Students, faculty upset over admin. cuts

Jacob Ruben
Optimization 2.0 has sparked uncertainty on the VTSU Castleton campus.

The echoes of protests and chants from the Oct. 26 rally against Optimization 2.0 did little to quell the divisive decision released later that day. 

In an effort to achieve administrative savings of $3.1 million and attain fiscal sustainability by fiscal year 2027, the Castleton community was abruptly reduced by eight key members.  

“They are seeing the man behind the curtain, and I think that really impacts morale,” Executive Vice President of the Castleton Student Government Association Adsel Sparrow said.  

The ‘man behind the curtain’ alludes to the executive administration, silently puppeteering the organization of Optimization 2.0, and culminating in a vote of no confidence by the joint VTSU Student Government Associations at Castleton, Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph, excluding the Castleton SGA president serving on the board.  

The parliamentary procedure indicates the joint SGAs have lost trust in the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees (excluding the student trustee), the Vermont State University Office of the President, and the vice president of Business Affairs, according to the statement released on Oct. 2.  

Detailed in the statement is the overarching position that the means of achieving fiscal sustainability does not “have the best interests of students in mind when making important decisions regarding essential staff and faculty on our campuses” as the cuts “include crucial student-facing personnel on each campus.”  

SGA members suggest the loss of these vital positions challenge the ability of the geographically dispersed university to acknowledge the needs of each campus and student.

In an effort to ease the transition on students, Castleton SGA ignited “something called ‘transformation talk,’ where we have these periodic presentations to give students the opportunity to learn about difference aspects of the Vermont State College transformation,” according to President of the Castleton SGA, Perry Ragouzis.  

Nov. 8 marked the initial ‘transformation talk’ when professor Helen Mango “presented on the fact that the cuts that were made would be saving the system $3.4-ish million, and that includes salaries and benefits, and this structure alone represents $11 million in salaries,” Ragouzis said.

The ‘structure he spoke of was a complex flow chart portraying position hierarchy within the upper administration, indicating position title and accompanying salary.  

It was those positions “the faculty meant when they said upper administrators” who needed trimming, Ragouzis said.  

The Board of Trustees responded to the Vote of No Confidence on Oct. 9, commenting, “change is hard, particularly change on the scale of the two optimization plans currently underway. As the Board of Trustees for the entire Vermont State Colleges System, our responsibility as fiduciaries requires us to take steps to ensure the financial strength of the organization, which is what this work does.” 

The digital debate fevered as the SGA noted in the same email exchange “not only do we want to recognize that this comment is inflammatory (re. “Change is hard”), but we also want to recognize that this phrasing does not make any decisions underway easier on the students, faculty, or staff.”  

The interdependent nature of a university environment was reinforced Business Administration Department Program Coordinator and professor Dennis Reilly, who said, “we can’t survive without staff, as they can’t survive without faculty, and the university can’t survive without students.” 

Professor Michael Talbott, the grievance representative of the union representing faculty, reflected on the cuts saying they “were made by someone who is wholly detached from the reality of what a college campus and a college experience needs and is.”  

Harkening to the recent murder of a former dean on the Delaware and Hudson Rail Trail, Sparrow stressed what is needed on campuses. 

Students rally at Hoff Hall to address state legislators about cuts.

“Matt Patry (associate dean of students) was here immediately. He spent overtime hours on Thursday and Friday, he spent the whole weekend over break at this campus, working with and coordinating efforts to address that need for the students,” Sparrow said. 

 The late Honoree Fleming’s death was a catalyst to understanding the necessity for critical student-facing positions. 

“One Dean cannot be at five campuses at once,” Sparrow said. “How do you split your time, what do you deem as more important?”  

Talbott said the cuts were a misrepresentation of the collective Castleton will, as “it’s very frustrating that President Smith said that the faculty asked for those cuts to the staff, because that is a misrepresentation. The faculty asked for cuts to administrators, and the administrators we are talking about are the associate vice presidents who don’t ever come to the campus, the people we’ve never met, who we never interact with.”  

Ragousiz explained this misconstrued position saying, “the idea was, when the system presented their comparative analysis, that we have had 20% more administrators than those systems of comparative size, and so then they cut 20% of our administrators. They were all student-facing for the most part. The work that others are saying, is that our system should not just be looking at numbers but at the personnel, and why do we have a funnel shape instead of a pyramid shape?” 

The 33 voided positions were financially legitimized to achieve fiscal sustainability by 2027, but some question why other avenues aren’t being considered. 

“What can we do for revenue? Maybe that’s the discussion rather than what do we do for cuts,” Reilly, the business professor, said.  

Reilly further suggested that “when we have to make adjustments to save money or to be more competitive, when you start thinking of people as numbers instead of thinking of people as hearts, you’re going to screw up,” he said.

The importance of money to the ongoing transition was further illuminated following the announcement that the arts would remain at the Castleton campus. Art professor Oliver Schemm, who is also coordinator for the School of Fine and Performing Arts and Director of Castleton Galleries, detailed the influence of money underscoring the decision.  

An alumnus of the 1969 class who was heavily involved in the arts endowed substantial funds to the university in his will, Schemm said. Upon learning of the possible consolidation of the arts away from the Castleton Campus, Schemm “contacted him and said this is what’s happening, is there anything you can do?” 

“Essentially he used his future donation and endowment as leverage in order to keep the art department here,”  Schemm said.  

Former VTSU President Mike Smith addressed the endowment in the VCSC Board of Trustee meeting on Oct. 30, explaining “we’ve had a potential endowment for the Fine Arts program at Castleton, so we’ll look at keeping the Fine Arts at Castleton because of that potential endowment.”  

While the arts at Castleton gripped this lifeline, remaining tension among the faculty and staff was perhaps a consequence of the announced cuts and consolidation of programs. 

“It’s only natural that the faculty on those campuses would advocate for self-preservation, and it does inadvertently pit professors against each other,” Talbott said.  

Certainly, following the announcement of the cuts, a central goal of the ‘higher-ups’ will be to reestablish trust at all levels of university life, from prospective students to veteran professors. The cuts inflamed and exposed the underlying doctrine of family that exists within the Castleton campus, as Reilly spoke of. 

“We are almost like a family,” and “threats against that family is our reaction. We are reacting because you’re threatening our family,” he said.  

While the cuts and various changes stemming from the transition challenge the unique culture of Castleton, Schemm remains optimistic. 

“I would say that it’s been bruised, but I think the very fact that we had a rally here supporting music and art to stay on campus, supporting the faculty, I think that’s an indication of where it is, and that’s strong.” 

“And no joke, small school with a big heart, I know it sounds corny, but it really is true,” Schemm said. 

Talbott agreed. 

“Dave Wolk’s legacy, the ‘keep smiling’ stickers you see everywhere,” are an indication of a legacy not easily eroded. 

Students rally at Hoff Hall to address state legislators.

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