature this year for the Vermont state colleges?
So we have asked for our traditional base appropriation, which is around $31 million, plus an additional $45 million and a second year of bridge funding.
$75 million you would be asking for from the Legislature. Do you feel like lawmakers would be open to committing that much money, just given the many different pressures that they face right now?
Right. We certainly recognize all the pressures that that we're facing as a state and, you know, that our legislators have to deal with.
I would add that we came up with our ask before the release of the initial report from the select committee. And their numbers are a little bit different from us, but essentially are very much in the same ballpark. We think that is a realistic number moving forward.
I want to talk a little bit more about the proposal to join the accreditation of several of your institutions. It wasn't all that long ago that your predecessor was proposing to close three campuses that are included under this proposal to merge accreditations.
Can you talk a little bit more about what's substantially different about this plan to join these campuses in this way, compared to the plan that would have closed several campuses a few months ago?
Right. So, again, to be clear, what's being recommended by the select committee is a common accreditation for the three institutions, the three residential institutions.
It's not recommending closure of physical campuses, which is obviously a big difference from what was proposed in the spring.
In terms of keeping those campuses in place, even if you do, do you expect changes to the academic offerings at the various campuses? If they were to be under a single accreditation, would there potentially be some cuts? If there's overlap within departments, say, an English department at Castleton and also at Northern Vermont University, would some of those potentially be on the chopping block?
So one of the things that we were asked to do – or the board asked us to do this this summer – was we had an internal taskforce called the VSCS Forward Task Force. They came up with a number of recommendations for our board. And one of those was to take a close look at duplicate programs across the system, and particularly between Castleton University and Northern Vermont University.
So we have been working with faculty at those two institutions to look at our program array and where is there duplication? Where can we work, you know, together to build stronger programs? So looking ahead, part of what we will be doing as we review the select committee's recommendations, is looking at program array and that will include a look at: Where can we best serve students? You know, what programs should we continue? Where should those programs be located? How best to deliver them?
Those are all questions that we will be looking at as we move forward.
It does sound like there could be the potential for some faculty or staff cuts if there are duplications between the different campuses. Is that an accurate reading?
I really couldn't say at this point, because we'd have to do the work to see where we may have additional faculty. But at this point … that's not contemplated, on the faculty side.
Finally, students were on campus at many of your institutions this past fall semester and you only saw about 20 cases of coronavirus across the system, is that right?
We had very, very low numbers throughout the semester. Right at the very end, as the surge happened in Vermont, we did have some additional cases that were really, you know, community cases. They weren't sort of college cases.
Well, given that relative success, do you plan to do anything differently in the spring, perhaps allowing more in-person activity?
Yeah, so Northern Vermont University will be continuing what they did in the fall, which was some courses being taught remotely, but also having as many in-person courses as they can.
And Castleton University, which was really almost entirely online in the fall, will be moving more to the Northern Vermont University model of having a combination of in-person and online courses.
Looking out further, do you expect a return at some point to primarily having in-person classes for most students? And do you think that would potentially attract more students to the Vermont State Colleges, say, in the fall of 2021?
Well, we certainly look forward to getting back to normal to the extent we can. And obviously faculty really enjoy being in the classroom with students.
I do think moving forward, realistically, that in order to deliver good quality programs across the state, we will certainly be continuing to provide online courses.
So I would imagine moving forward, we will be looking at, you know, going back to the traditional classrooms, having a lot of in-person classes, but also really thinking hard about ways to expand access and using, you know, virtual tools to enable us to do that moving forward, so we can reach more students and boost enrollment that way as well.
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