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Budget cutbacks cause major concern

By Briana Bocelli
On March 7, 2018

Castleton University announced it will be "pausing" efforts with the Rutland Downtown offices. Photo by Brigitta Gough. 

Castleton University recently announced a $1.5 million operating loss for the current year that will result in major budget reductions, layoffs, program merges and a “pausing” of expansion efforts in Rutland.

That means a hold on the Polling Institute, the partnership with Rutland Economic  Development Corp. and the Rutland Downtown offices.

President Karen Scolforo said that instead of eliminating programs, they will take certain concentrations will low enrollment and narrow them down to strengthen the remaining programs.

“So if you have a discipline with 12 options and we narrow it down to eight options, and take four that are no longer as relevant in the workplace, slide those students into the eight remaining ones and focus on quality,” Scolforo said.

Jeff Weld, dean of advancement, said there have been no official decisions made as far as concentration consolidations at this time.

“Those decisions will be made after a report from the faculty task forces who are examining new program development and current program offerings,” Weld said.

Cydney Krone is one of those students who may see a slight change in her major and concentration. She is musical theater major – and the only one of her kind at Castleton.

She said she is not too worried about her major changing and is actually excited about it.

“I’m very excited and they’ve told me like ‘hey these are some of the things we don’t think we’re gonna include in your major and some of the things that we think we’re gonna add too, so I’m so excited,” Krone said.

But other students are very concerned about the cutbacks.

Joshua Lake said he was “devastated” when he saw the initial announcement.

“I was in political science and history, and I know they are two majors which are going to be affected by these cutbacks,” Lake said.

He also worked for REDC and the Polling Institute, and those opportunities have opened many doors in his professional career, he said.

Through the Polling Institute, Lake was able to get a job as a field organizer for Peter Galbraith, who was running for governor in the 2016 election.

He said was able to network himself to countless organizations through REDC, and now he has a great job lined up after graduation.   

“Some of our best and brightest have been coming out of the Polling Institute and REDC. Without those options and availabilities, students won’t be able to get the same opportunities after graduation,” he said. “It made me wonder, what’s next?”

Professors will also be affected by the budget cutbacks through layoffs, early retirements and “paused” programs like the REDC and the Polling Institute. .

Rich Clark, director of the Polling Institute, didn’t have much to say on the matter because there is still a high level of uncertainty for everyone.

“I understand we’re in a bad situation and decisions have to be made,” Clark said.

Scolforo said the first place the university looked to cut expenses was within any initiative that “did not directly impact students.”

She said if they can work on ways to modify those Rutland partnerships to work together and save money, then that’s the approach they will take.

“I used the word ‘pause’ because I see value in those initiatives and it’s just that right now, we have to approach this consolidation process and find ways to cut expenses,” Scolforo said.

Two Castleton deans have also felt the turbulent impact of the budget restructure.

Scott Dikeman, former dean of administration and Lyle Jepson, former dean of entrepreneurial programs at Castleton, were laid off prior to the announcement, Scolforo said.

She said any kind of budget restructure must always start at the top, which is why two of her senior cabinet leaders were the first to go.

“You never want to see someone lose their job, but when you look at an executive and think about those salaries you can sort of meet your demands in terms of cuts quicker,” Scolforo said. “And it shows your front line (professors) that they’re the most important people here to our students and to everybody.”

Scolforo confirmed that lower enrollments were the main reason for the budget cutbacks.

“So in the fall, we had 100 fewer students than we expected,” she said. “That’s a lot of students.”

She said she was somewhat aware of the budget concerns before she took the job, but had no idea what the magnitude of the situation really was.

She said one of former President Dave Wolk’s main goals during his time as president was to save jobs on campus and eliminate all possibilities of layoffs.

“I had some indication that we had a budget deficit upon entering the position,” Scolforo anxiously chuckled. “I didn’t have the full scope.”

Wolk said in an email that he does not feel it is appropriate to comment on the budget restructure since he is no longer at the university.

“I have always had great confidence in Castleton, and I believe the university’s future will be bright,” Wolk said in an email.

Scolforo shares the same enthusiasm.

“We’re going to press the reset button, and students should feel positive,” she said.

But Saige King, a music performance major with a business minor, is not feeling so positive. She’s concerned about the future of Castleton’s art programs going forward with the restructure.

She thinks the art programs are at risk and should be taken more seriously because they are vital to the university as a liberal arts college.

“People just don’t take it seriously because ‘you can’t get a job,’” King said. “We would not have Soundings, which means we wouldn’t have given all the other people who go to this school the opportunity to explore their interests.”

But while Castleton is working to consolidate, it’s also expanding, in an attempt to attract more students, Scolforo said.

She added that Castleton doesn’t offer key programs like evening courses for non-traditional students, online delivery models or competency-based education.

“That says we are very well positioned to expand our offerings,” Scolforo.

She added that Castleton is making efforts to partner with Community College of Vermont and Winooski for evening and possible weekend classes, including online accounting programs, both starting in the fall.

Castleton has also “substantially” reduced tuition and fee structures for graduate school, in order for the structure to be more in-line with institutions throughout the region, Scolforo said.

She advised there would be a “modest” undergraduate tuition increase for the fall 2018 semester, but the university does not intend for any additional tuition increases.

Most professors are understanding that desperate times call for desperate measures, others are just uncertain of the road ahead.

Greg Engel, assistant director of psychological sciences, said he thinks it’s always unfortunate when there are layoffs, but if enrollment is in decline, it makes sense to have a balanced staff.

“Although it’s unfortunate, I think it will help us to continue to provide the best possible experience for all of our students,” Engel said. “I think there’s always that worry, and I don’t know if anyone can be certain who is going to be lost in this transition.”

Philosophy professor Brendan Lalor said his department has “scaled back their offerings” to do what they can to help save, but it’s been a team effort throughout the university.

“There’s a certain amount of cross your fingers,” Lalor said. “Maybe there’s something that could have been done differently prior. Who knows what’s next? We shall see.”

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