New Chancellor Sophie Zdatny On The Vermont State College System
Sophie Zdatny was unanimously named Chancellor of the Vermont State College System on Monday by the system's board of trustees. She's been the interim leader of the colleges since former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding resigned in April.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: We're in the midst of a pandemic and you're taking over an organization that is facing a demographic crisis and which some have argued is chronically underfunded. Why do you want this job?
Sophie Zdatny: That's a really good question. When I first took the position, I was serving as the general counsel for the Vermont State Colleges. I have been with the Vermont State Colleges for almost six years and I was asked to step in. I understood it would be sort of for a few weeks while they found somebody else to come in and take over. Once I was in the position, there was a lot of stuff that needed doing immediately, particularly working with the Legislature in terms of funding requests and other issues that needed to be dealt with internally. And once I got used to being in the role, I sort of grew into it and was quite enjoying it despite the challenges that we're confronting. The board of trustees did conduct a search. They spoke to many candidates. Ultimately, I think it is a very, very challenging time and I think people were concerned about, you know, coming in with the challenges we had in front of us. And, you know, I'm very appreciative of the board deciding that I would be the right person to continue on in the role given the start that I've had over the past couple of months. And I think we recognize that continuity is really critical at this point. There have been a lot of changes and uncertainty. And obviously dealing with the coronavirus doesn't help because that in and of itself lends itself to tremendous uncertainty right now regarding the upcoming academic year.
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Well, let's talk about some of those challenges. As I mentioned, former Chancellor Spaulding resigned after an attempt to close three of the campuses. That was an effort to keep the overall system afloat. The State College System just received $35 million in federal aid from the legislature. In a few words, what's the state of the system's finances right now?
They're challenged, but I'm hopeful that we will be able to get to a place where we have a sustainable and viable Vermont State College System in the future. And the money you just mentioned, the $37 million, is obviously enormously helpful, but it does come with strings attached. That comes out of the coronavirus relief fund money, so it really doesn't fill some of the gaps that we have in our finances. So we will be working with the Legislature to continue discussing bridge funding for this coming year and also what the funding for the Vermont State Colleges will look like in the future.
"I think we're at a really critical point in the history of the Vermont State Colleges and we need to determine whether the state is going to step up and support the Vermont State Colleges in the future." - Sophie Zdatny, incoming chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System
So students are due to be back on state college campuses in just a little over a month, on August 18. If there were to be a significant change in the coronavirus here in Vermont, a rise in cases, would that change your plans for the semester, to proceed as planned in August?
We will continue to look at what's evolving and adjust as need be. I mean, what happened back in March was, you know, the very first colleges decided they were going to go online and send everybody home. And everyone thought, well, that's rather an overreaction. And then within a relatively short period of time, you know, everyone realized, 'Oh yeah, no this is something that we will need to be doing.' So I don't deny the possibility that events will supersede where we're at. So right now, we're going to follow what the Vermont Department of Health requires us to do. We're going to follow what the mandatory guidance requires us to do. We're going to look at what we can do internally to make sure we're taking, you know, reasonable precautions to make the workplace as safe as possible for faculty and staff and then for the students when they come back. But, yeah, we recognize that we will have to adjust, just as we adjusted in March, if the situation changes.
In terms of the physical campuses that you have currently, obviously, the plan earlier this year to potentially close some of those campuses caused a lot of upheaval. Are you committed to keeping all of these state colleges campuses open?
My personal view is I think we need to be present in Lyndon, Johnson and Randolph and we need to be providing education to students in each of those locations.
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And those are the places that would have closed under the plan that do not go through.
Correct. What I do not know, is what the education will necessarily look like in those places. So, while I believe that we should be providing education in those particular locations, it may be that, you know, the nature of what that looks like — again these are just hypotheticals — you know, maybe it won't look like a traditional four year undergraduate college in Lyndon and in Johnson. Maybe it will look like something different. I don't know yet. But in terms of serving rural students, I do believe that's a very high priority and we need to make sure that we are present particularly, and again I emphasize this because this is the one people always ask about that, but particularly in the Northeast Kingdom.
You mentioned that you may need to come back to the Legislature for more funding. Is that a conversation that's already ongoing beyond the CARES money that you just received?
Right. So the in the first quarter transitional budget that was just passed by the Statehouse and signed by the governor covers the first quarter of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. And in that we were provided with $5 million in additional funding. My understanding is that amount is a place holder amount that we will continue to have a conversation about, as to the amount of additional bridge funding the Vermont State Colleges will need for the upcoming financial year.
I think we're at a really critical point in the history of the Vermont State Colleges and we need to determine whether the state is going to step up and support the Vermont State Colleges in the future. I don't think we can continue to do what we've been doing, which is this very slow, painful death by a thousand cuts kind of approach that's been happening for the past few years, where we've tried to to meet and provide balanced budgets, but just through cutting and attrition. And it just at some point, you just cannot continue to do that. It will really impact the quality of the education the students receive. And it's just not sustainable.
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And will you be able to make it through this academic year without budget cuts?
We are working on the budget right now. I mean, it's again, just like the state is looking at doing a first quarter budget because they just don't know what the picture looks like. You know, they can't really do a budget for the whole year given the current level of uncertainty. We will be doing the same thing. We're looking at doing first quarter budgets now.
I can't really answer that question because there are just too many unknowns for us at this moment. But we will be looking at: What do we need to look like in the future? How do we get from today to building the Vermont State College System of the future? And we're looking at this year as a transitional year, to make some of those really difficult decisions. Everything in higher education takes quite a long time, so I don't imagine it will be fully accomplished within one year. But we need to at least get the groundwork set. We need to know what direction we're going in and then start moving towards that within this year.