Chancellor Jeb Spaulding On His Proposal To Close Three State College Campuses
Facing financial headwinds and an uncertain future after the COVID-19 pandemic, the chancellor of the Vermont State College system made a dramatic recommendationlast week: closing Northern Vermont University, both the Lyndon and Johnson campuses, and the Vermont Tech campus in Randolph Center. We talk with chancellor Jeb Spaulding about his proposal, the reaction to it and hear from students and others who'd be affected if the closure goes through.
Our guests are:
- Bobby Saba, a sophomore at NVU-Lyndon and newly-elected president of the school's American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association.
- Jeb Spaulding, Chancellor of the Vermont State College system
- J. Churchill Hindes, chair of the state college system's board of trustees
Broadcast live on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.
Last Wednesday, Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding told lawmakers on a Senate call that the state college system was in crisis, and he was looking at a reconfiguration. By Friday, he had announced that the path forward he was recommending was a complete closure of three campuses: both branches of Northern Vermont University in Lyndon and Johnson, and the Vermont Technical College residential campus in Randolph.
Some of the NVU programs would move to Castleton University in Rutland County, and the Vermont Technical College programs would consolidate at the facility in Williston.
This recommendation was met with shock and dismay by many, who felt blindsided. But the Vermont State Colleges System has been struggling for years. It is one of the lowest-funded systems in the country, in terms of legislative support, and recent moves to shore up the finances within the system have had limited success.
Chancellor Spaulding himself called for a nearly doubling of state contributions — an extra $25 million per year — in January, saying, “If the state refuses to invest in its public educations system for post-secondary years, they are making a decision that they are OK with Vermonters not accessing a high-quality post-secondary education system at an affordable cost.”
The following has been paraphrased and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Q & A With Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding
Can you outline why we need to close the Vermont State College campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph?
Chancellor Jeb Spaulding: The entire system is at risk of not being able to pay its bills. It’s been a challenge. A lot of people have done their best to create new programs, especially online, but looking forward, we feel the entire system is in jeopardy if we don’t take action.
The state Legislature has a lot of obligations to meet. This year, the governor’s recommendation was that the funding level [for the Vermont State Colleges System] should remain the same. It looked like that was going to happen. We have been working to get additional funding from the state and also from COVID-19 money.
Do you think the Legislature saw the urgency of this need before now? What would you say to those who might consider this a brinkmanship move on your part?
This is not a brinkmanship move. This is a move based on an absolute commitment to do what we can to sustain as much of our admissions as possible in a rapidly changing world — that’s what it’s about.
I feel absolutely terrible, hearing the stories of everyone — hundreds of people — who has testified, for the people who sent the thousands of letters and emails written over the weekend. Many are heart-wrenching.
Many are from students who are worried about how they are going to finish up their education. Some are from students that have already had a college close once, who came here and now it might happen again. Others are from students who have no option to go anywhere else.
Those are all real stories. If it wasn’t this serious, we wouldn’t be making this recommendation. But the COVID-19 situation has exacerbated an already very serious situation. We knew this was coming our way. We had a whole process last summer with a white paper that was shared and discussed. There were many ideas given by many people, including that we have too much infrastructure and need to consolidate. We were working on those in a more deliberate fashion.
Can you outline some of the details of the numbers? What sorts of operating losses was the system looking at leading up to COVID-19 and what are you looking at now?
In a COVID-19 world, what used to take two years takes two months, what used to take two months takes two weeks. Our losses — we were projecting at the end of December, approximately halfway through the fiscal year — an operating loss of approximately $4.2 million.
Our presidents were working very hard to get that down, but it was still going to be in the $3 million range at the system level. Then, with COVID-19, the room and board refunds, which virtually every college and university in the country felt obligated to do, because if we didn’t we’d probably be subject to real criticism — though to the people who offered to forego their refunds, I hope we can find a meaningful way to honor that.
That was $5.6 million on top of that $4.2 million. Then we have losses for extended family leave, lost conferences and events, that are likely to bring those expenses up to $11 million or $12 million.
Then, we get money back from the federal government, so in the end it gets down to maybe $7 million to $10 million of which $5 million, we were not really anticipating this year.
It will drive our cash situation into the negative in the month of June. That means we would start to go into reserves at that point — and that’s not a good thing.
What are you expecting looking into the future?
When we look forward, the predictions across the country are that enrollment is going to be challenging this year. Students are not sure what the coming year holds. Many families are struggling with unemployment. The estimates are, widely, that there may be a 15% to 30% decline in enrollment. We are budgeting for 15% at the system level.
That’s another $15 to $18 million in revenue.
The COVID-19 situation has unquestionably magnified the impact.
What other solutions were considered, beyond the closures of these campuses? What was the critical piece of information that led to this radical switch?
The critical piece of information was the impact of COVID-19. That is what is causing these projections for cash-flow, for declines in enrollment in the coming year.
All of our colleges have had to reduce spending to the point where I don’t think we can keep reducing and do what we need to do. We really could not afford to sustain three residential liberal arts colleges.
It’s important to understand that there are just fewer traditional-aged college students in Vermont. It’s hard to sustain this in a state with the population we have. Do I wish the legislature was funding us more? Yes. But, we are not making progress. The taxpayers of Vermont are stretched. We’re trying to consolidate resources so we can sustain a robust community college system, our technical programs and a liberal arts college.
Why move all of Vermont Technical College’s operations to Williston from Randolph?
It is a commuter campus without heavy infrastructure costs. Randolph needs work, and we don’t have the funds to do it.
Q & A With Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees Chairman Churchill Hindes
What is the current thinking of the Board of Trustees?
Chairman Churchill Hindes: The Board shares the perspective that these are indeed serious times. What we’ve seen with this one initial proposal is a good indicator that the next step towards building a new version of the Vermont State Colleges is going to be difficult, cause disruption and cause anxiety.
What we do know is that it is very difficult to envision a future where the current configuration of four colleges is sustainable. We haven’t looked at every option or solution, but right now, we don’t see the current operations continuing.
Our job is to minimize the disruption and redesign a Vermont State Colleges System that has legs and will serve future and current students. We’re meeting often with legislative leaders to talk about what we can do despite the emergency of COVID-19, and what our options are. Time is not on our side. We have no ability to wait for weeks and months before we agree.
When do you anticipate voting on the plan proposed by Chancellor Spaulding, which would close Northern Vermont University’s Johnson and Lyndon campuses along with Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus?
"My best guess is that we will be voting as a board on the matter in the next 10 days." — Churchill Hindes, VSCS Board of Trustees Chair
My best guess is that we will be voting as a board on the matter in the next 10 days.
How would a vote work?
We will be voting on a single proposal, whether it’s the one proposed by the chancellor or one that has modifications. The leadership in the chancellor’s office is working 24/7 to find an option that causes minimal disruptions to our students.
If a proposal is approved that does close campuses, what will current students at the affected campuses do? What would you say to students who can’t move?
We are required, as any accredited college is in a situation like this, to provide an opportunity, a plan, for every student. It’s referred to sometimes with the phrase “to teach out programs,” so that students are not abandoned. That doesn’t guarantee a place for everyone, because the other school needs to make a decision about whether or not to admit the student, but we are morally obligated to provide a pathway for students when an institution has to close a campus.