The protesters came, as expected. The affected communities rose up in anger, as expected. The people whose jobs would be affected, expressed their indignation, as expected. And the students, whose futures were made uncertain, let it be known they were none too happy, also expected.

The collective anger was directed at Vermont State College Chancellor Jeb Spaulding, who last Friday proposed closing three VSC campuses. His Board of Trustees are to meet next Tuesday to vote on the proposal. Understandably, all those affected, and leaders who would like to lead the affected are mobilizing in opposition, and arguing for the time to come up with an alternative.

The argument against closing down the campuses is being reduced to money and priorities. Surely, they argue, it’s penny wise and pound foolish to close campuses, which negatively affects the host communities, and pushes students to schools outside of Vermont to get their education, at the very time we’re trying to keep them here. Surely the financial impact of closing the campuses [and cutting the 500 jobs] warrants a reexamination of how the Legislature prioritizes its spending because what could be more important than preserving these campuses?

The arguments carry with them a sense of surprise and disbelief; “no one told us it was this bad, no one told us there was actually a chance the campuses would be shuttered.”

But they did. Mr. Spaulding spelled out the challenge in simple declarative sentences a year ago. [Which was probably too late even then to make the 180 degree turn required to save the schools as they currently exist.] He, and his board of trustees, just didn’t go ahead and make the necessary moves then.

The coronavirus sped up the inevitable. It did not force the proposed closures. The reason Mr. Spaulding is pushing for the closures, and the reason the trustees are likely to support him, is because if they don’t, and if the can is simply kicked down the road, the destruction will include the entire Vermont State College System, not just the two campuses of Northern Vermont University and the Vermont Technical College at Randolph. Today, the system has enough cash to last until June, then, it digs into his reserves, which, it’s judged would give the system enough for another year. Then, it would be bankrupt.

This comes at a time when the coronavirus has stripped the state of its resources. Every program, every advocacy group, every line item in the budget will have its forces out competing over a reduced pot of money. How honest is it to say tens of millions of additional dollars should be spent to save campuses that are already hobbled by competition from online learning schools, quickly dwindling student numbers, high tuitions and $54 million in deferred maintenance?

And, practically speaking, didn’t the very announcement itself doom the campuses in question? If you were part of the faculty would you not be looking at your options? Would families not question whether it made sense to send their would-be freshmen to a school whose future is highly questionable? If the trustees back Mr. Spaulding’s proposal what recourse does the Legislature honestly have?

There are ways to soften the blows. As we’ve argued, Community College of Vermont has a model that works and with some additional revenue it could help the communities directly affected by the closures. But this is also not rocket science; it’s politically complicated but not hard to understand for those who truly comprehend and who navigate this sort of landscape on a daily basis. Bring in some experts from the outside, people who don’t have a stake in the outcome. Let them survey the situation and then let them recommend the most defensible path forward.

In the interim, let’s not pretend we didn’t know. We did.

by Emerson Lynn

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