Castleton Grapples With What College Merger Might Mean For Community
A cost-cutting plan will merge Castleton University with two other Vermont State Colleges institutions. It may be the only way to save the system, which has been struggling for years. But the move is shaking up the identity of the Castleton community.
Fewer than 4,700 people live in Castleton, a town where beautiful historic homes and a smattering of local businesses line a sleepy Main Street.
Castleton University, which enrolls about 2,400 full- and part-time students, is close by. It can trace its roots back to 1787, making it the oldest institution of higher learning in the state. Business leaders in Rutland say it's become a cultural and economic engine for the entire region.
Andrew Breting owns a pizzeria and adjoining bar that caters to those students. Walking through an archway, he points to an original brick wall decorated with pizza paddles signed by graduating students.
“We call this The Lounge, you know, The Lounge at Third Place,” Breting said. “Students come in here; professors have class in here; multiple town meetings are held in here.”
Breting played football for Castleton and graduated in 2016. He’s proud to be a Spartan.
“Through and through! Yes, 100%,” he laughs. “Would not change it for the world.”
But big changes are coming for the university, which saddens Breting.
“You never want to hear your [alma mater]’s changing,” he said.
In late February, the Board of Trustees for the Vermont State Colleges approved the merger of its three residential colleges. State lawmakers called for the plan to ensure Vermont can continue to offer sustainable, high quality and affordable higher education across the state.
Castleton’s campus, along with NVU’s campuses in Lyndon and Johnson and Vermont Technical College’s campus in Randolph, will all remain open. But their physical footprints will be downsized, administration will be centralized, and course offerings will be adjusted to reduce duplication and better address workforce needs.
A national search will be undertaken to find a president for the new consolidated college, which will tentatively be called Vermont State University.
If all goes according to plan, and if the new institution is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education, it’s scheduled to open in the fall of 2023.
Philip Lamy, a longtime sociology professor at Castleton, worries about the downsizing. “I think most people would agree the merger has to happen to preserve the system,” he said. “But the devil is in the details — we’re not really sure what that means.”
What programs will get consolidated, he wonders. How will class size be impacted, and how many faculty and staff will be cut?
Last month, Castleton University President Jonathan Spiro told staff that while he was proud of the university’s marching band — one of the few in the state — it was no longer sustainable, and would be replaced with a smaller spirit band.
Leaning against the counter in his pizzeria, Andrew Breting said he wonders if the college’s athletic programs and his beloved football team will be next on the chopping block.
“I mean, we’re doing this to quote-unquote save money, so what is the ramifications down the line?" Breting asks. "Everybody says, ‘Oh, we’re good, we’re good.’ We keep telling ourselves we’re good, but are we good? We’re changing our name, so how good are we?”
As a new business owner, the consolidation worries him.
“With everything that’s going on in the U.S. right now, with schools closing, is this the first step to a school closing?" Breting said. "Is this the first domino to fall?”
That's a worse-case scenario, Breting admits, but he lives in nearby Poultney, where Green Mountain College recently closed. To him, the fear is real.
Joe Mark is a retired academic dean who worked at Castleton University for more than three decades. He now serves on the Castleton Select Board. Both Mark and Castleton Town Manager Mike Jones say people in the community are proud of the $85 million in investments that have been made at Castleton University in the last 15 years, and the growth in enrollment over that time.
But Mark says the state's small population and high costs continue to be a problem.
"The money that's going to be required to implement the new plan is going to be throwing good money after bad," he says. "And I think five years from now, the college system will be back at the Legislature, with new financial needs to meet."
Jones says there’s also a lot of concern in town that Castleton will suffer being joined with state schools that have been struggling more: “I mean, if you were a business owner, would you make that decision to invest in something that's failing in hopes that, you know, everything stabilizes?”
Last year, former State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding had proposed closing Northern Vermont University's two campuses and the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College. Anger over that plan resulted in Spaulding's resignation and the creation of this new proposal.
At the campus center and Spartan athletic complex, a half dozen students interviewed for this story all said the merger is not a hot topic of conversation.
Junior Miranda Fish says she'd only see a few emails on the issue, but was grateful she'll have graduated by the time the merger is completed.
Freshman Katie Gallagher says she'd only heard bits and pieces of the plan as well. “Being an out-of-stater, it does worry me a little bit," she said. "'Cause I’m actually from North Carolina, so I’m pretty far away.”
She said it could be a good thing for the state schools: “It could provide more money and more opportunities. But I think it does worry me a little bit, that they are going through some shortages right now.”
Gallagher plays softball, and says if campus downsizing includes sizable cuts to Castleton’s athletics programs, she’d probably go elsewhere.
Neither student likes the idea of not having a president on campus.
“One of the things I came to Castleton for is the small community feel," Gallagher says. "And I think going to one president for all different schools makes that kind of hard to reach the president, to make changes you want."
As to the name change, Gallagher admits she’s not sure how she feels about that. But alumni groups, local officials, business leaders and Rutland County’s senators have come out strongly against it.
Dave Wolk served as Castleton University president for 16 years before stepping down in 2017. He says a Vermont State University would create needless confusion with the University of Vermont. He says it would erase all the time and money Castleton has invested on branding, and hurt alumni giving.
"I'm very worried, and I'm very close to the faculty and staff there, and the students," Wolk said. "And I know they're very worried about the loss of identity.”
Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny says she understands those concerns, and that the symbolism and traditions celebrated at Castleton are important, and can be preserved.
But Zdatny says they’ve also learned from their experience with Northern Vermont University that consolidation can work. She said merging the Lyndon and Johnson campuses created about $9 million in cost savings.
“I mean, the campuses are known as NVU Johnson and NVU Lyndon," she said. "We fully expect that Castleton will be a part of the identity as we move forward... But one of the messages that we really need to be understood, and needs to be reflected, I think, in the name, is that this is a new entity. It is one university. It may be located in multiple different places, but it's one university. It's not the status quo.”
Going forward, she says the state colleges will work harder to attract new students, increase enrollment and boost revenue. They’ll offer more associates degrees and professional credentials targeted to Vermont’s workforce. And if lawmakers approve their funding request, Zdatny says annual ongoing funding to the state college system will jump 55% — from $31.5 million to $47.5 million. She says that will help ensure sustainability and affordability for all students, which will benefit Castleton and the region as well.
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