Let's get this out of the way: something needs to change. For the most part, everyone recognizes the severity of the financial situation within the Vermont State College system as well as the reality that the status quo is not sustainable. And, frankly, perhaps it can be fairly stated that we should have seen this coming. It is undeniable that the writing has been on the wall for some time.
What was not clear to anyone - except to the handful of people in the inner circle - was just how bold that writing was. Every Vermonter should be insulted by the complete lack of clarity and transparency on the part of the Board of Trustees of the Vermont State College System.
A review of Board minutes back to the Spring of 2019 paints a picture of missed opportunity, failed follow-up, and a lack of transparency leading up to what is now an all or nothing, close these schools or the system fails, one-size-fits-all proposal. Many chances existed to engage in creative and direct dialogue with the people impacted by this situation. Yet, none of these were seized upon. Vermonters were never allowed a clear picture or the opportunity to help solve the problem.
The September 2019 board minutes show that they were working on new plans that might help the situation. As stated, "on August 26, 2019, the White Paper was finalized by the Committee. Subsequently, five on-campus information sessions were held, one at each main residential campus. The LRPC has gathered 200+ ideas from all sessions, the website and conversations. There is a vast range of possible solutions to be discussed as the Committee enters the next phase of its discussions."
But there is nothing to show that this "vast range of possible solutions" was ever taken seriously. It's never mentioned again in subsequent minutes. If the Board did take the time to review these ideas thoughtfully, it was done behind the closed doors of executive sessions. One could be forgiven for thinking that the whole exercise was just so that they could claim to have taken in public opinion. They have done nothing to show otherwise. If they did do the work to read and consider these community-sourced ideas properly, why would you hide that from the public?
Going back further, we can see with certainty that this has been on the radar for some time. Board meeting minutes for June of 2019 report, "Chancellor Spaulding reiterated the importance of VSCS staying alert and proactively searching for ideas to secure the future of VSCS." A good call to action, but again, there is nothing in subsequent Board meeting minutes to suggest any meaningful follow-up. Clearly, there were red flags, but they made no effort to raise them outside of the inner circle.
In the White Paper presented during the Board Retreat on June 19-20, 2019, Chancellor Spaulding wrote: "...the Board of Trustees is embarking on a strategic initiative first to clarify and communicate the urgent challenges facing higher education and then to develop responses to allow the System to meet its critical mission of service to the State into the future." Almost a year later, with no word in between, we are presented with this ultimatum. What happened to the "clarifying and communicating"? Where were the "developed responses"?
Later in the paper, we are presented with a call to action with which nobody is arguing: "Bottom line conclusion: As Vermont's access institutions, with Vermonters representing over 80% of our student body, with the remainder of our traditional campus-based students primarily coming from New England and mid-Atlantic states, we must adapt to a significantly smaller traditional student population."
To give credit where it's due, some action was taken. There was the creation of Advance Vermont and EMC2. They adopted new student success software. There was an effort to increase marketing, add modern degree and certification programs, and increase focus on serving working-aged and non-traditional students. However, even with this, the paper concludes: "[these efforts] are not yet enough to ensure the viability and 'thriveability' of VSCS member institutions as a whole." So, again, another red flag and still no attempt to engage the broader constituency. Another missed opportunity for transparency and active solicitation of input.
The Board of Trustees for the Vermont State State School System missed or ignored opportunities to bring the severity of this situation to the people who depend on the viability of these institutions. Instead, they played it as close to the vest as possible, failing to follow-up on their own plans, and hiding information behind hours upon hours of executive sessions. They waited until the last possible minute to force-feed us an all-or-nothing ultimatum.
In the white paper, Chancellor Spaulding clearly acknowledges an understanding of the critical role played by the Vermont State College System, referring to themselves as a "college system with a statewide footprint," and stating that "our statewide presence makes us a valuable state asset." The paper even goes so far as to say: "The State is dependent on our member institutions as regional economic engines, workforce pipelines, and as access institutions for the majority of Vermonters remaining in-state to go to college." Citing the VSCS's opening mission statement of being "For The Benefit of Vermont," he boasts that "its colleges and universities serve over 11,000 students and employ over 2,000 Vermonters in 20 locations in thirteen of Vermont's fourteen counties. In addition, close to 9,000 adults are served in workforce and professional education programs offered at every institution. Over 80% of the System's students are Vermonters, and the vast majority its are (sic) graduates stay and work in Vermont. These graduates, in turn, comprise a major input into Vermont's workforce pipeline and become the entrepreneurs and workers powering Vermont's economy."
And yet, there was never any effort to meaningfully involve the people whose livelihoods and futures were at stake, nor people from the towns and regions that they knew would be devastated by their decisions. Despite all the red flags, the claims of action, and the full understanding of what was at stake, the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees kept the full truth to themselves.
If the people impacted by this decision had been allowed into the conversation even six months ago, there's no telling what may have come from it. It's entirely possible that, in the end, everyone would come to realize that closing campuses is the only option. Or, more likely, we could have ridden the wave of urgency to come up with a creative solution to secure more legislative funding, reorganize administrative systems and overhead, strategically consolidate resources, refocus curriculums, and keep these vital community resources.