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Letter to the editor: Castleton University forever

Former president Dave Wolk and former dean Jeff Weld weigh in on merging of VSC

Former Castleton President Dave Wolk, below, and former Dean Jeff Weld, above, write about the importance of Castleton’s name.

On July 23, 2015, after decades of growth, meticulous preparations, and historic improvements on and off campus, the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) Board of Trustees unanimously approved Castleton University as the new name for an institution forged by tradition, steeped in pride, and poised for continued success as Vermont’s smaller public university.  

The logical conclusion to the evolution of Vermont’s first institution of higher education was met with overwhelming and widespread pride and joy among students, alumni, staff and the wider community. Hundreds of alumni requested new diplomas with the new Castleton University logo. New CU apparel and paraphernalia would proudly abound. Out of state and international students were even more attracted to campus, new graduate and expanded undergraduate programs were developed, dormitories on and off campus were at or over capacity, athletic programs expanded in numbers and quality to be among the most respected in NCAA Division III, proud alumni giving grew, and co-curricular activities as well as internships in the community were at an all-time high. Investments in students and the campus infrastructure (over $80 million) reaped huge benefits for Castleton University, the VSC, and the state of Vermont then and now. 

On February 22, 2021 the VSC Board of Trustees unanimously approved a merger of Castleton University, Vermont Technical College, and Northern Vermont University at Johnson and Lyndon. This followed deliberative study by several groups, including some outside consultants. It was suggested that this new entity would be called “Vermont State University”.

That decision was not widely reported or even understood by many interested parties and nationwide alumni, due in part to the more important and compelling news of an ongoing pandemic. 

The hope is that this new entity will be augmented by new, ongoing financial resources supported by present and future governors and legislatures. Many other Castleton, Rutland and southern Vermont individuals, businesses, alumni and other groups weighed in on the merger, and the feared future impact on Castleton University, but the decision was made by the VSC Board and we are not arguing the wisdom of the merger decision here. However, the seemingly haphazard renaming of these institutions deserves more thought and scrutiny.

Castleton leadership did substantial research and pursued many years of building and strengthening the Castleton brand to prepare for its evolution to a respected university. The talented and caring faculty and staff brought the energy, enthusiasm, and educational rigor that ensured the brand was more than catchy slogans or shiny signs and facilities. The compelling results were and are evident to all.

Changing Castleton’s treasured name to a division of Vermont State University (VSU) defies logic.

1) Our state already has a large, respected, flagship public university in UVM, a source of great pride nationally and internationally. Why invite the confusion of VSU with UVM, an already established and cherished institution? We cannot imagine that the leadership of UVM would welcome this change. 

2) Why erode the well-developed brand and niche and culture, carefully built over time, that characterizes the modern-day Castleton University? What is the intended benefit of the name change that exceeds the current brand equity Castleton has established?

3) Why open the floodgates of distracting debate? There are enough system-wide enrollment and financial challenges, before and after COVID, to occupy discussion and debate going forward.

4) Why risk the perception of a large, bureaucratic, sterile, impersonal institution when the current students, staff and alumni at Castleton enjoy a personalized, relationship-based education?

5) Where is the comprehensive research, student and alumni surveys, business outreach and public input that constitutes widespread support for a name change?

6) Why spend precious resources on millions of dollars in re-branding when it is clear that there are so many significant financial challenges and those dollars could be better spent on delivering transformational education?

There is a multitude of examples of large corporations, essentially holding companies for valuable assets, seeing the wisdom of preserving brands, cultures and loyalties. Here is but one: When Unilever bought Ben and Jerry’s they did not change the name of our beloved ice cream. We’re not sure how many folks would have bought Unilever ice cream, but our bet is that they were prudent to maintain their brand.

The truth is that changing Castleton’s beloved, well-established, and overwhelmingly popular name and brand would be devastating.  Its ripple effects would be felt throughout the state and beyond, not just in Rutland County. It is our hope that legislators will agree, and that they will tie any current and future funding to preservation of institutional names of those entities that desire to do so.

We acknowledge our bias, as this is indeed personal.  We respect and love our former and current students, many of whom are not even aware of current consideration of this historic name change.  They share our affection for what became the small university with a big heart.  Changing the name defies any reasonable logic and insults historic tradition.  It also insults modern business sensibilities. Castleton University lives in our minds and hearts.  We hope you will agree that it will always be so.