PerspectiveStateIssues

By EMERSON LYNN

Vermont State College officials Thursday made their way to the Northern Vermont University – Lyndon campus to explain the challenges ahead and to ask what might be done to avoid the withering effect demographics are having on higher education in Vermont.

The response from the standing-room only crowd was predictable, and one of denial. The college is central to Lyndon’s existence, and to much of that region. It’s their identity. Those in the audience, students included, reacted as one might expect, which is emotionally and defensively. To them, closing the campus is not an option, or, frankly, change of any significant degree.

Their suggestion: Dismantle the Chancellor’s office and spread the savings throughout the system.

These challenging circumstances, and the local responses, are being repeated throughout Vermont and much of New England. Small colleges in small towns are finding it difficult to survive and those that have closed have compromised the economies of their host communities. The closures compound the problems being faced by rural New England.

The VSC system is trying to anticipate the system’s disruption; ideally in ways that keep the campuses open, specifically the Lyndon and Johnson campuses of Northern Vermont University, Castleton in Rutland, and Vermont Technical College in Randolph. [The Community College of Vermont system is much less at risk.] By December, VSC’s trustees are to receive recommendations as to how best to proceed; recommendations that are being viewed with high levels of anticipation and concern. Particularly in the communities most directly affected.

Whatever is proposed also is sure to be fodder for the Legislature when it convenes in January. The recommendations will lay bare the challenges being faced by the higher education community, Vermont’s declining population, and a competition for resources.

As Chancellor Jeb Spaulding made clear in his white paper on VSC’s future in June, what cannot happen is a continuation of the present. If nothing is done, the challenges associated with the decline will accelerate. The $50 million in deferred maintenance being one obvious example. How does a college convince students to attend its school if its dormitories are in poor condition and the buildings on campus in obvious neglect and the price of admission high? And are additional appropriations by the Legislature throwing good money after bad?

This is not a challenge that can be solved by dismantling the Chancellor’s office, the questionable savings being minimal at best. Nor is it realistic – as proposed by some – to ditch the university’s online offerings because they may subtract from its physical campus. The online world is here to stay, obviously, and figuring out how to adapt is central to VSC’s future.

While it’s expected that each community affected will respond similarly – no one wants their college campus shuttered – it’s critical that open minds prevail and that all options be given their due exposure. It has to be a process driven more by what we can do, than what we can’t. We’ve done the “can’t” option for years. That’s why we are where we are.