It only took five days for a roundly criticized plan — to close the college campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph in a money-saving restructuring of the Vermont State Colleges System — to be yanked from the table.
It will take considerably longer to come up with a plan to save the colleges and the system, though there seems to be no shortage of ideas on how to do that.
Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s original proposal would have closed Northern Vermont University and transferred some — but not all — students to Castleton University. And Vermont Technical College would have consolidated programs at its Williston campus, a far smaller place than its Randolph headquarters.
Spaulding resigned last week (see related article), but cautioned the state colleges are not yet out of the woods.
“The current configuration of the Vermont State Colleges is not sustainable; it cannot continue for long,” Spaulding warned.
More than a hundred people logged in on the afternoon of Friday, April 24, for the town of Johnson’s weekly COVID update, a remote meeting that has become must-see TV.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe was Friday’s featured guest, and he held little back when it came to the state college debacle.
Ashe said the Legislature has been asked for more money year after year for the past decade, but those have “not been the easiest 10 years in terms of budgets in the state for all of our needs.” Especially frustrating for lawmakers: mixed signals from state colleges about their needs.
Ashe said a couple of years ago, the Legislature gave the college system what it asked for, only to be told later it wasn’t enough.
Johnson resident Shayne Spence has been, frequently over the past two weeks, citing Vermont law that requires colleges be “supported in whole or in substantial part with state funds,” and pointing out current funding levels of 17 percent are a far cry from that.
Ashe said the reality is Gov. Phil Scott “has been absolutely adamant that he would veto any new revenues, of any kind, that would fund anything,” which makes it tough to pass spending bills asking for more money to maintain “the status quo.”
“There are some people, including some who will say that they are very supportive of preserving the status quo at the state college system, who believe you can have it all ways,” Ashe said. “They want to believe that you don’t have to raise new revenues, you don’t have to cut any programs, but you can tell people on the campuses of the three state colleges that you want them to get more money.”
Ashe said to “be very wary” of those who call for overhauling both higher education and K-12 education at the same time.
He also said more people must be involved in efforts to move the state colleges forward, other than just the chancellor and trustees.
“We’ve seen the two options they gave us: status quo and fail, or close three campuses immediately,” Ashe said. He believes there are other alternatives.
He wants independent experts to take a look at things and involve the community.
In the meantime, the Legislature is talking about “bridge funding” that would continue the state colleges as they are until a new path is found.
“I would expect that we would precondition the bridge funding on a process that is not commandeered by the very people who floated the proposal” to close Johnson and the other campuses, Ashe said.
Lamoille County Sen. Rich Westman, who sits with Ashe on the powerful Joint Fiscal Committee, is also advocating for more money. But he pleaded for a different term than “bridge funding,” which sounds like a Band-Aid over a gaping wound.
“This is funding to make it sustainable,” Westman said.
Lawmakers need not worry whether people will come up with ideas.
On Saturday, April 25, Reps. Dan Noyes and Matt Hill — who represent Johnson — along with Rep. Lucy Rogers of Waterville and Westman held a “pitch session” to gather ideas about what to do next. All of them save Rogers attended college at Johnson.
Among those ideas and sentiments:
• Take a few pages out of the locavore agriculture movement and place value on a similar kind of local education, suggested Newton Wells.
• Partner with federal agencies to leverage funding and provide accredited college course. Dan Langevin, who pitched this idea, said arts courses might be done in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, while farm-based classes could be subsided by USDA.
• Numerous people suggested moving the Community College of Vermont branch from Morristown to the Johnson campus, and perhaps bring along other government-run entities like the Department for Children and Families that are housed in Morristown.
• Since a lot of students are drawn to Johnson by the outdoor recreation opportunities, perhaps ski resorts or other facilities might offer partnerships or discounts.
• Make prerecorded and online classes much cheaper than in-person classes, taking a cue from such sites as Coursera and Udemy.
• Offer more professional certificate programs.
• Offer free tuition to freshmen and keep it free for upperclassmen who maintain a certain GPA.
• Move to a trimester calendar.
• End varsity sports.
• Nat Kinney, a Johnson Select Board member, said “all enduring programs” in the state have funding sources, whether it’s taxes on liquor, on the lottery, on gasoline. Why not the colleges?
“All of them have pluses and minuses, but, yes, this is worth raising taxes for,” Kinney said.
President ponders exit
Adding to the uncertainty around Northern Vermont University is uncertainty about its president, Elaine Collins.
Collins last Monday dropped a letter on the community, saying she is a finalist for the presidency at Lansing Community College in Michigan. Collins was dean of a college in Michigan before taking the job as Johnson State College president in 2015.
Collins wrote she was asked to apply for the job in late February.
“It seems like it was a lifetime ago,” she wrote. “It was a very different world for our university, for Vermont, for our nation, and beyond. Snow covered our campuses and students were engaged in learning in classroom settings. Our athletics teams were practicing, and the dining halls, cafes and snack bars were abuzz with activity. The pandemic was still something that was happening in China and just a whisper of its threat was beginning to pass through the United States.”
Collins said she remains “fully committed to our university and the fight for NVU” and is “humbled by the outpouring of support.” She urged people to keep up the fight.
“Stay focused. Stay steady. You are amazing. Do North,” she ended, invoking the two-year-old university’s slogan.