On April 14, students, faculty and staff across VTSU campuses were hit with the sudden news that the university’s first president — Parwinder Grewal — was resigning from his position, effective immediately.
Taking his place as interim president is former Vermont Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith. According to the email from Chancellor Sophie Zdatny, Smith is stepping into this position after a “long career in public service, most recently from state government where he was a critical player in the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.”
It didn’t take long for the news to spread across Castleton’s campus. Some, like Dean of Students Matthew Patry, were shocked to hear the news.
“It was a surprise. We knew something was up this week, but we didn’t know that,” Patry said.
Biology professor and Faculty Assembly President Preston Garcia expressed his surprise as well, despite the recent Faculty Assembly’s vote of no confidence in him.
“Although the faculty voted no confidence in President Grewal, his resignation was still a shock, especially since the new combined VTSU is to start in just a few months,” Garcia said over email. “The faculty also voted no confidence in Chancellor Zdatny, CAO Yasmine Zeisler and the entire Board of Trustees (minus the student trustee), so any resignations should have included all of them, not just President Grewal.”
Professor of Technical Theater and Design Steven Gross, on the other hand, did not react with shock.
“I will just say I was not surprised,” Gross said. “He wasn’t aware of the state of unrest of the student body and tasks being done.”
With the news spreading, so too did theories as to why Grewal resigned — which, according to Zdatny’s announcement, was due to “personal reasons.”
“I think he’s stepping down because he can’t handle the heat,” said senior Josie Gawrys.
That point was echoed by Patry and first-year student Emma Ludvigsen, who mentioned the backlash Grewal has received since stepping into the role.
Senior Morgen Janovsky said she understands that the role of university president is “a lot of pressure,” but still expressed her dissatisfaction with the changes that came about during Grewal’s presidency.
“I think it’s kind of ironic that he posted so many controversial changes, and continued to pursue them despite student opinions, and [then left],” Janovsky said.
However, according to Garcia, those decisions may not have been Grewal’s alone.
“We were told that the library and athletics decision was Grewal’s, but it is clear that he was only carrying out decisions given by the chancellor. Any data he was presented was given to him by the chancellor and her staff,” Garcia said. “So, President Grewal was simply a scapegoat for yet another terrible decision handed down by those in Montpelier, who have no actual connection to students, faculty or staff. The statement says he ‘resigned,’ but he did not do so willingly.”
Second-year Vidur Katyal was visibly disappointed upon hearing the news and agreed that it seemed like a “forceful resignation.”
“I was very disappointed to know that he resigned. Shocked and sad,” Katyal said. “I think of him as a good leader.”
That point was echoed again by Vice President of the Campus Activities Board Thomas Kehoe.
“I don’t think it was his choice. From all my interactions with him I think he cared a lot about this school,” Kehoe said.
Political Science Program Coordinator and professor Rich Clark was also disappointed to see Grewal go, and said he thought he might have a different opinion from his colleagues.
“I’m sad. I think he inherited a lot of problems from the chancellor. Although we needed a change in leadership, this is not the change I was looking for,” Clark said. “President Grewal had a PhD. He was the person I had hoped would give the board the viewpoint of academia. We lost that.”
Along with the announcement of Grewal’s resignation, Zdatny also informed the VTSU community that the decision surrounding digitizing libraries and altering athletics would be halted, “pending development of a comprehensive set of recommendations for continued transformation work,” she wrote, adding that more information will be shared as that work is completed.
“[The pause] is evidence that the will of the masses of people involved in this can influence the policies being made,” Gross said.
However, Clark says that he is still “not letting down [his] guard” until the decision is rescinded.
“I’m hopeful [about the pause], but what I really want is a written promise that nobody will touch materials over the summer,” Clark said.
And concerns beyond the libraries remain as well. For one, Patry is concerned about the short window of time the university has to find a new president.
“We need somebody to take the reigns as president. I’m hoping that six months is enough time to pull that off,” Patry said.
Clark mentioned his concerns surrounding VTSU leadership.
“[Smith] is called in often as a fixer. I hope he’s able to look at the outrageous growth of administration and he’s able to push back against the chancellor’s office,” Clark said.
Garcia expressed his concerns as well.
“New Interim President Smith will have a tremendous amount of work to do in just six months. This decision and implementation of a six-month President at such a critical time certainly does not instill much confidence in the leadership of the VSCS and the direction we are headed as a combined institution,” Garcia wrote.
Soon after the announcement, Smith sent out his first email as interim president, stating that he is “looking forward” to starting this position.
“Your personal dedication to the future of Vermont State University is what drew me to this role. The care, compassion, and commitment you have shown in this transformation work will help us create a university that serves the people of Vermont and beyond and from all walks of life,” Smith wrote. “I am here to focus on communication, transparency, engagement, and collaboration as we move forward together.”