With president gone and library downgrade on hold, what’s next for Vermont State University?

Former Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith has been named to replace the president of Vermont State University.

By Alison Despathy

College president resigned. Libraries and athletics demolition on hold. What’s next for Vermont State University?

On February 7, the Vermont State College (VSC) system announced its emotionally-jarring decision to move to an “all -digital” library and drastically slash the athletics programs within the newly forming Vermont State University (VSU), formerly Castleton State College. 

A deluge of Vermonters stepped up to voice their dismay. Their voices caught the attention of lawmakers, the VSC Board of Trustees and the nation. Last Friday VSU President Parwinder Grewal submitted his resignation. The library and athletics program demolition that stirred the people to action is on pause.

In response to this recent move, Senator Brian Collamore (R-Rutland), sponsor of the tri-partisan “save the libraries” bill S.134, stated:  “I appreciate the hard work of the Board of Trustees in continuing to find ways to make the transformation process successful. I hope the introduction of Senate Bill 134 which was sponsored by half of the Senate put these issues in the spotlight. I welcome the announcement that there will be a ‘pause implementation of the proposed initiatives around athletics and the libraries, pending development of a comprehensive set of recommendations for continued transformation work in the coming weeks.’ ”

Rep. Jarrod Sammis (R-Castleton) led the charge with a House companion bill to S.134. “I am mildly hopeful that the Board of Trustees as well as the chancellor are beginning to understand just how unpopular many of their transformation plans are,” he said. “My main concern is the phrasing of ‘pausing’ these proposed changes, instead of ending them outright. Postponing the cutting back of libraries and sports programs to a later date doesn’t fix anything – it just pushes the problem to a later date.”

Support for keeping the libraries intact and functional cast a wide net. Many people see a library as an essential part of an educational system, and that this “all-digital” move would have removed the heart and soul of these schools.

There are whispers that there will continue to be good news coming out of the Board of Trustees. The students, staff, faculty and communities hope that the libraries and sports teams will not be gutted. These resources and programs are integral parts of education, bringing depth and balance to the development of well rounded, educated students equipped with the tools to take care of themselves and thrive in the world.

Based on conversations, emails and social media comments, it’s clear that many people are heartened by the news, considering it an example of people power: what can happen when poor decisions are acknowledged and people decide to speak up and take action. However, this move also stirs apprehension. Many hesitate to celebrate because of the inherent issues related to funding, budget cuts, enrollment declines, high salaries and expanding positions within the central office and the Deloitte hybrid University model.

Sammis summed up some key considerations moving forward – “The next steps would be for the Board of Trustees and the Chancellor’s office to publicly apologize to their staff, their faculty as well as the students for the stress their proposed changes have caused over these past few months- as well as for the damaging negative media their failed campaign has caused to the reputation of the VSC. Their proposed decision would have directly impacted thousands of Vermonters across the entire state, and the VSC should be more sensitive to the fact that those decisions are more than just words on a paper or proposals. They affect peoples’ lives and communities, including my own.”

Time will tell if these recent decisions will set the stage for real conversations, thus far a missing element according to staff, faculty and students. Collamore said he hopes “that the voices of all the stakeholders will be heard and listened to. There should be input from students, faculty, staff, and the communities and the decisions arrived at should be made in the full light of transparency.“

Vincent Illuzzi, Essex County State’s Attorney, and a former 32 year State Senator for Essex/Orleans currently working for the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), cut right to the chase. “Reading the fine print, VSC only has suspended action to convert the libraries to mostly digital services and to terminate or reduce the hours of staff librarians. Unless VSC affirmatively cancels the plan to get rid of most of the books and reduce the hours of nine librarians, VSEA will continue to fight to reverse those decisions.”

This situation offers a glimpse into challenges facing higher education: sustainability. Striking the right balance between in-person and hands-on education with engaged teachers and students vs. education via screens and machines. Ideally this will be a conscious decision as technologies expand their offerings and schools develop policies and determine educational priorities and goals to best serve students.

Many stakeholders hold deep concerns with the ‘dystopian Deloitte model’– heavy on screens, bots, data collections and ‘streamlined’-automated impersonal education. The education market is flooded with online universities. There is strong and warranted hesitation from many students and faculty who question the viability and success of this model for the state college market.

At this time, a Vermont style higher education system which encompasses everything Vermont has to offer – down to earth, compassionate people, healthy environments and ecosystems, a well established agricultural and farming system, vibrant communities and leadership on many fronts and within many subject areas – is a reality. The level of innovation in many departments is astounding. 

Maintaining and offering this physical space and opportunity will continue to attract students who grow weary and struggle with screens and limited teaching and guidance with online learning trends, supporters of the current model say. 

Regarding financial stability, Rep. Sammis noted that, “The people of Vermont deserve to know how their taxpayer dollars are being implemented. and the VSC needs to ensure crystal clear transparency and accountability for their decisions.” Collamore emphasized the fact that “We need to continue to ask for accountability from the Chancellor’s office regarding the apparent expansion of positions and the attendant salaries in the central office.”

Illuzzi stated that “VSEA seeks to reverse the 2021 legislative mandate that the Vermont State Colleges cut $5 million per year for five years totaling $25 million.” He explained that, “Those mandatory cuts are cutting into the core functions of the colleges, such as providing trained staff to help students with research and other assignments related to the use of the libraries.”

“I strongly encourage the new interim VSC president Mike Smith, along with the Board of Trustees, and the Chancellor to take this new opportunity to reach out to the legislators of directly impacted communities and keep a direct line of communication open- open and honest communication is the only way to rebuild trust,” Sammis said. “The people of Vermont deserve trust.”

As Smith takes the helm, many are both excited and anxious to see how he will help steer the transformation process, engage conversations, seek solutions and work to create a Vermont State University that will provide Vermonters and out of state students with a unique educational experience in the Vermont way – with a focus on community, humanity, deep connection to the environment, innovative courses of study and of course, wisdom.

Categories: Education

4 replies »

  1. When I graduated from Castleton in the mid-90s, the internet had not yet landed at the school. I’m actually thankful I made it through higher education before the “information fire hose” of the digital age took over. I don’t envy today’s students who have a far more complicated world to navigate.

    • The instructors/professors also have a more complicated world to navigate having to verify that course work, term papers etc havn’t been lifted from digital sources…

  2. Perhaps the entire VSC system should be put on “pause” until they can figure out what they are doing. For crying out loud, they can’t even settle on a name and keep throwing money at some magical wording solution to long-term mismanagement.

  3. Who are the jackasses that decided to destroy the history of Castleton State College/University that goes back to 1787 as one of the first medical colleges in the country, a great normal school providing competent teachers and a very good State College and on to a University.
    Castleton’s location makes it accessible to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey!
    You have problems with Lyndon, Johnson, and Randolph so Castleton becomes the victim.
    Where are the senators and representatives for southern Vermont that didn’t stop this stupid consolidation.

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