As Vt. state colleges weigh reforms, faculty balk at push to go online 

Published: 12/6/2019 10:22:43 PM
Modified: 12/6/2019 10:22:30 PM

Tensions between leaders at the Vermont State Colleges and those on the ground are once again on display as trustees get a first look at campus presidents’ planned reforms. 

At the close of an afternoon meeting held Monday at Northern Vermont University’s Lyndon campus, Alison Lathrop, a geology professor at the school, stood up to read a statement from faculty federation president Linda Olson expressing the union’s “deepest concerns.” NVU’s growing online programming is cutting into on-campus offerings, she said, and the system’s central office has added staff at the same time as faculty and staff have suffered several rounds of layoffs.

“It is unacceptable to the federation that the only non-revenue generating office in the VSC appears to have little to no checks on how it chooses to spend its appropriation,” Lathrop said, reading Olson’s statement.

Top officials at the Vermont State Colleges have been at work since this summer crafting a plan to overhaul the system in view of declining enrollments, stubbornly low state support and competition from online degree programs. But the process has engendered no small amount of angst, particularly for students and faculty. 

At a packed meeting this fall, employees and students from Northern Vermont University-Lyndon pleaded with VSC leaders not to shutter the Northeast Kingdom campus and lambasted both the chancellor’s office and NVU Online for allegedly siphoning funds away from campus programming. The event prompted state college leaders to issue a statement saying they had no plans to close the school.

But NVU Online remains a key flashpoint, especially since VSC leaders want to respond to a boom in the online learning industry by expanding web-based offerings across the entire system. That’s made on-campus faculty anxious, particularly because online faculty aren’t unionized.

“Online is about serving more students. To the extent that it brings in additional revenue, it supports campus-based programs, plain and simple,” Jeb Spaulding, chancellor for the VSC, said Monday in response to the union president’s statement.

System leaders also say expanding online options is key to better serving non-traditional students. Sylvia Plumb, a spokesperson for NVU, said the school’s online program is an “invaluable resource to the students of today.”

“(Eighty percent) of Vermont’s students work and 25% of them work full-time. In order for these working students to access the education they need to succeed, an online option is absolutely critical,” she wrote in an email.

Olson, a professor at Castleton, said in an interview Wednesday that she was skeptical the online program was profitable, and said that while VSC officials have provided the union with an analysis of the online program’s finances, it wasn’t complete.

Even if NVU Online brings in more revenue, she said, it does so at the expense of cheap labor.

“It’s still an erosion of the bargaining unit, however you want to slice and dice it,” she said.

As for his office, Spaulding said it had no choice but to grow, both to accommodate the system’s growing administrative responsibilities and to eliminate duplicative functions at each of the system’s schools.

“We have to find ways to streamline. If we can save money by doing it once, as opposed to five or six times, I think that’s pretty smart,” he said.

But Spaulding has said he’s open to the idea of restructuring, relocating and even abolishing his office entirely if trustees ultimately decide that’s the most efficient way to go. As part of the overall reform effort, the trustee’s executive subcommittee has been charged with taking a deep dive into the chancellor’s office to recommend changes.

A recurring theme of the system’s reform efforts include cross-campus collaborations. VSC leaders, for example, are at work creating easier pathways for CCV students to continue their education at the system’s four-year institutions. And at Monday’s meeting, Castleton University president Karen Scolforo said the college was in talks with NVU about sharing resources to create a master’s degree in social work.

Olson said she supports those efforts. But she complained that the process for generating reform ideas had been generally “a very top-down endeavor,” and said faculty should be leading the process to create programming across institutions.

A plan of action for reform was originally due to VSC trustees by the end of this year, but the chancellor’s office has since substantially pushed back the timeline to get more formal feedback from each of the individual schools. On Monday, presidents from the VSC’s four institutions — NVU, the Community College of Vermont, Castleton University and Vermont Tech — presented their initial plans to trustees. Updates are due again to trustees in March, and a final report is expected in June.

VSC leaders have not indicated they plan to close any schools in the system, but campus footprints are changing. Vermont Tech, in particular, plans to expand its Williston campus but contract in Randolph, where school leaders say some properties should be either sold or potentially turned into rentals. And NVU, too, says it is evaluating all of its buildings for sale, rental, demolition or closing.

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