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Interim President Mike Smith on navigating challenges at newly merged Vermont State University

Images of Castleton University, the Community College of Vermont, and a diploma in the hands of a NVU-Lyndon student.
Wikimedia Commons / CCV, courtesy / NVU-Lyndon, courtesy

This week marks the beginning of classes at the newly created Vermont State University.

It comes after three years of work, merging Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College.

But the transition has not been without turbulence.

The colleges have been facing declining enrollments and enormous deficits. Plus, there was public uproar when former President Parwinder Grewal announced plans to digitize campus libraries and downgrade sports programs to cut costs.

Those plans have been shelved and Grewal abruptly resigned earlier this year.

Now, Mike Smith has stepped out of retirement to serve as interim president of the Vermont State Colleges system and Vermont State University. He's a former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services.

Vermont Public's Mary Engisch caught up with Smith in July to talk about the new university in the face of past challenges. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Well, first up, help us understand the state college system. Why was this merger undertaken with these particular schools?

Mike Smith smiles in a portrait photo. He is wearing a dark gray suit jacket, cream shirt, and dark blue tie with white stripes. He is sitting in front of a gray background.
Vermont State University
Mike Smith

Mike Smith: Well, there were three reasons. One is that it was good for the students. It opened up educational opportunities for the students that otherwise, they wouldn't have that ability to avail themselves of those opportunities. For example, through our various programs on the various campuses, those are now all open to students at any of our campuses.

Second, it was good for the institutions. It does save money in administrative costs, as we sort of bring the merger together. But also, it helps us not compete against each other. As we continue to look at a declining demographic in the Northeast in Vermont, we have fewer students that are graduating from high school. That means colleges and universities are competing against a demographic base that's smaller and growing smaller as we move forward. It was good for the institutions to stop competing against each other and look at ways to thrive together.

Then lastly, it really does help the economy and the workforce for the state of Vermont. What we are trying to do at Vermont State University is something that I think is unique to Vermont State University. We're producing the nurses of the future, the electricians of the future, the plumbers of the future, the educators of the future, the philosophers of the future, and the business and science majors of the future here. In order for them to stay in Vermont, get good paying jobs and help that workforce. Seventy percent of our students are Vermonters, and we want to make sure that they are equipped with the ability to get good paying jobs.

You've been given this label of "interim fixer-in-chief" in your career. You're no stranger to stepping into the different organizations that are at transition points, and that are also facing some big challenges — whether it's a college, a 911 call center or a government agency. I'm curious, what did you see in the state college system that made you come out of retirement to lead it? And what sort of skill set do you have to offer as a leader?

What I saw was something that was important for me to try to help. The Vermont State Colleges system, and the Vermont State University now, is an important asset for the state of Vermont. Not only for our students and the institutions themselves, but for the future of Vermont to supply the workforce for the future. One of the things that I thought I could do was to bring some stability to the process. As you know, on the second day, I rescinded the library and sports decisions that had been made by the university. Secondly, I really thought that it was important that I tried to really help out, bring some fiscal stability to this institution, which I've had some skills in the past doing.

What is it in your background that allows you to be comfortable in these sorts of difficult positions? I know you've famously served as a Navy SEAL early on in your career.

You've got to be committed to a cause. Whenever I can see something where it would help the state of Vermont, that is a cause that's worth putting yourself out there. So you gotta be committed to the cause. Obviously, you got to have fiscal skills; you've got to have some people skills as you move forward. You got to be able to motivate people. You got to sort of put out there what you see [as a future] possibility. I see possibilities here at Vermont State University, and what it can be to the state of Vermont. And what it can be to serve the people of the state of Vermont.

Dozens of people stand on stairs inside a library holding books
Connor Cyrus
Vermont Public
Castleton students held a protest and library sit-in on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023 to contest Vermont State University's plan to make libraries all-digital and to convert library spaces into community spaces.

As we mentioned before, the former president's plan to save money on libraries and athletics received a lot of pushback. You just mentioned that on your second day, you hit the pause button on both of those. But these sorts of conversations have been happening for a while. In 2020, the former college system chancellor proposed closing campuses and cutting jobs to help dig out of some deficits. How would you describe morale on the campuses right now? 

I think those have been discouraging aspects to morale. We need to sort of boost morale as we move forward. There's been incredible work that's been done over the last three years. And it's been hard work, and it's been exhausting work.

When you took the helm, the Board of Trustees asked you to draft some transformation plans. Can you share with us what that means and what kind of approach you're taking? 

We just finished the strategic plan that we'll look at how we move forward. As a university, one of the things that I'm starting to do now is take that strategic plan and break it down into elements that are in need of priorities. We need to make sure that we're optimizing our classrooms as we move forward. You know, one third of Castleton campus classrooms, for example, are under 10 students. That is about half in Johnson. In Lyndon, half of our classrooms are under 10 students. We need to be 18 to 21 students per classroom. What we got to do is do a process from the bottom up. We've started that process of how we consolidate our classes to make sure that we are being efficient and effective in how we deliver classroom services to our students.

In your role, what won't you do?

Yeah, I won't pull campuses. That's the one thing it's not in my DNA to do right now. That is, the one thing that I want to make sure is that we stay vibrant throughout the state and we make sure that all campuses are thriving. Castleton is important to Rutland County. Lyndon is important to the Northeast Kingdom, and we need to make sure that we find ways for all campuses to succeed.

Let's talk about some of the challenges that the school system is facing. Probably number one on the list is money. How do things stand with finances right now? And how do you expect to make VSU financially viable moving forward? 

Yes, we ended the year with a deficit of over $20 million. That was expected. The Legislature has been very generous and the governor has been very generous in making sure that we succeed; they've appropriated over $200 million since 2020 to make sure that we're stabilized. In return, they've asked for a commitment to reduce our deficit, to eliminate our structural deficit of $25 million. We have started that; we reduced it. Last year, we budgeted to reduce it. This year, in our [2024] budgets that just started July 1, we have made those reductions in our budget $5 million a year until we get to the $25 million mark. I think fiscal stability is going to be important.

We're going to have an impact on the Vermont workforce. Nursing, for example, we're going to have a big expansion on nursing. Thanks to Sen.Leahy, we’re going to get a $6.3 million grant in order to expand the physical space of our nursing program. We'll be expanding that to bring in 100 nurses a year, more than what we do right now.

Our fiscal solvency is something that I'm keenly aware of. We put the budget together to take care of the $5 million that we promised the legislature we would do this year, in this fiscal year. We'll continue to do that until that structural deficit is finished. There's two other things that are very important to me as well — student success. I'm a first generation, non-traditional student. I want to make sure that we're out there meeting the needs of those students that are non-traditional and first generation. We have a high rate of graduation in this state. But 45% of our high school graduates do not go on to higher education. I want to change that because we offer an opportunity for them to find a profession that really pays well in this state.

Mike, you spoke a little bit about classroom sizes. And prior to this merging of the state colleges, we were facing that uphill battle in terms of enrollment numbers. Can you give us a little more about where they are with enrollment now? And what does it look like for you to get more students in the door and to sustain that thriving campus?

Castleton University students walking.
Courtesy of Castleton University

As you know, demographics are a huge challenge for every institution. But there are opportunities, as I mentioned before. You know, 45% of Vermont high school graduates don't go on to higher education. We need to be able to offer them and reach out to them, find a way to make sure that they're successful in our workforce. The way to do that is to offer them professions and opportunities for education for those professions where they can thrive. We're at 19% down in terms of total enrollment from last year. We have about 1,330 new students coming in and that's growing every day. Seventy percent of Vermonters, 30% are out of state. There’s international students as well that are in that number.

We need to be better at competing. COVID has had an impact on us over the past few years. But it's in a rearview mirror now, and it will become less and less of an impact. We've had some controversy; libraries and sports were controversial. They had an impact on enrollment. I don't know how much, but I think it's evident to me that they did have an impact on enrollment. Then lastly, whenever you're changing your brand, or consolidating no matter what industry you're in, there's always a point where the consumer is trying to figure it out as we move forward. You can change the name but all the systems underneath have to be changed. And that takes incredible work.

Last question for you. You've said that after the six months serving as interim president, you'll leave the position. Where do you want to leave the state college system by the time your tenure is through?

I want to leave the state college system in the direction that we talked about during our time together here. That optimization is on the way. That their strategic plan is well implemented. That fiscal — we started with the FY 24 budget, and we're on track to meet all our goals to reduce the deficit by $5 million. I also want to make sure that you know that our students' success, that we're really focused on student success. We have the tools in place to make sure that students succeed, that our graduation rates start to rise and that we make sure that students are successful at our institution.

And then will you try to successfully retire again, or —

I never say never, but I gotta believe that someday it's gonna happen. So we'll hope that that happens.

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