State legislators debate faculty merger opposition

VSC Board of Trustees members met on Zoom recently.

Local and state legislators alongside various stakeholders have mixed opinions about a Castleton University faculty letter asking the Vermont State College Systems’ (VSCS) Board of Trustees to “press pause” on the current tri-university merger.

The letter, which was received by Chancellor Sophie Zdatny and her office on Tuesday, Oct. 26, insisted that a halt in the merger as it was currently progressing was necessary. Reasons included a lack of financial data to support the solvency of the new university, not enough time for faculty to execute consolidation efforts, and a growing divisiveness among the merging campuses.

After reaching news outlets across Vermont, the Castleton faculty letter of grievance has emboldened some to support the faculty and others to speak out about why the merge is so desperately necessary.

Local legislators voice distaste

Rutland County legislators have been particularly vocal about a lack of transparency on the part of the Board of Trustees as to how the merger will progress in a viable manner, though they understand the process is necessary.

“You know, it’s always hard to change. But I think that there may be a necessity here if we’re going to make sure that the system is viable and sustainable,” Rutland Sen. Cheryl Hooker said. “But the faculty, the staff, haven’t really been engaged in this. And they’re the ones who know what’s [happening] on these campuses. I don’t believe it’s just Castleton either, I mean, VTC and Northern Vermont University—they should all have some say in what’s happening and how all of this is going to move forward.”

Hooker, like many of her colleagues, acknowledged that Castleton University is a sort of “economic engine” for the Rutland region and she worries a change in branding could impact the entire region were it to result in a decrease in enrollment at the college.

Sen. Brian Collamore said concerns over branding and its impact on Rutland County were discussed in a meeting with the delegation from Rutland and University of Vermont administration.

“We were told that the University of Vermont does not agree with this [rebranding] decision. They were against it,” Collamore said. “You know, as soon as you say Vermont and university, those two words, now you’ve confused the University of Vermont with the Vermont State University.”

Rutland Rep. William Notte, a Castleton alum, argued that the merge runs the risk of not only damaging enrollment across the system, but that the end goal of “trying to make everyone happy” will lead to Castleton and its benefits to the area being a casualty.

“I don’t think my dismay with the proposed merger can simply be put down as bias towards Castleton,” Notte said. “Most of the problems Castleton had before COVID can be traced directly back to inadequate funding and receiving less funding from the state per student than Lyndon and Johnson did. Castleton is a strong university and it’s unfortunate that they are not being given that opportunity to thrive.”

Zdatny said before the merge of Lyndon and Johnson, each of the five colleges received 20 percent of the state base appropriation. Since the merger, the Board realized a flat 40 percent would not be fair to the other colleges, so a formula was put in process to examine headcount as well as full-time equivalents—which considers part-time students in a functional and comparable way to the other institutions.

“CCV has about half the students. But because a lot of their students are part time, if you look at full time equivalents, they don’t have half the students,” Zdatny said. “[The Board] implemented a policy to shift the allocation over time. They had a number of requirements, criteria, and it was kind of a weighted formula. The formula itself was actually suspended last year once we went into this sort of financial crisis. So right now, that is one of the items of work for one of the project management teams.”

A history of missed opportunity

The rush to solvency for the VSCS is arguably the major cause of dissonance between Castleton faculty and the Board of Trustees at this juncture—creating a timeline that some feel is simply too tight to consolidate 100 plus courses by May.

But the rush is not merely the result of COVID-19 and the decrease in enrollment the colleges saw during the pandemic.

Rather, it has been over a decade that the state legislature was made aware by various VSCS chancellors that the system was desperate for increased assistance.

Chittenden Senator and former member of the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont, Philip Baruth, said that during his time on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, previous VSCS chancellors Jeb Spaulding and Tim Donovan had been saying for years that the system was struggling.

Up until the rebranding of Northern Vermont University, Baruth said the usual response from legislature was to bump up funding by a million dollars every once in a while.

“If you look at the enabling statute for the Vermont State College System, the language is something like ‘the state will provide all or a substantial part of the funding for a Vermont State Colleges.’ So it was imagined as providing, I would argue, most of the funding,” Baruth said. “Instead, what we did over the years was provide less and less against inflation, and that left tuition to rise to where it was almost the highest in the country. And for that reason, we priced ourselves out of the market with our own Vermont kids.”

Rep. Robert Helm of Rutland said that the roughly 17 percent of state-funding being appropriated to assist the system’s operating costs—nearly the lowest allotment in the nation—was simply never enough. Helm argues that this underfunding also went ultimately unrecognized by the House Committee on Appropriations.

“I’m a member of that body [on appropriations], but they never addressed it properly,” Helm said. “At this point, Vermont State Colleges is going to roll their COVID money out for the next year. But they are looking at a $17 million or up to a $23 million ask from legislature afterwards. And I don’t understand for the life of me why people depend on a body like the legislature—which doesn’t have a very good track record anyways—to be supportive of them financially.”

The work of the Select Committee and the Board

The increase in funding received by the Board of Trustees during the pandemic came at the suggestion of the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont, a group created in July of 2020 in an act by the House Committee on Education. This group collected data on the feasibility of a tri-university merger and created guidelines for the VSC Board of Trustees to follow after their eventual dissolution in April of 2021.

“The Select Committee was tasked by the state with examining public higher education in Vermont, specifically the VSCS and making recommendations for the future of the system. Throughout a many-months process involving research, stakeholder interviews, focus groups, and more, the committee made several recommendations.  This report was commissioned by the legislature and they received the recommendations last spring,” former Select Committee Chair and Community College of Vermont President Joyce Judy said in a prepared email statement to The Castleton Spartan.

The reports from the Select Committee ultimately determined a merge between the struggling universities was necessary to keep the system afloat and address “the over $100 million in debt the system currently faces,” said House of Appropriations member and Rutland Rep. Peter Fagan.

“The legislature also backed the Select Committee’s report, and as part of that support, we committed an unprecedented amount of money to VSC. All told, we invested more than $100 million in increased base appropriation, bridge funding to reduce the structural deficit, transformation costs, and scholarship,” wrote Bennington Rep. Kathleen James, a House Committee on Education member, Select Committee member, in a prepared email statement to The Castleton Spartan. “We’ve got to look forward and be willing to look forward together. The stakes are too high; we can’t fail. But we can’t succeed if we’re pulling in opposite directions.”

Though several members of the Board of Trustees were reached for comment on the progression of the merger and letter sent by CU faculty, either no reply was received or trustees, such as former Select Committee member Megan Culver and Student Trustee Ryan Cooney, recommended speaking to Board Chair and Franklin Rep. Eileen Dickinson—the designated correspondent for all communication with the Board. 

“While the Board was copied, as the letter was directed to the Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer, these Academic Leaders are in communication with the faculty assembly leaders. The Chancellor’s Office is continuing to have conversations with the faculty about their concerns and are committed to providing support to keep the transformation work moving forward,” Dickinson said in a prepared email statement to The Castleton Spartan.

Members of the House Committee on Education were also reached for comment, but four of the members reached directed questions to the Board of Trustees.

Progress now and in the future

Lisa Pleban, the vice president of Castleton’s Faculty Assembly said that though there have been meetings with the assembly and the Chancellor’s Office since the letter was sent, little progress has been made in the way of evidence to prove their concerns are being addressed.

“We’re still waiting on the financial information and marketing information that shows the idea that this mixed modality would work and the idea that this transformation will work,” Pleban said.

Pleban also acknowledged that other schools within the VSCS have taken an interest in Castleton faculty’s concerns with mixed responses.

Zdatny said and that the expected Strategic Financial Plan to be released in December will include faculty and union representation from each institution, and that above all, she remains committed to making the merger work.

“I know there’s a lot of work that’s been going on to address some of these concerns. So, that work is still ongoing. I’m hopeful that we will be able to address the concerns and stay on track here for the transformation work that needs to happen,” Zdatny said.

Nerves are still high for many stakeholders, however, who feel the current progression of the merger and a lack of physical evidence for future solvency may be detrimental to the universities in the not so distant future. Former Castleton administrator and former Select Committee member Jeff Weld said he has great respect for Zdatny’s professionalism, but worries the board is risking much more than they realize.

“Enrollment has dropped by roughly 40% since the merger at [Northern Vermont University], 2,78o in fall 2015 to 1,747 in Fall 2021. There is a pretty clear line that can be drawn to saving money by virtue of the fact that you don’t have the cost to educate those 1,000-plus students who no longer attend,” Weld said.

In a follow-up email, Zdatny said her financial team was working on estimations of where the $9 million in savings from the NVU merger came from, reporting a 16 percent reduction in Executive Leadership costs at $1.5 million, a 55 percent reduction in staffing costs at $5 million, a 16 percent reduction in faculty costs at $1.5 million, and the reduction in economics of scale resulting in a $2 million savings.

With worries that the historic underfunding of the institutions will continue once COVID relief funds have ended and ultimately make structural savings null and void, Sen. Baruth is working on a bill to appropriate additional funds to higher education.

“[This] bill would purpose 60% of the tax and regulate proceeds from adult-use cannabis to the VSC system. The bill says that it would be on top of what we historically provide the system. So, there’s a base allotment, I think, of $36 million a year. And this would provide somewhere around $20 million more going forward,” he said.

Zdatny said that considering the universities are “very tuition dependent at this point,” such a bill would be incredibly helpful to the VSCS and its sustainability.

“I think, even if we restructure the system, if the state doesn’t increase the amount we subsidize the system by, we’re liable to call it a failure of the faculty with the business model, when in fact, it will be a failure of the state to assume the role that was originally imagined in terms of funding,” Baruth said.

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