Zoom meeting

The Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees debates the future during a Zoom conference last week.

The Vermont State Colleges System now has two key positions to fill, after both its chancellor and the president of its largest school quit last week, both of them casualties of the chancellor’s wildly unpopular proposal to shutter campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph.

Chancellor Jeb Spaulding resigned at a special meeting of the college system’s board of trustees last Wednesday night, April 29, saying he had “become more of a liability than an asset.” Spaulding had indicated earlier he was going to resign that night, so that wasn’t a surprise.

However, the abrupt announcement that Castleton University President Karen Scolforo is leaving at the end of May was not forewarned, although there were indications she was blindsided by Spaulding’s closure announcement. Under Spaulding’s plan, Scolforo would have been ousted as Castleton president, replaced by Elaine Collins, now president of the Northern Vermont University campuses in Johnson and Lyndon.

“The circumstances that occurred over the past couple of weeks have put me in a position where I feel I can’t lead at the same level,” Scolforo said. “I don’t want folks to be distracted by trying to understand some of the decisions that have been made, because we don’t have time for the distractions.”

Spaulding has been replaced by the state colleges’ legal counsel, Sophie Zdatny, at least for the interim, as the trustees try to figure out a process for hiring a new chancellor, and determining what that position looks like in the future.

And Collins, who was in line for the Castleton presidency, is now a finalist for a college presidency in Michigan.

Izzy Gogarty, a Castleton student and the lone student representative on the board of trustees, said she won’t vote on looking for a new chancellor unless a restructuring of the office is on the table.

Johnson resident Beth Foy told the board that Spaulding’s shutdown proposal — which also included shutting down the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph and consolidating operations at what’s now a satellite campus in Williston — brings “a whole lot of instability” above and beyond the years of financial struggles and the past month and a half of a global pandemic. Foy worried the debacle would hurt student retention and enrollment.

“That public confidence is not there right now and it is desperately needed,” Foy said.

Spaulding said he had “telegraphed” that changes were likely, but acknowledged that his recommendations, “specifically the speed, perceived lack of transparency and hurtful impacts,” caught many off guard, including his own college presidents.

“My ability to be an effective chancellor has eroded and I don't believe that can be repaired quickly, if ever,” he said. “I would no longer be a welcome messenger and leader on our campuses, in the Legislature and elsewhere.”

Church Hindes, chair of the trustees, praised Spaulding, saying he’s believed in “that tall, lanky guy from Washington County” since Spaulding was elected to the Legislature in 1985.

“Jeb, your trademark forthrightness is so refreshing when we think of other leaders that we may know who are not so willing to step up and express such sincere candor,” Hindes said.

By comparison, Hindes treated Scolforo’s resignation as something of an afterthought, referring only to “the transition in Castleton.” He said Scolforo managed to become “the new face of the university” in her two and a half years at the helm “better than I could have ever imagined.”

It was left to Scolforo to make the announcement herself, which she did while crying and praising her staff and faculty.

“Our faculty inspired me to be a better leader. They held me accountable while holding themselves to the highest standards on behalf of our students,” Scolforo said, ending with a tearful “Go, Spartans!”

It’s unclear what steps will be taken to replace Scolforo.

For the second week in a row, the trustees held a special meeting Wednesday night, after this paper went to press. The stated purpose of the meeting was “to discuss business surrounding the future of the Vermont State Colleges System,” the exact wording of the previous meeting in which Spaulding and Scolforo quit.

Spaulding departs with a word of warning: As indicated by the number of small private Vermont colleges that will no longer be around after this school year, “the forces are real and can be existential. And that was all before COVID-19.”

Over the weekend, Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson issued a statement saying “there will be opportunities” this fall at the Lyndon, Johnson and Randolph campuses.

“We are making progress on the steps we outlined and are gathering the financial and operational information needed to be able to fund a transition plan for this year,” the statement read. “This summer and fall, we will focus attention on creating a 21st-century higher education system that meets the needs of Vermonters, our communities and our workforce.”

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