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Vermont State University professor says there's been a 'lack of transparency' in recent buyouts

Students in a 2017 performance of Antigone at Johnson State college, which is now VSTU- Johnson university
Robert M. Eddy/Bob Eddy
First Light Studios, Ltd.
In 2017, students perform Antigone at the former Johnson State College, which is now Vermont State University.

Facing a long term budget shortfall amid low enrollment, Vermont State University officials last week announced the elimination of more than 30 staff positions, including in advising, admissions, financial aid and other offices.

And this week, the university announced the results of an earlier cost-cutting plan to get rid of up to 33 faculty positions.

Seventeen of those faculty members are taking a buyout, six are planning to retire at the end of this semester and three will not have their contracts renewed. Meanwhile, one faculty member received a layoff notice.

And many of the academic programs associated with those faculty will be cut or consolidated, pending further action from VTSU.

The university says these cuts will save around $3.3 million annually.

Isaac Eddy was one of the faculty members to receive a buyout. He’s an associate professor of theater and drama and the program coordinator fot the Performance Arts and Technology program at VTSU’s Johnson campus. He spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Well, Isaac, I understand your program was under threat from last month's cost-cutting recommendations. Could you update us with the status of your program and employment?

A man standing on a stand. In a white T-shirt and jeans, with hands clasp in front of him.
Anna Sargent
Isaac Eddy

Issac Eddy: They just released the report. It confirms that they're going to be cutting Performance Arts and Technology, the program that I helped create and that I'm the program coordinator of on the Johnson campus. Sadly, tragically, this means that this campus will not have any programming for the performing arts, after the current students enrolled in the program have finished here. Earlier, I had an email that said that my application for buyout was accepted as well.

Wow. Well, these past couple of months sound like they've been a real whirlwind of emotions. How are you feeling?

That's a great question. I feel awful. I feel awful on so many levels. The first reason is that it hasn't been just a few months that has been a whirlwind. — it's been years, frankly.

I was hired to teach here nine years ago. I moved my family from Brooklyn to come back to Vermont. I was born here and grew up here, but I hadn't been living in the state for 18 years. I came back to run the theater program here. It was very clear — kind of this whole time, but definitely in the last couple of years — of the precarity of this program. I feel like I just have been spending so much of my energy trying to defend the reason why a liberal arts institution, a state liberal arts institution, deserves a thriving performing arts program on its campus. As opposed to just doing what I was hired to do — which is direct shows, and work and collaborate with amazing students in their performance endeavors.

I'm wondering, as a faculty member, how have you felt about the way that this process has unfolded?

The process of how all of this has happened, especially this semester, is what makes me the most angry. There has been some talk on the administrative level about how transparent they've been through the whole process and how they've been listening to feedback. I feel like on both those fronts, there is a complete lack of transparency and a complete lack of listening to feedback from different communities, from faculty as a whole, staff and students.

Throughout the process, staff have expressed frustration — you mentioned it earlier — that these cuts have not targeted higher level administrator positions. Do you think the university made cuts in the appropriate places?

Yeah, I think the university definitely has not been making cuts in the right places. What they should have done is look at the chancellor's office first, before any announcements of any other types of cuts. They should have pitched to us, as the most important part of this whole puzzle. Faculty and staff on the campuses themselves are the most important in terms of health, vitality and future enrollment for VTSU. The fact that they didn't first look at the chancellor's office — one, it sends a very strong message. Two, it does not match national standards for a school of the size we have. The salaries have ballooned way, way too much on the chancellor's side. We need to look at those cuts first, and then we can talk about the steps down from that.

Robert M. Eddy/Bob Eddy / First Light Studios
First Light Studios, Ltd.
In 2017, students perform Antigone at the former Johnson State College, which is now Vermont State University.

I know students are also top of mind for you; how do you think that they'll ultimately be impacted by this whole process.

This is what literally keeps me up at night— the impact of the students. Not just the students that I have currently, that I respect and love dearly, but the students for the future of the Johnson campus. The narrative is that you're in a system that doesn't support the performing arts. It's not seen as a vital part of human health, human expression and community building. That's just a really tragic story to tell young artists — that they are not in a place where they will have the resources to tell the stories that they want to tell in performance. That makes my heartbreak for the state as a whole; that we as a state system can't offer that to the students.

Well, Isaac, I know it's might be too soon to ask this. But what are your plans going forward?

My plans going forward, we're about to put up our mainstage show that I'm directing, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It's going up next weekend. I want that show to be the best it can possibly be. I want the semester to finish with my acting students, my first-year seminar students and all of my students to just get the best that they possibly can get from me and the materials that I'm teaching from.

Then after that, I've been talking a lot with my wife about where we're going to be, what is best for us to and what is best for our kids. We haven't had the chance to make any final decisions yet. But we feel like it's going to be a move out of the state, just to a place that has a little bit stronger systems in place for arts education. Again, that makes me really sad to think about, but I have to think about the health of my family on top of everything else. It just feels like the next place that we're going to be is not in Vermont.

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