VSC Chancellor visits Castleton

A professor printed out Facebook “like” thumbs to give audience members a voice without going up to the mic. Photo courtesy of Jasmin Gomez.

Members of the Castleton community gathered in Casella Theater Friday to loudly voice their opposition to a tri-unviersity merger that would include stripping Castleton of its name and reputation

A panel for Vermont State Colleges Chancellor’s Town Hall meeting hoped to discuss positives about the future of the Vermont State Colleges as the newly appointed “Vermont State University,” but many in attendance took the event as a chance to share their passionate opposition.

The event, which was open to Castleton students, faculty, staff, and alumni, resulted in an almost completely full venue with hundreds of individuals hoping to have their voices heard. Castletonians covered the audience in green Spartan attire and held like-dislike thumbs printed onto sheets of paper that were certainly not used infrequently.

“How do you plan to sustain the community of Castleton?” junior Jess Bickford questioned.

Her query mirrored what many audience members sought to understand.

The Town Hall began with Castleton President Jonathan Spiro welcoming Vermont State Colleges’ Chancellor Sophie Zdatny, and the rest of the panel members to the university.

“She is a selfless leader, an ego-less leader, and she is literally the hardest working person I know,” Spiro said of Zdatny. “She and I do not always see eye to eye, but when we disagree, we do so with civility and empathy because we both understand that the other person really only has the best interest of our community at heart.”

The Vermont State College Board of Trustees is working in partnership with Vermont legislators to make sure that the new university will create a “strong and vibrant” future for the Vermont State College System.

“I do want you to know we’ve had very strong support from the state. We’ve received about $100 million for this academic year,” said Zdatny.

After brief introductions of the panel members, a presentation about the New College Entity (NEC) was given stating goals of transforming the student experience, academics, and the institution itself. Nolan Atkins, the provost of Northern Vermont University, acted as moderator for the event and said the board hopes to increase Vermonter’s accessibility to higher education and create new collaborative efforts between the merging schools – Vermont Technical College, Castleton University and Northern Vermont University.

But Castleton students and faculty were less than pleased with the presentation.

“It’s like we’ve driven 100 miles without knowing what our destination is,” Political Science professor Rich Clark said.

Within five minutes of the floor opening for comments, lines of answer-seeking individuals formed the length of Casella Theater. Larry Courcelle, vice president of the Alumni Association and an alum of ‘72, pled his case on behalf of the over 18,000 alums within the group.

“Never has the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors been approached on this decision,” Courcelle said. “We do not oppose the transformation, but we do oppose changing the name of a university that has lasted for 235 years under the same moniker. The name change will hurt Castleton.”

Castleton University’s history runs deep in Vermont – being the first higher education institution in the state. Many expressed concerns over the college’s history being attacked.

Madeline Harrington, a freshman, said Castleton has been a place for her to access education, just like it was for her uncles and cousins.

“Castleton University runs in my family – not Vermont State University,” Harrington said.

Vermont State Colleges’ Chancellor Sophie Zdatny acknowledged the importance of this type of community at Castleton and added that the board hopes the merger will only encourage others to become part of it.

“These schools are all known for their close connections. We’re seeking to expand opportunities for all and to be able to serve a whole array of learners,” Zdatny said. “Being a state university sends a message about accessibility and affordability to all student learners.”

But students also raised concerns over losing the “The Castleton Way” within this merger. “The Castleton Way” is the mission statement of the university that states: engage in respectful relationships in an inclusive, student-centered environment; to appreciate our learned and compassionate faculty and dedicated and caring staff; to strive to learn, use, and teach sustainable environmental practices; and to participate in strong community partnerships.

But students and faculty know that this also means to hold a door, offer a helping hand, and to be compassionate to those they meet on campus.

“It doesn’t seem to me that you care about The Castleton Way, it seems as though you value monetary gain over student happiness,” SGA Secretary Mara Bailey said.

Wild applause and a mass of thumbs up signs from the audience followed her comment.

Jess Bickford, who echoed Bailey’s concern about the college’s community, was responded to by panel member and Castleton Dean of Admissions Maurice Ouimet.

“Our goal is to save Castleton, to preserve that community. The reality is none of these schools are going to able to survive without some kind of transformation,” he said. “We want to take what’s great and improve on it.”

Zdatny further stressed that there has “been misinformation on the strength of Castleton’s financials” and that university is struggling more than many seem to think.

“We have a state mandate to transform. At this point it’s all expectation, but we’ve received support from state legislation,” Zdatny said to an array of boos. “These schools, including Castleton, have been funded at a very low rate for a while now. We’re hopeful that through our relationship with the state, we will see an increase in that funding.”

And yet faculty still fear losing their jobs. Athletes fear losing their mascot and their Spartan name. Others fear the university is simply “spending money to solve not having enough money,” as senior Marty Kelly III said.

Head coach of the men’s basketball team Paul Culpo passionately said he’s already seen a drop in donations to his team after alumni and other frequent donors heard of the name change. He added that previous VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding, “had it right” when he suggested the closure of VTC and NVU two years ago.

“[The board] is acting on emotion. When you make a decision based on emotions, it never ends well,” said Culpo. “The population of Vermont has gone down significantly in the last 20 years and is only speeding up now. Frankly, we’re trying to sustain three universities when there just aren’t enough people to attend these schools. You are going to destroy the one asset you have.”

More raucous applause and hollers exploded throughout the theater as students shouted indistinguishable questions at the board while Culpo stormed away.

Julie Leppo, a junior and chief justice of the Student Court, asked a question that many were left with as the more than two-hour long Town Hall came to a close.

“What’s your plan B?” Leppo questioned.

“We don’t have a plan B. If the merger isn’t successful, then we fail,” Zdatny responded.

Ultimately, Castletonians seemed displeased with the future of the proposed merger and are likely to keep a keen eye on the board’s decisions going forward. Zdatny said the board appreciated the feedback, even if it wasn’t the most positive, and hopes to keep all students, faculty, and staff aware of merger’s evolution.

“I think holding the Town Hall was incredibly helpful. It was a wonderful experience coming down and meeting with students, but it also showed [the board] that there’s more work to do. We want to help our students understand why we’re doing this,” Zdatny said in a follow-up call. “Overall, it was a great day.”

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