Our Opinion: VSC needs new leadership, commitment from Statehouse

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Vermont State College System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding has thankfully withdrawn a proposal that would have resulted in closing the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College and both the Lyndon and Johnson campuses of Northern Vermont University.

But the real work of saving the system and finally providing it with meaningful state support still lies ahead. The time has come for Vermont's leaders to provide VSC with reasonable financial support, and for VSC to choose new leadership for its five campuses and the Community College of Vermont.

Spaulding's proposal was harmful in numerous ways. It threw the future into uncertainty for students, teachers, staff and three local economies in the middle of a pandemic. It likely damaged any real chance of growing out-of-state enrollment by putting those campuses' futures in doubt. It sought a rushed three-day approval process that disrespected campus communities.

If this was a game of "chicken" intended to awaken Montpelier to the consequences of chronic public higher ed underfunding, then mission accomplished. But lasting collateral damage has been done. Given that damage, and the votes of "no confidence" taken by VSC faculty and staff, Spaulding cannot continue as chancellor.

We do not doubt Spaulding's commitment to VSC and the state of Vermont. But new leadership is needed, and here's why: The hard work of reinventing the system for a rapidly evolving future lies ahead. It must be carried out by a leader with a fresh mandate and the confidence of faculty, staff, students and college communities.

The "Secure the Future" campaign of last year seemed like a good start, as Spaulding spelled out VSC's demographic and financial problems in a bid for adequate funding. But the Legislature was strangely unmoved by the facts.

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Now, the heavy lifting must follow. What's required is a line-by-line evaluation of every program the system offers, and difficult decisions about where the system should focus its energies and resources. To that end, Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Molly Gray's call for a statewide task force to coordinate strategy for VSC makes sense.

That could mean more online offerings and greater emphasis upon technical training. It could result in unpopular but necessary changes, such as downsizing or closing campuses or eliminating duplicative or underutilized degree programs. Perhaps it could bring about a merger between the state college system and the University of Vermont, if that makes sense.

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Such a process requires a strong leader who can create and articulate a vision for a brighter future, and most crucially, build support for it, dispute the criticism that will surely follow the overturning of apple carts. What's for certain is the status quo can't continue; the writing is on the wall, in big, red numbers.

Proposed "bridge funding" to give the system another year to make changes must not be a futile exercise in kicking the can. The financial picture is ugly — the system needs $25 million just to remain solvent. Throwing money at the problem without a plan would be wasteful, especially given escalating demands for pandemic-related funding and declining tax revenues. It only makes sense to build a bridge if there's a destination on the other side.

That brings us back to the Statehouse's share of the blame for the past and present, and its role in a brighter future for VSC.

For decades. thanks to both Democrat and Republican governors and a seemingly indifferent legislature, VSC has been short-sheeted to the point where it is now among the worst-funded state college systems in the United States. In 1980, state support of VSC's operating budget was 49 percent; last year it was a scant 17 percent.

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Why is this a problem? Years of chronic underfunding made the system over-reliant upon tuition for operating revenue. This led to tuition and fee increases to balance budgets, making the state colleges increasingly unaffordable to residents at a time when both enrollment and the supply of potential students were declining. All that was needed was a sudden dip in enrollment to turn those trends into an existential crisis.

And yet, state leaders are still wondering where all of Vermont's young adults have gone.

Vermont's leaders have skated on their lackluster support of public higher education for far too long, and now the bill has come due. If they want the state to grow, retain young adults and reverse current demographic trends, there must be responsible financial support from Montpelier for public higher education and technical training that leads to living wage jobs.

"I believe it is possible for Vermont to emerge from this crisis on a path toward having the very best education system in the country, and ultimately, in the world," Gov. Phil Scott said of the situation on Sunday.

It's going to take action, not words, to make that happen.


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