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'I Was Dumbfounded': NVU Professor Organizes Car Parade To Protest Closing Proposal

Protestors in Mini-van
Bob Kinzel
Protesters rallied to support Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College's Randolph campus at a protest in Montpelier on April 20.

A vote originally scheduled for Monday on a plan to close three campuses in the Vermont State Colleges System has been postponed. Chancellor Jeb Spaulding said closing Northern Vermont University’s campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, as well as Vermont Technical College’s campus in Randolph will be necessary to address budget gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Spaulding has said there is no backup plan.

Ben Luce, who teaches physics at NVU, organized a protest in the form of a car parade in Montpelier Monday morning.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Professor Luce just a few hours before the protest. Their interview is below. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Can you please briefly describethe protest takingplace this morning?

Ben Luce: We were very concerned about the social distancing guideline aspect of this, so this isbilled as a car parade. The route we've designed is to takemajor roads that go past the statehouse and around Montpelier and also by the headquarters of the Vermont State Colleges offices.

What we're asking people to do is to basically form a chain of cars that go around the loop and blare their horns a bit when they get in front of the state legislature and the VSC, but otherwise to pretty much stay in their cars. I think we may have some people standing out on the sidewalk, taking some pictures and hopefully staying far apart from any other groups that might be doing something like that, but this is a car parade very much in the spirit of the current guidelines.

I understandthat there was some personal irony for you when you heard about this proposal to close the three colleges. It was bad news, of course, for you that followed what would otherwise have been some personal good news. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, I had just been promoted to full professor, which was the end of a long,12-year process in which I had invested huge amounts of time on vacations and other things like that, just fulfilling all the requirements. And on the same day, I got the message that the Board of Trustees was going to be presented with a proposal to shut downmy university and also the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College.

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Car protester at Statehouse
Credit Bob Kinzel / VPR
Protesters demonstrate their support for the Vermont State Colleges campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph during a socially-distant protest staged April 20 in Montpelier.

So how did you react when you learned about Chancellor Spaulding's proposals to close these schools?

I was dumbfounded. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that in the midst of this crisis, they would do that to these institutions and especially to the students. You know, we're in the middle of trying just to get through the semester after having transitioned everybody to online [learning]. The workload is tremendous for everyone involved. The students are already feeling incredibly displaced. Many of them are grieving about missing their friends and the end of the semester, especially for the seniors that are never going to see their friends again or [who] missed their graduations. We're in the middle of this incredible crisis. And this proposal came out and I have to say, it's just totally insensitive to the needs of everybody involved.

One of the proposals I had heard Chancellor Spaulding talk about was that the students from NVUwould then be able to go to Castleton University. Was that not a sufficient backup plan?

No, I think that's completely ridiculous, because students choose their colleges based on all sorts of criteria about the particular programs, the particular professors, the particular facilities. The location, the cost — there isvery little likelihood that any given student at NVUpresently could transfer to Castleton right off the bat in any kind of way that would make sense for them. So yeah, I think this whole thing was just trying to use the crisis as an excuse to carry out an agenda that's really been there for a long time, that really is just originating from the horrific lack of state funding.

Vermont only funds its colleges at about a 17% level. Most states fund their state colleges at between 35% to 75%. And there's beena kind of a myth in the Legislature that we're inefficient and unsustainable and that they they can't seem to get into a funding mode that actually makes rational sense. There is this enormous pressure to make cuts because we're basically paying $20 a year for something that costs $30.

For a conversation with Chancellor Jeb Spaulding about the financial challenges the Vermont State Colleges System faces, head here.



car parade
Credit Bob Kinzel / VPR
A steady stream of cars honked, with passengers hollering their support for Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College's Randolph campus in Montpelier in Monday's socially-distant protest.


Even before COVID-19 changed the reality for schools like NVU and Vermont Tech, there was low enrollment and other financial challenges for these colleges. At this time of deep financial crisis for the state, is it realistic to ask for a major increase in funding for state colleges to keep colleges like NVU viable?

It absolutely is. You know, we've we've suffered some downturn in enrollment. It's been a significant one. But we've also adapted. We've already downsized a great deal. And we've realigned a lot of our programs. We do not have a fundamental financial problem here. We we really don't. These campuses are incredibly efficient economically. Let me give you a case in point. I get paid about half of what many of my colleagues do at many other higher ed institutions, private ones in Vermont. Yet I teach about six courses a year, which is about two-to-three times as much as my colleagues at other places.

We're incredibly efficient and we have vibrant, pretty well-attended programs where. We're not in a huge crisis. And the thing is, what's really hurting us, is that with only a 17% level of funding, it's very hard for us to be competitive, because it's such a huge economic burden on students and it creates such a huge debt load for them. But yet we're still doing fairly well, if you consider that.

More from VPR: Vermont State Colleges System Postpones Monday Consolidation Vote

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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