Nearly seven years after founding Vermont's sole public polling operation, Rich Clark is preparing to mothball the Castleton Polling Institute.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed," said Clark, the institute's director and a professor at Castleton University.
The state university has decided to "push pause" on its polling center, according to spokesman Jeff Weld, as part of a broader restructuring announced two weeks ago in response to a $1.5 million budget shortfall. Vermont Public Radio first reported Sunday that Clark's program was on the chopping block.
"I think the hope is that when future times warrant it, we'll be able to bring the polling institute back online," Weld said.
Castleton started trimming its polling operation last November, when it closed its Rutland call center. The next month, it transferred associate director Amanda Richardson to another program. Clark, who has juggled classroom and polling responsibilities, will now teach a full course load. All told, the moves will result in $120,000 in annual savings, according to Weld.
Founded in the fall of 2011, the Castleton Polling Institute was the brainchild of then-president Dave Wolk. He told Seven Days at the time that it would help put the state school "on the national map." It also provided, for the first time in recent memory, regular polling of Vermont politics. Several news organizations, including VPR, WCAX-TV and VTDigger.org, contracted with the institute to conduct election-year surveys.
To Clark, the institute's real utility was not providing horse-race polls of political races but surveying public opinion about policy matters. He noted that during Vermont's recently revived debate over gun rights, news organizations have frequently cited Castleton's polling on the issue to characterize public opinion.
"What I think we were able to provide on certain policy issues was a data point that had some credibility and some transparency," Clark said.
Out of the public spotlight, Castleton also performed polling work for a variety of state agencies and private entities — sometimes outside of Vermont. While those contracts provided a revenue stream, according to Weld, the institute was never a break-even proposition.
Clark said he hopes to remain at the university and perhaps restart the polling institute one day. But, he said, "I have no idea what the future holds."
Corrected March 14 at 9:37 a.m. to accurately state the timing of last year’s trims to the polling institute.