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Students at Vermont State University's Johnson campus grapple with uncertainty

An illustration shows a group of students carrying backpacks from behind.
Yulia Sutyagina
Group of people students with bags in school, back view. Meeting of young men and women before education. Vector

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below.

This is the first semester Vermont Technical College, Castleton University and Northern Vermont University are merged under the Vermont State University banner. But it hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest transition.

Former president Parwinder Grewal resigned abruptly in April, following widespread backlash against plans to downgrade sports programs and make libraries all-digital. Those plans have since been shelved.

Still, VTSU continues to look for ways to cut costs amid long-term budget issues and declining enrollment. Current interim president Mike Smith released recommendations to get rid of 10 degree programs and 33 faculty positions. And the university followed that up with a faculty buyout plan, which is receiving pushback from the faculty union.

So, with classes back in session this week after the fall break, Vermont Public’s Adiah Gholston visited VTSU’s Johnson campus to see how students are holding up.

Katrin Cody: It's definitely a little bit scary to see a lot of people's programs get cut — and just hoping that yours doesn't get cut.

My name is Katrin Cody. I'm a holistic health major, and I'm a third-year student at Vermont State University.

I'm hoping that some of the new changes will bring more community outreach and just bring people together more. Because I think a lot of people are pretty solitude here.

Teresa Montalbano: I'm Teresa Montalbano. I'm a junior musical theater performer.

Elsa Altaf: My name is Elsa Altaf. I am a junior here, and I'm in the performance arts and technologies major with a concentration in social justice.

It's definitely a little bit scary to see a lot of people's programs get cut — and just hoping that yours doesn't get cut.
Katrin Cody

Clayton Sargent: My name is Clayton Sargent. I'm a junior here and I'm in the performance arts and technologies major.

Adiah Gholston: The performance arts and technologies major is getting cut, so how do you guys feel about that?

Teresa Montalbano: I know a big reason they're cutting the program is because of low enrollment, but that's not entirely our fault. Because we're putting out great shows; we just don't have the best advertising for the performing arts in general. But we have the largest stage in Vermont; we have great faculty who have real world experience, things like that we have all the resources, we just don't have the students right now to fill it. But that's also just because a lot of majors got hit hard from COVID. And there's not a lot of high enrollment coming back from that.

Elsa Altaf: So it's not that they're cutting performing arts from all of VTSU — they're just moving it to one location, which they're going to be moving it all to Castleton. I think they should move it all to Johnson just because of the stage we have, the faculty we have. The fact that we had McClellan Hall, which is a whole dance studio. But we also don't wish for Casleton's program to get cut. Yeah, it's hard that they can't coexist — that they have to choose one or the other.

Clayton Sargent: I think my biggest thought on it is that it feels a little bit silly. Just because when I applied to this college, I knew that I was going to a liberal arts college. And so it feels interesting that out of all of the majors to be cut, it would be the performance arts major.

Adiah Gholston: After we talk, Elsa, Teresa and Clayton lead me to a meeting with other performing arts and technology students, mostly juniors, as they react to the news that their major might get cut.

Wilbur Hayes: I feel that the administration for VTSU and the people who are making those big decisions are not listening to us. And they haven't been for a while. And it's, frankly, disturbing to me.

At the moment, I still feel like I'm just at Johnson — not Vermont State.
Athena Brown

I feel so enriched with the opportunities that I've gotten for the classes that I've been able to take because of the [performing arts and technologies major]. I would never have taken a directing class. And I would never have realized how much I actually enjoy doing that.

Clayton Sargent: My thought is that if it's not this program, it's got to be something else. They're gonna sell stuff until they figure out a way to keep the campuses open. But honestly, it just feels like a repeating thing that just keeps happening. So in my head, as much as I wish that they didn't have to — they're going to sell something. And I don't know if this is the right choice or if there's something better. But they're going to sell something and someone's going to be upset.

Teresa Montalbano: I also feel like it's justifiable though, because we have a low freshman and sophomore class. Number-wise, we have a large junior class, as all of us here are juniors. So I feel like it's hard to be like, "Can't you see all the great work we're doing?" When they're looking at numbers and we don't have the numbers.

Adiah Gholston: Outside, students talk about their hopes moving forward.

Willow Albe: My name is Willow Albe; I'm a psychology major.

I mean, I really don't know what there would be to cut at this point, honestly. But I feel like there's just a lot of empty buildings on campus that no one really uses.

We got a lot of new students this year. Honestly, there's a lot of new freshmen. And I'm really hoping to see like, I don't know, more people on campus. Like a better community here. The people that are here a great ,but there's not a lot going on. There's not that many clubs; the sports are struggling. I think more people would be really nice.

Athena Brown: My name is Athena Brown. I'm a sophomore, and I'm an anthropology and sociology major. I feel like I've never interacted with any of the other campuses in any meaningful way. And I feel like that's just a big resource that we're just not taking advantage of. I mean, at the moment, I still feel like I'm just at Johnson — not Vermont State.

Vivienne Babbott: My name is Vivienne Babbott. I think after things are more solidified, more students come here, if they can get it more lively or get the enrollment up a little bit. It'll take time, but I think it'll be a fun place to be.

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