The story line of the Atlanta Braves and its improbable World Series championship is one of perseverance. The team hit every speed bump, every pot hole, every slippery slope there was to hit, or navigate, and still managed to emerge from the October run as World Series champs.

The wonder is whether the Vermont State College system can pull off the same sort of win that comes from perseverance; whether the system can step over the pot holes, and not allow the speed bumps, or slippery roads  to derail its plans to reinvent itself.

We’re about to find out.

Last week the faculty of Castleton University sent Sophie Zdatny, VSC chancellor, a letter asking that the plan to consolidate the system be put on hold. The letter, signed by roughly 70 percent of the school’s faculty, alleges that the plan could do more harm than good and that it could “irrevocably damage” the schools it’s trying to help.

The consolidation proposal involves merging Castleton, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College into a single institution, to be named Vermont State University.The consolidation is central to VSC’s strategy to find a way to become sustainable over the long term. [The Community College of Vermont, also part of the VSC system, stands on its own and is not part of the consolidation.] 

As with all such undertakings, there are crux moments, those points in the journey that define its success or its failure. How Ms. Zdatny, the VSC Board of Trustees, and the Legislature respond to the faculty letter will be one of those moments. With VSC being one of the largest providers of higher education in Vermont, we all have a stake in the outcome.

It’s understandable that the Castleton faculty is concerned with the proposed consolidation. Castleton has already undergone a change in its branding; dropping the Castleton name completely and being part of three-school Vermont State University institution is the definition of disruption. They want to be left alone and complain about losing their uniqueness and about evolving into “one homogenized unit.”

The faculty at Castleton is part of the same union that represents the faculty at VTC and NVU; the question is whether the faculty at the VTC and NVU will align with the faculty at Castleton, and at what level.

The Castleton faculty letter is telling in its questions: “What is the proof that the NVU merger saved $9 million. How will $5 million yearly for five years be cut without decimating educational quality and the physical state of the campuses? How can further attrition of faculty and staff possible solve our financial problems? How much has been spent on outside consultants for the transformation process to date, and why can’t we rely more on our own professional expertise and experience?”

In the main, these are questions that can’t be answered to the faculty’s satisfaction. Whereas it’s obvious, for example, that eliminating course duplication saves money, that doesn’t make the professor whose class has been cancelled feel any better. That’s the point. The faculty’s letter is largely a plea to keep things as they are, making it clear that it’s the Legislature’s job to provide them enough money to survive, if not prosper.

That can’t happen, and it’s Castleton’s problem as much as it is NVU's and VTC's problem. Castleton is as economically challenged as either of the other two schools. 

What Ms. Zdatny and the system’s trustees must do is to push ahead, explaining that they would be putting the entire system at further risk by hitting the “Push Pause” button as recommended by Castleton’s faculty. The VSC system can’t afford to be mired in endless questions and processes that lead to delay.

Every year that passes without resolution is a year lost, a year in which the problems compound. Every year that is lost is a year when would-be student applicants opt to go elsewhere; why would students apply to a VSC school if it’s an open question as to whether it will still be in business by the time of their graduation? Every year lost is a year in which the cost of deferred maintenance takes its toll.

VSC’s issues aren’t about to disappear, even with the $89 million in additional payments made to the colleges by the Legislature. The enemy here is time. If there is resolution to be had, it needs to be now, and it needs to be full throated. If the faculty at Castleton had a defensible plan of its own as to how the VSC ship could be righted, that would be one thing, but it doesn’t. Former VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding was right, maintaining the status quo isn’t an answer. Neither is reaching a hand out to the Legislature asking for more money as a single fix. A fundamental change to the system is required; something clearly understood by Ms. Zdatny. 

The need to respond should be driven by the Legislature; not Ms. Zdatny alone or the VSC Trustees. That need to persevere has to be shouldered by the many, not the few, if a victory of any sort is to be had.

Much hangs in the balance. Can the courage to properly respond be summoned? We'll see.

By Emerson Lynn



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