Northern Vermont University — which barely averted closure early in the pandemic — aims to position itself as an integral part of Vermont’s workforce picture.

It wants to be a training ground for future workers and a place where adults can pick up additional skills throughout their lives.

A 17-person group — the NVU Strong committee — has come up with suggestions to cut costs and to build for the future. They include eliminating some sports programs on its Johnson and Lyndon campuses, bringing businesses to campus, and having students study issues related to those industries.

“We recognize that this is a really difficult time when we will need to make difficult choices,” said Katherine Sims, a member of the NVU Strong committee. “But the alternative to not making those tough choices is no NVU.”

“I believe that this work will lay an important foundation for future generations,” NVU president Elaine Collins said last week, as the committee presented its findings. “We’ve done it for the past 100 years, and we’re not going to give up now.”

There is the question of money, and Collins said — despite those who accuse the Vermont State College System of “crying wolf” in the midst of a pandemic — the system needs $30 million in state funding to stay afloat. Current “bridge funding” proposals to keep the system intact for a year are in the $22 million range.

The NVU Strong Committee delivered its eight-page report last week to its parent Vermont State Colleges System, which will take the suggestions into consideration. Similar work is being done at other state colleges, Castleton University and Vermont Technical College, the latter of which was also on the chopping block this spring.

Collins said the state college system will explore options through August, then make final recommendations.

Among the changes suggested:

• Scrubbing at least four sports programs between the Johnson and Lyndon campuses. One coach on each campus would have new duties, to support interns or work placements.

• Moving to a year-round academic calendar, either with three 15-week terms or equally broken up into four blocks. This would also be good for partner businesses and organizations, since they don’t take summers off.

• Inviting the Vermont State Colleges System Forward Committee to start conversations with unions about employee pay and benefits, including the pros and cons of contracting out maintenance and custodial jobs.

• Decentralizing and reducing the size of the chancellor’s office.

• Push to end the “portability” aspects of financial aid through the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., which allows Vermonters to take their grants with them if they go to school out of state. “We respectfully request that VSAC grants be given to Vermonters who choose to stay in Vermont to pursue their degree,” the report says.

Business partnerships

The term “liberal arts” is nowhere to be found in the eight-page report, but the word “partner” and its variations, such as partnership, occurs 27 times.

Under a more interlocked business or nonprofit partnership, NVU students would “work as true employees of the organizations,” Collins said. She added some places, like the ski industry, already “snap up students even before graduation,” so it makes sense to partner with them.

Some of those potential partners include businesses that many think are key to keeping the under-30 crowd here or attracting them to Vermont: outdoor recreation, nursing, allied health (sports trainers and physical therapists), banking, broadband development, value-added agriculture, brewing, manufacturing and other trades.

It might even mean bringing some businesses or organizations onto the campuses. The university could make some money by selling or leasing spaces, either separately or as part of the college mission.

State agencies now scattered around neighboring communities might be encouraged to use space on the campuses.

University staff and the NVU Strong committee have identified two dozen organizations and businesses that might set up a post on either the Johnson and Lyndon campus. For instance, Johnson has a long relationship with Laraway Youth and Family Services, while Lyndon might look toward Burke Mountain or Kingdom Trails.

“We envision students walking down the hall or to the next building to engage in a mutually beneficial work experience with a partnering business; bringing partnering businesses into the classroom, physically or virtually, to collaborate on research projects; and delivering professional development for mid-career professionals on behalf of partnering businesses,” the report reads. 

Stackable education

The NVU Strong report emphasizes lifelong learning and views college as a path that starts in high school — with numerous dual-enrollment options — and continues through an entire career and into retirement, picking up degrees, training, certificates and various job skills at points along the way.

Any course the university offers would be open to anyone who just wants to pick up a new skill, such as bird-watching, photography or pottery.

The committee likens some aspects of higher education to highway on- and off-ramps, so students can move in and out of academic programs as necessary, but still have something to show for it. This could be done by “stacking” degrees or certificates within academic departments.

For instance, a student could complete a year of study within a discipline and get a certificate. That could then be turned into an associate’s degree, which could then be stacked to get the student a bachelor’s degree.

Or, perhaps a certain number of certificates could be stacked to earn the student an associate’s degree.

“The reality is, the status quo, moving forward, is going to take out many institutions across the country,” Collins said Thursday in a follow-up interview.

Existing campus buildings would be given a second look, too. For instance, does the library need so many actual books, when so much is available online?

Then, there’s remote teaching. The NVU Strong report notes that 28 high schools have a “telepresence” at the university, but NVU could offer more classes directly with more technology.

Those kinds of on-campus partnerships and infrastructure changes are a long-term goal, Collins said.

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