NOTE: The following piece is written by Tyrone Shaw, a writing and literature professor at Northern Vermont University – Johnson.
Back when the institution was known as Johnson State College, Tyrone was my mentor and played an instrumental role in launching careers in journalism and related fields for many students, myself included. After the unexpected gut punch of an announcement yesterday that we could likely see the closure of NVU-Johnson, NVU-Lyndon, and Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus, I was elated to find an email from Tyrone in my inbox this morning.
In it was the following piece, which provides a thoughtful, impassioned analysis of the situation and closes with ways to provide feedback to those involved in the decision-making process.
Tyrone has provided a few links at the end of this piece so you can reach out to the VSC Board of Trustees, your local representatives, and Gov. Phil Scott.
I hope you take the time to read this important piece, process it, and take action. Thanks. – Ethan
By now you probably know Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding is recommending the closure of Northern Vermont University – meaning both the Johnson and Lyndon campuses – thereby turning the northern tier of Vermont into a higher education desert. It is an ill-considered, appalling proposal that if accepted by the Board of Trustees on Monday and allowed to stand by the Legislature and governor will decimate the social fabric and already fragile economies of the northern third of our state. The consequences will be far-reaching and irreversible. We must not let this happen.
Under this proposal, the only remaining residential four-year institution granting bachelor and masters degrees would be at Castleton on the southwestern border of Vermont and New York, far from many of us. The Randolph campus of Vermont Tech would also be closed, leaving the Williston campus intact, also in the western corridor. This would leave only the two-year Community College of Vermont to serve the needs of the people of northern Vermont. Already economically difficult for many Vermonters because of high tuition, the result of decades of legislative underfunding, access will now also be effectively denied.
Here are some relevant facts, not necessarily in order of importance:
Vermont ranks at the bottom of the states in terms of public funding: 17% of our operating budget compared to an average in New England of about 30%. The rest is dependent upon tuition, which is why our four-year public institutions are the most expensive in the country.
Vermont statutes require that the Vermont State Colleges “shall be supported in whole or in substantial part with State funds.” Seventeen percent is not remotely substantial. Shall means must. So much for the law.
The economic and social costs to the counties of Northern Vermont, already beleaguered before COVID-19, will be horrific. Using a conservative economic multiplier of 2. 5, NVU annually contributes $113 million to the economy of the northern tier. In addition to enrolled students, the university brings in tens of thousands of dollars more for the local economy by attracting nearly 18,000 visitors each year. Five-hundred employees would also lose their jobs. What prospects will they then have? They will join the already swollen ranks of the unemployed unable to meet basic expenses and debt obligations.
Many of the 2300 (approximately) NVU students would not transfer to Castleton to complete their degrees in Vermont. For many of our students, the majority of whom are the first in their families to attend college, they need to live at home, work in their communities, and most likely they would simply not be able to continue their academic careers. It is also true that the capacity of Castleton to absorb a large influx of students, even if that were to happen, is limited. So, in addition to severely disadvantaging these students, the system will lose possibly 2000 or more students when declining enrollment across the system is already a serious issue.
Closing these three campuses will be hugely expensive and no information has been provided as to where those funds will come from.
Collectively NVU, Vermont Tech, Castleton University, and Community College serve over 9,000 full-time Vermont students annually. UVM serves a third of that number yet gets more than 40 % of the funds allocated to public higher education – leaving the rest to be divided among VSAC, which no longer serves as a lender, and NVU, Vermont Tech, CCV, and Castleton.
Despite repeated appeals from the chancellor’s office and the State Colleges’ board of trustees, the Legislature has offered no significant help, even after being fully briefed on the dire financial picture now facing the state colleges system.
A solution to this tragic mess is available, without additional appropriations. Even a modest adjustment to the current allocation formula would make the difference between life and death for public higher education in northern and central Vermont. Between UVM and VSAC, a reduction of their share of the pie with a corresponding and well-earned increase to the state colleges would make a huge difference.
Finally, no one is arguing that a restructuring of the Vermont State Colleges system isn’t needed, but the haste and lack of transparency with which this drastic recommendation has been proffered is unacceptable. The people of Vermont deserve better and should demand better. Right now.
So, what can you do about this?
2. Contact your state legislators and ask them to ask the VSC Board of Trustees to delay a vote or to reject the recommendations. As importantly, demand fair and adequate funding for the state colleges, beginning with immediate emergency relief. This is crucial.
3. Contact Gov. Scott and ask him to use a small portion of the $1.25 billion stimulus package to save our state colleges.
This is a fight we must and can win if Vermonters speak up in support of our state colleges. We have at this moment a chance to prevent additional carnage to the northern tier and demand from our legislators adequate funding to ensure our citizens have access to affordable higher education throughout our state. The chancellor’s recommendations are bad enough, but to stand by and do nothing while northern Vermont is decimated would be worse still.
Please, make your voices heard now.