Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, needs to tender his resignation. Mr. Spaulding is not the leader the state college system needs to weather the crisis before it. At this point he is more of a liablity than an asset.

It is not that Mr. Spaulding fails to understand the challenges his schools face, he understands them perfectly. What he is missing is the steadfastness, and the sense of purpose required for others to follow his lead. The VSC system is badly adrift and Mr. Spaulding hasn’t the gravitas to bring it back.

This failing became pronounced Wednesday when Mr. Spaulding announced he would forgo his proposal to shut down the two campuses of Northern Vermont University — in Lyndon and Johnson — and the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph. Mr. Spaulding said he and his board of trustees had heard “loud and clear” that the proposed closings would be “damaging” and “not acceptable.” The campuses, he said, would be open this fall.

A week ago Mr. Spaulding proposed closing the campuses and scheduled a vote with the trustees to put the closures in effect. He said he had no defensible alternative. A political firestorm ensued, which could not have been a surprise to Mr. Spaulding, the trustees, or anyone else paying attention. He caved. Five days and many protests later, he reverses field and says the colleges will not close, but he has no plan B.

A more damaging scenario could not be choreographed. The VSC system has until June before its cash in the bank has been exhausted. Another year and the system is bankrupt. The cost of the virus adds another $12 million in unexpected costs. And the same crisis that prompted Mr. Spaulding to act in the first place is no better.

Actually, that’s not true. It’s now far worse.

Vermonters have now been told, in bold detail, that the three campuses in question are in dire straits, that the model is broken, that there is no more money and that what money may be found should not be spent the way it has been spent.

Why would parents send their students to those three campuses next fall if the schools’ futures are in doubt? When Mr. Spaulding withdrew his proposal to close the campuses he also said: “I am taking this action with strident caution that the current configuration of the Vermont State Colleges is not sustainable; it cannot continue for long. Through whatever process we define a more workable solution to this problem, it will surely be disruptive to the VSC’s current mix of 4 colleges and universities and 5 campuses.”

Mr. Spaulding, by recommending the closures, then changing his mind, [but saying things are as bad as ever] has almost certainly made the problem far worse. It’s a fair bet enrollment numbers will now drop at NVU and VTC, which will only deepen the crisis. Castleton University, which is deeply in debt, will not get the benefit of the additional NVU students. VTC, whose campus infrastructure is in poor shape, is left untended.

Mr. Spaulding has made a hard lift almost impossible. It’s also not clear that, protests aside, the support exists in the Legislature to find the necessary money. Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, represents part of the NVU constituency in Lyndon. She said she is supportive of finding the necessary $25 million necessary to tide the system over for the moment, but that she would not support using state dollars to make things work. So where does the money come from beyond the short-term stimulus money?

It doesn’t. How does that provide any security for the colleges looking for an existence beyond the end of the school year? It doesn’t.

The VSC’s problems are not temporary. They are structural. It’s immensely troubling to watch as the system lurches from one crisis to the next, over-ruled by a status quo that’s intent on protecting what it has, with absolutely no vision as to how the system could be made sustainable, and better.

These problems are not of Mr. Spaulding’s making. And he is equally frustrated with a political structure in Vermont that silently admits the challenges but publicly refuses to deal with them. As skilled as Mr. Spaulding is politically, he’s been outmatched and his change of course, and unwillingness to push ahead has left him weaker just when a troubled system needs him most.

Mr. Spaulding’s work remains in place, as do his warnings. He was correct. Vermonters will eventually look back on his tenure understanding his foresight. But at this point in VSC’s history he is not the leader the system needs. He needs to step down.

by Emerson Lynn

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