The Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees on Monday agreed to a wholesale transformation of the system, passing a resolution to merge Northern Vermont University, Castleton University and Vermont Technical College under one accreditation by July 1, 2023.
The Community College of Vermont, which has offices in Bennington and Brattleboro, would remain its own entity under the plan, which follows the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont.
The New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accrediting agency for post-secondary education, will have to sign off on the plan for it to move forward.
And state government — the executive branch and the Vermont General Assembly — will be called upon to provide additional funding to make the plan work.
The plan counts on finding administrative savings through consolidation, as well as investment in information technology and a virtual library serving the entire system.
The goals include assuring state-wide access, with “seamless access” to courses and programs across the new university. It would strive to reach more diverse, working adult populations” in addition to traditional age students, and develop and strengthen relationships with employers across the state.
Under the plan, the merged state university will retain a physical presence in all of its current communities — Castleton, Northern Vermont University’s campuses in Lyndon and Johnson, and Vermont Tech’s campuses in Williston and Randolph. But each of those campuses could see buildings repurposed, leased, or potentially demolished, in order to eliminate millions of dollars in upkeep and deferred maintenance costs.
“I want to be clear that the Board is committed to maintaining our current campus locations,” Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said in a press release. “In future years, the configuration of the campuses might look a little different as we work to update our physical footprint to help bring system costs down, but we are committed to doing so in a way that keeps our current campus locations open.”
While state support, fiscal and otherwise, was not the only topic discussed by the trustees, Zdatny or consultants Brian Prescott and Daniel Jones, the importance of state backing for the proposed changes was a consistent topic of discussion.
It was also a common theme for lawmakers reacting to the board’s unanimous decision.
Jason Maulucci, a spokesman for Gov. Phil Scott, noted Scott proposed $20 million in bridge funding for VSC and $30 million in base funding in the fiscal 2022 budget.
VSCS sought $67.4 million for fiscal 2022, and last week, the House Education Committee endorsed appropriating the full amount, according to Rep. Kathleen James, a member of the study committee that helped draft the reinvention plan.
“The Governor welcomes the Board’s focus on the structural work that is needed to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of the system,” Maulucci said, adding that Scott “hopes the Legislature will continue to support the Board as they take on the very difficult work of ensuring the system’s long-term success.”
James, D-Bennington 4, said it was exciting to see the trustees rally behind the plan.
“From my work on the Select Committee, it’s clear we’re pulling in the same direction — building a shared vision for a state college system that’s affordable, accessible, flexible and relevant for students, employers and the state,” James said. “The VSC is a vital asset for our higher education landscape, our economy and our communities, so while the board focuses on an action plan for transformation, the legislature is working hard to find the financial resources required to stabilize the system and invest in its future,” she said.
“It’s a thoughtful, strategic and necessary step that, managed wisely, will reap significant rewards,” James said.
State Senate Education Committee chairperson Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said the Legislature would “work to understand the necessary investment” requested in the proposal.
“Higher education is at a crossroads in the United States. We will be looking to our federal partners for financial assistance so we don’t compete for budget dollars in broadband expansion, access to childcare and other priorities,” Campion said.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said the resolution was “an important step” in saving the state college system, which a year ago contemplated closing both NVU campuses and the Randolph campus of Vermont Tech.
“Keeping a campus presence in each of these towns was vitally important to me and many of my colleges in the Senate,” Balint said. “When you put families and students at the center of the equation, it’s clear that we must keep the doors open at sites across the state.”
The Chancellor’s office will be retained, but will move out of its current office in Montpelier and to one of the campuses when the lease expires in 2022, Zdatny said. Prescott said
But the newly merged university will hire a president, who will oversee the process of consolidation and securing accreditation from NECHE.
The president of the merged university and CCV will report to the Zdatny, while the Board of Trustees will oversee Zdatny and the two institutions.
Asked by state Rep. Bill Lippert if she had a sense that NECHE would approve the reconfiguration, Zdatny said the plan for a university president came out of conversation with the accrediting agency.
“It was very clear that until July 1, 2023 [when the new entity would take hold] we have to maintain the accreditation to the eve of that day,” Zdatny said. “They didn’t tell us what we had to do, it was thrown out as a suggestion ... but we take that very seriously.”
Lippert stressed the size of the commitment, and noted it would extend beyond the current Legislature and the Scott administration to make it work. “It’s even more important that we embed the significance of this in the minds of every stakeholder in Vermont.”
Board of Trustees member Linda Milne of Montpelier said the board needs to do better at enforcing accountability for the system now that the stakes are being raised.
“I’ve been on this board for 15 years … I don’t think this board has done a good job on accountability over that period of time,” Milne said. While some of that reflects the “five strong colleges model” and the operational silos that were the past practice, “I’m not sure the board often held management accountable enough,” Milne said. “We need to be better at it … and we we need to know how to be better at it.”
The system, which needed a significant infusion of state funds to survive when tuition and fees were undercut by the COVID-19 pandemic is estimating $20 million in total reinvention costs, including $8 million this year.
Following Zdatny’s presentation of the reinvention plan and timeline, Board of Trustees member Adam Grinold of Brattleboro asked if a strategic financial plan was part of the effort as well. Zdatny said that plan will be completed by summer.