There was no love lost between students and administrators at Northern Vermont University’s Johnson campus this Valentine’s Day as bouquets of roses accompanied a maelstrom of thorny critiques concerning the radical changes recently announced for the state’s colleges.
Last week, the new president of the unified Vermont State University told students in an email that libraries on the campuses in Castleton, Johnson, Lyndon, Randolph and Williston would be liquidated and closed, with some exceptions.
The libraries would be replaced with expanded lounge space, physically and conceptually becoming “all-digital academic” libraries that would provide students with “universal access to information, resources and services with unlimited texts, scholarly articles, databases and more.”
In the same announcement, president Parwinder Grewal told student athletes in Johnson that their campus would be withdrawing from NCAA Division 3 sports and instead compete in the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association a far less rigorous sports league mostly comprised of junior and community colleges.
The announcement was reminiscent of former Vermont State colleges chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s proposal to close the Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph campuses in 2020, which was met by a wave of protests and consternation.
Grewal sent a follow-up email later in the week apologizing for the abrupt manner of the announcement, emphasizing that there would be no campus closures and that the decisions were made to achieve long-term sustainability, not short-term savings.
But the damage was already done.
On a stage in one of the Johnson campus’s lecture halls, Grewal was joined by Provost Nolan Atkins and a faction of other university executives as students collectively slammed the twin decisions they see as fundamentally changing the nature of their university and college experience.
Raising signs in protest and dropping individual roses in a tongue-in-cheek gesture toward civility, the raucous crowd cheered on those launching the most heated invectives at Grewal and company while loudly booing their responses, despite attempts by some students to rein in the crowd.
In a response to written questions, Grewal said the goal in shifting away from physical resources and the retreat from sports at Johnson did not signal a shift to primarily online education on the campus, but part of a vision to become the “nation’s first hybrid university” that was “committed to offering on-campus and online programs, as well as programs that blend in-person and remote learning.”
Most students assembled Tuesday, however, seemed to reject that vision.
The event ended with one athlete calling for those assembled to raise their hands if they were considering a transfer from the university because of the decision to liquidate the library and downgrade the level of athletic competition.
A flurry of hands shot up in response.
Atkins stressed that the decisions were about economic efficiency.
“We have to look at the picture holistically,” he said. “We can’t just look at the expense of the budget, or the revenue, we have to look at it holistically. So how can we grow by attracting more students? But how can we become more effective and efficient with our operation?”
Repeatedly, students stood in the auditorium to emphasize how important and life-changing their ability to participate in NCAA sports was and how disruptive it would be to remove them from the sporting league in favor of a less prestigious governing body.
The change won’t take effect until 2024, and the Lyndon and Castleton campuses will continue to participate in the NCAA league.
There are 116 student athletes among the 1,096 students enrolled this semester on the Johnson campus, according to a Vermont State University representative, and a sizeable number of those athletes turned out on Tuesday.
“As an athlete, getting to play at this level is what we work our whole lives for. I wish this opportunity remains viable for all future student athletes as Johnson. They worked hard to get to this point and leaving the NCAA will not only discredit this hard work but rob them of the opportunity to learn to become better players and ultimately become better well-rounded people,” one of the athletes said.
A soccer player from Canada and an athlete from Hawaii both stood to be acknowledged as examples of the diversity that being a NCAA-participating campus brings to the school.
Hannah Miller, an associate professor in the campus’s education department who was outside the auditorium to lend students her support, pointed out that though this decision will affect a small portion of the student population, it will have an outsize impact on non-white students.
“The athletics decision has a big impact on our (Black, indigenous and people of color) student population and our BIPOC staff population. I understand that when people hear it and think, ‘It’s a small school, it’s OK to change the athletics classification, but they’re not thinking about the consequences to our actual campus,” Miller said. “We’re going to lose BIPOC coaches, the adviser to our coalition of minority students, the leader of our coalition of minority students and that diversity that is here now.”
One unidentified mother of a student athlete from Michigan who spoke before the technology facilitator cut her off, questioned the credentials of the administrators and said they were “rude and inconsiderate” in meetings with athletes to explain their decision.
The current Northern Vermont University men’s volleyball players touted their winning record demanded to know what would happen to them in the proposed league, but Deanna Tyson, the athletics executive for the state university, said she was uncertain.
When Maurice Ouimet, the university’s admissions executive, said, “We want you to stay. Some of you have to make individual decisions and if NCAA athletics is the only thing you came here for and you’re not connected to this community in other ways and all the things, then it means that maybe it is appropriate for you to go somewhere,” he was met with a cavalcade of jeers.
At one point during the forum, the data that led Grewal to choose book liquidation over other cost-cutting moves was put in stark terms by the university’s library director, Jim Allen.
According to Allen, about a third of the university’s library budget has been going to maintain physical library books while just 4 percent of the library circulation was for physical books and circulation at the library has dropped 60 percent since the pandemic.
Atkins emphasized that the amount of physical material being checked out from the library had not rebounded since students’ return to the campus.
Still, there’s something about having physical books on hand and access to a book-filled library that means more to students than those hard numbers, students said.
“I feel diminished as a student by this decision, because you need books on a campus, we need our library, it makes a hub, a central hub of everything for our campus,” said Hattie Ebling, a junior majoring in performing arts, who protested and helped prevent the closure of the district library at her high school in Pottsville, Pa.
Sally Laughlin, the former longtime director of development at the former Johnson State College who purchased books for the library, joined protestors outside during the forum to lend her support.
“The intellectual opportunities when you have a good library, it just broadens the horizon, it changes the viewpoint,” Laughlin said. “Reading widely changes anyone’s intellectual viewpoint and conception of the world.”
Grewal again emphasized the removal of books as a way to achieve his hybrid university plan and rejected the idea that a library-less university might suffer in reputation.
“Regarding reputation, a clear trend in higher education is that students need and expect more flexibility in how they consume their information and degree programs,” he said. “We are responding to that need. We are transforming, and modernizing, and evolving for our future as a thriving and sustainable hybrid university.”
According to Tyrone Shaw, a writing and literature professor at the Johnson campus, a closed-door faculty meeting following the student body uproar was far calmer, but the opinions offered by educators bore little difference from the students.
Grewal told faculty he was there to listen, but he also hasn’t given any indication that this decision is anything but final.
“My hope is that having heard that universal dismay about the proposals that the administration will exercise wise leadership, and reconsider based on public reaction,” Shaw said. “Clearly, the people who needed to be consulted were not consulted, in my opinion and had they been consulted this wouldn’t have come out the way it did.”
Vermont State University is also facing some outside pressure to turn back. The Vermont Progressive Party issued a statement strongly condemning the decision, though the much more well-represented Vermont Democrats have been collectively silent on the issue.
The Vermont Library Association decried the decision, saying that it will ultimately hurt students and affirmed that students “deserve access to robust library collections and services” that “includes face-to-face and online services such as reference and course support and collections in digital and print formats.”
Sen. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge, has touted the historic multi-million increase in the university’s base funding he helped secure, but acknowledged there’s still a funding gap to cover. However, he stopped short of fully endorsing Grewal’s decisions and emphasized the importance of listening to students.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what students tell me about what they need, if what is being proposed matches or doesn’t match what they need, because we have to be most concerned about students,” he said.
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