The value of an exit interview is to learn an organization’s strengths and weaknesses. It would have been useful in the case of Parwinder Grewal, who abruptly resigned as president of Vermont State University last week. Mr. Grewal noted his departure was for “personal” reasons.

Mr. Grewal’s timing is problematic. On July 1, the consolidated university [VSU] was set to launch. Colleges are mid-way through their applications, and students are deciding which schools to attend. Enrollment levels at the Vermont State College system [with the exception of the Community College of Vermont] have declined for years. Having Mr. Grewal resign less than a year into the job and several months before the new university launches does not instill much confidence for students and their parents about the future of the university.

The reason for his departure invites a bit of speculation, but not much. His rollout of a plan to flip the libraries at the four campuses to digital spaces, and to change some of the schools’ athletics did not go well, sparking unified, and very vocal opposition from the faculty, the students, and alumni. His assigned responsibility as incoming president was, among other things, to reduce the schools’ structural operating deficit by $5 million a year for the next five years. He must have wondered how he would ever succeed if the first thing he proposed was shot down before the ink was dry. That was the low hanging fruit. Imagine the response going forward when his proposed cuts were more consequential.

It is not a stretch to think Mr. Grewal took a hard look at the job ahead and saw it as an impossible task. Mr. Grewal is a bright guy and deeply steeped in the academic ways. It is  doubtful he would have stepped away from the job just because his first step into the public arena went poorly.

The stage is slightly different, but we have been here before. It was three years ago this month that VSC Chancellor Jeb Spauling stunned the state by recommending the VSC system close three of its campuses. The upload was immediate and unrelenting. Mr. Spaulding stepped back from the proposal, and a week later resigned. Mr. Spaulding was dealing with the same issue Mr. Grewal confronted; a system deeply in the red and one with a dwindling enrollment and few options.

There is, however, a $200 million difference between then and now, the amount being what the Legislature has appropriated to help VSC avoid shutting down any campuses. This money - much of it one time cash from the feds - was intended to lower the cost of tuition, help deal with some of the costly deferred maintenance, and to support a five-year plan that would recast VSC’s future. It is hard to imagine where VSC would be today were it not for the Legislature agreeing to use a fair amount of its pandemic-related money to help.

The Legislature has also voted to substantially increase the yearly appropriation to the VSC system. But it comes with conditions. Legislators want the state college system to deal with its $25 million structural deficit and to do so over the next five years. That $5 million represents about 3.3 percent of VSC’s annual budget.

The Legislature also wants the VSC system to be “transformed” into something that is competitive with other colleges academically and with its tuition.

But the manner and speed of Mr. Grewal’s departure should raise several questions: Is this proposed transformation possible, and is it a task any qualified human being would take on, given the history of the last three years?

The faculty at VSC has not been accommodating to say the least. It did not agree to the five-year plan proposed, and although the faculty has admitted to the need to streamline course offerings, its answer to all other issues is two-fold: the first is to have the Legislature appropriate however much money is necessary to maintain the status quo, the second is to have their members control VSC’s Board of Trustees. 

[Gee, what could go wrong with that?]

Into this mess steps Mike Smith who will serve as interim VSC president for the next six months. Mr. Smith is the former secretary of the Agency of Human Services and has a lengthy resume of jobs in and out of state government, many of which were similar “rescue” missions, including a stint as president of Burlington College. He has a deserved reputation as “fixer-in-chief.

This will test his patience as well as his abilities.

His first task is to tell VSC’s story, which, to date, has not been done. We need to know about the schools’ enrollments. We need to know our demographics.  We need to know the budgets of each. We need to know what the long term plan is to find that $25 million in savings over the next five years. We need to know what Vermont State University will be on July 1, and how that differs from what it has been. 

The VSC system - the trustees, the chancellor’s office, the schools - may think Vermonters know about the proposed consolidation and the creation of Vermont State University. They do not. 

It is a story that not only needs to be told, it is a story that needs to be sold. 

That’s Mr. Smith’s job. If he is denied that opportunity, he may find himself in that job for much longer than he anticipated. And the future of Vermont’s state college system hangs in the balance. That may be what Mr. Grewal’s exit interview would have revealed, along with a message of good luck.

By Emerson Lynn

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