Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding
The Vermont State Colleges’ board of trustees voted unanimously Wednesday to hire Jeb Spaulding, a veteran state government official, as the system’s next chancellor.
The unexpected appointment, which was approved at a board retreat in Fairlee, is a blow to Gov. Peter Shumlin, for whom Spaulding has served as a loyal deputy and trusted ally. But according to retiring chancellor Tim Donovan, it’s a coup for the struggling public college consortium.
“We are very fortunate that Jeb was willing to step into this role,” Donovan said Wednesday, adding that when he was asked who should replace him, “His was the first name that came out of my mouth, because I think so highly of Jeb.”
First elected to the Vermont Senate in 1985, Spaulding served eight terms in the legislature, chairing both the Appropriations Committee and the Education Committee. After four terms as state treasurer, Spaulding resigned the position in January 2011 to serve as Shumlin’s secretary of administration.
In that role, Spaulding established himself as one of the most powerful and capable leaders in state government, often appearing beside Shumlin at press conferences to answer complicated questions.
Calling the move “exciting” but “bittersweet,” Spaulding said he was looking forward to drilling down on higher education.
“One thing I love about my job here is you’re dealing with the unexpected every day,” Spaulding said of his current job. “But the spectrum is so wide that you actually don’t have the opportunity to get really deep on any subject.”
Spaulding, who will assume his new job after presenting Shumlin’s next budget in January, has his work cut out for him.
The VSC system — which includes Johnson, Castleton and Lyndon state colleges, as well as Vermont Technical College and the 12-campus Community College of Vermont — has been struggling for years with declining enrollment and public investment.
Last fall, the system enrolled more than 10,000 Vermonters. But as Seven Days’ Ethan de Seife reported earlier this month, the number of Vermonters graduating from high school each year is expected to decline by 27 percent from the peak year of 2008 through 2023. Since 1980, the portion of VSC revenue coming from state coffers has dropped from half to 18 percent.
In a statement announcing the hire, board chairwoman Martha O’Connor said Spaulding was just the person to move the state colleges in the right direction.
“This appointment will provide the leadership continuity that our college presidents have asked for,” she said. “With the appointment of Jeb Spaulding, the VSC has the opportunity to move forward into a future that will continue to benefit all of Vermont and all Vermonters.”
According to Spaulding, he was first approached about the possibility “mid-summer,” but did not formally discuss it with board members until early this month.
“It’s not a position I sought out. Oftentimes, [colleges] are looking for out-of-staters or PhDs or something like that, but I did have multiple people from the VSC family saying, ‘Jeb, you ought to think about this,’” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘This might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might not come around again’ … Carpe diem! Seize the day!”
Not everybody was happy with the hiring process.
In a statement released shortly after Spaulding’s appointment, the American Federation of Teachers’ Vermont chapter said that VSC faculty and staff members “were promised they could play a role” in the hiring of the next chancellor.
“I am more than disappointed that the board has chosen not to honor that promise and that a permanent chancellor was selected with absolutely no faculty or staff input,” said Linda Olson, president of the AFT’s VSC Faculty Federation.
Precisely who will fill Spaulding’s shoes in state government was not immediately clear Wednesday. Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said the governor “has time to address that issue” before Spaulding departs.
In a written statement, Shumlin said he is "very happy for Jeb personally and professionally" and that Spaulding is "the ideal person" for the job.
"Jeb has been a good friend since our first days working together in the legislature 24 years ago," the governor continued. "As my administration secretary, he has been a rock-solid partner, creating a balanced budget year after year, and preserving Vermont’s exceptional fiscal management and bond rating. He has also been a close personal advisor, a role I know he will continue to play. I look forward to continuing to work closely with Jeb when he takes on his new role as chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges next January."