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Change At The Top: Presidential Turnover A Common Theme Among Vermont Colleges

An empty office illustration with a vacant sign hanging on a chair
Bennington College interim President Isabel Roche said the changing higher education landscape is likely playing a part in the leadership changeovers as well.

When Suresh Garimella took the helm at UVM earlier this year, he became the newest college president in Vermont. But the state’s flagship university is far from the only Vermont college undergoing a change of leadership.

Bennington College, Champlain College and the Vermont College of Fine Arts are all operating under interim presidents, while the presidents of Saint Michael's College and Goddard College are both just in their second year.

Norwich University is currently undergoing a presidential search because, after 28 years, Richard Schneider will retire from his post after this school year. He is the longest-tenured college president in Vermont by two decades.

Schneider said he announced his plans to retire five years ago.

"It's kind of a military thing to make sure you have good secession of commands," Schneider explained. "And so we told them five years in advance." 

Next year, Schneider said, is when the leadership change should be set in motion.

"We have four candidates. ... Then in January the board will pick," Schneider said. "And then I, hopefully, if everything works out right, I'll retire on the 31st of May.”

A man in military uniform seated in front of an American flag
Credit John Billingsley / VPR
Norwich University President Richard Schneider plans to retire in the spring after 28 years on the job.

But that level of planning is the exception. Other leadership turnovers at Vermont colleges have happened much more quickly.

Susan Stitely, president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges, has witnessed the changes first-hand.

"So, there's been a change from 10, 15 years ago, where … many of the college presidents were older, had been in their jobs a long time," Stitely said. "They retired, a fresh new crop of first-time college presidents came. And now we're just seeing, you know, some change in that as well."

Eight years into the job, Landmark College President Peter Eden will soon be Vermont's longest-serving independent college chief.

"I still feel like it's brand new," Eden said. "Because the challenges are so, so great and things change so swiftly. … You never seem to be complacent and just running the train. It's never that way."

Landmark College President Peter Eden
Credit John Billingsley / VPR
After eight years on the job, Landmark College President Peter Eden is in line to be the longest serving college president in Vermont once Norwich University's Richard Schneider retires.

Changes in college enrollment and the rising cost of higher education have forced schools to adapt or close. Three Vermont collegeshave been shuttered this year, and a fourth — Marlboro College — has announced plans to close its campus in the spring.

Bennington College interim President Isabel Roche said the changing higher education landscape is likely playing a part in the leadership changeovers as well.

"It's a challenging job – there’s that. I'm getting a chance to really try that on this year and can see ... the challenges and the pressures, particularly on small colleges," Roche said. "But I think also it's not necessarily, I would say, a bad thing. You know, institutions go through periods of real renewal with new leadership."

Bennington College Interim President Isabel Roche
Credit John Billingsley / VPR
Bennington College's Isabel Roche is one of three interim college presidents currently serving schools in Vermont.

Roche said the decrease in presidential tenures is being experienced nationwide. She noted the last Bennington College president was in the job for six years, but the president before that was there for 25 years. Shorter tenures appear to be the new normal.

"For each institution that length of time is different," Roche said, "but I think it's probably safe to say that the days of the very long tenures of college presidents are — those are going to be fewer and farther between."

But Roche said there's an upside to the turnover: "Having, you know, fresh eyes and new perspective and new ideas is really healthy for institutions. And, you know, somebody asking the right questions, or new questions, or the same questions in a new way, is really important."

That's especially important now, when small colleges are struggling with declining enrollment and trying to retool to stay alive.

Correction 8:41 a.m. This post has been updated to clarify that Eden will be the longest-serving independent college president once Schneider retires. Community College of Vermont President Joyce Judy has held the job since 2009.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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