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Group calls on lawmakers to review actions by the Vermont State Colleges trustees

A sign surrounded by stone reads "Vermont State University, Williston Campus" with an arrow pointing to "Admissions"
April McCullum
Vermont Public File
The Williston campus of Vermont State University, formerly Vermont Technical College, in the first school year of the merged university on Oct. 10, 2023. The campus hosts academic programs including dental hygiene, information technology, respiratory therapy and statistics.

A small group of students, alumni, faculty and staff are calling for the Vermont Legislature to review the management of the newly-formed Vermont State University.

In a Dec. 22 letter, the group, named “Concerned Alumni Faculty Staff & Students of the VSCS” or “CAFSS-VSCS,” called on lawmakers to provide more oversight of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees.

“We are a volunteer group of concerned citizens who have met numerous times since 2020 and are asking that you engage with the VSCS Board of Trustees to find answers to our concerns and the issues we’ve raised in regard to the ongoing mismanagement of Vermont State University,” they write. “The Vermont State Colleges system Board of Trustees is in complete control of the management and direction of the Vermont State College system — without review, input, or interference from the very educational institutions they are appointed to serve.”

For years, the Vermont State Colleges have faced financial challenges. Backlash over a proposal in 2020 by then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding to close three state college campuses
eventually led to his resignation.

A special legislative panel recommended in late 2020 that the system consolidate. Officials in 2021 announced plans to merge Castleton University, Northern Vermont University in Johnson and Lyndon and Vermont Technical College into Vermont State University, which officially began operations on July 1. The Community College of Vermont remains independent.

The move, which administrators said was necessary to cut costs amid declining enrollment and to better serve students, has been marked with turbulence. A plan to downgrade some sports programs and move toward digital libraries, which was later reversed, roiled the college community. Vermont State University’s first president, Parwinder Grewal, resigned abruptly after championing the plan.

More recently, the board of trustees announced plans to cut and consolidate programs and reduce up to 33 faculty positions to save around $3.3 million annually.

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

In the letter, the group listed more than a dozen concerns, including feeling ignored after both faculty and student government groups voted “no confidence” in the board and administration officials over their cost-cutting proposals.

They also asked for an accounting of how $200 million in funds given by the Legislature since 2021 has been spent, and for more transparency from leadership.

“Since the announcement to shutter NVU and VTC in 2020, our efforts at reaching out to the VSCS Board of Trustees have been met with disinterest, exclusion, hostility, avoidance, and lack of transparency in decision-making,” the letter states. “No clear strategic plan or objective has been provided to the legislature, students, faculty/staff, or the greater community.”

In a statement to Vermont Public, Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Sophie Zdatny acknowledged that the merger process has been tough.

“We know that decisions around position eliminations and other changes to staff have been very difficult, especially for those most directly impacted,” she said. “We also know that not everyone agrees with these changes, but they are necessary in order to position the Vermont State Colleges System and our institutions — Community College of Vermont and Vermont State University — for the future.”

She also said the legislative working group, whose recommendations ultimately pushed the system to consolidate, included a wide array of participants including faculty, staff, alumni and students.

"This work has been thorough and exhaustive and held up as a model for the transformation of rural, public higher education," she said.

Zdatny announced in September she'll also be stepping down from her position.

The Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation will hold a press conference at the Statehouse on Thursday, Jan. 4 at 11:00 a.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Corrected: December 28, 2023 at 9:10 AM EST
A previous version of this story misstated details of Jeb Spaulding's 2020 proposal for campus consolidation. We apologize for the error.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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