The Vermont State Colleges System may close three of its campuses to address a potential 20 percent drop in enrollment and millions of dollars in losses related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The radical restructuring would shutter Northern Vermont University campuses in Lyndon and Johnson, shifting programs 100 miles away to Castleton University. It would also close the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph Center, moving operations to that school's Williston campus.
Approximately 500 people would lose their jobs under the plan, layoffs that would be sure to compound the economic pain for rural communities where campuses are a source of pride and prosperity.
The proposal is also sure to spark a heated debate among the system’s board of trustees, which meets Monday to discuss it, and the legislature, which holds purse strings for a potential bailout and may have a say in whether the system can abandon a campus at all.
Hundreds of people have already asked to address the trustees, who will have the added challenge of meeting by videoconference. A preview of the debate earlier Friday erupted in the Vermont Senate after word of the proposal got out.
Senators representing the communities where campuses could be slated for closure said the decision is too important to leave to the system’s board of trustees.
“This will have devastating effects on all of the Northeast Kingdom and all of Lamoille County and all across the northern part of the state,” said Sen. Richard Westman (R-Lamoille).
In a press release, Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, said “very painful decisions” are necessary to preserve the system in the face of huge losses.
“We are in truly unprecedented times like nothing we have ever experienced before in our lifetimes, and we know the impacts of COVID-19 will linger for months, maybe years,” Spaulding said in a press release. “We cannot wait and hope for recovery, we must act decisively to chart a course toward long-term viability. That is our ultimate goal. We owe it to our students, faculty, staff and state.”
The system projects an operating deficit of up to $10 million this fiscal year, in part due to reimbursements to students sent home when the campuses closed last month, and another potential $12 million shortfall next year.
The state colleges were already stressed by the state’s aging demographics, low levels of state support and price competition from other colleges before the pandemic, Spaulding said in the release.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Education Committee, told fellow senators that all colleges in the state have been facing “brutal online competition” for a decade. Schools like the University of Vermont have been able to draw students from out of state, but the state college system has been hit harder by Vermont’s declining K-12 enrollment.
“It’s really set the state colleges up, especially, for a fall,” Baruth said.
Gov. Phil Scott called the news "tremendously unfortunate."
"The State Colleges System was fragile before the coronavirus, and this hasn't made it any easier in terms of the financial aspects," Scott said.
Asked if he would support a bailout of the colleges, Scott stressed that the need is widespread.
“It's not just the state colleges, it's every single restaurant and bar that we have in the state,” he said, adding that “drastic” cuts to the state budget would be needed.
There is already tremendous consternation about the proposal in the community, and constituents are demanding that lawmakers do something, said Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), chair of the influential Appropriations Committee.
“This has unraveled very, very quickly,” Kitchel said.
Kitchel said people are demanding to know why the state isn’t tapping the billions it expects to receive from the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act to keep the campuses open. She stressed that lawmakers have made no decisions on the issue.
The Vermont State Colleges System currently serves more than 11,000 degree-seeking students and provides continuing education for over 9,000 adults. If approved, the closures would take effect for the 2020-21 academic year.
“Our hearts are with the students, faculty and staff whose lives will be painfully impacted by this news, and we will make every effort to ensure they are supported in the transition,” Spaulding continued. “Every member of the VSCS family, including tens of thousands of alumni, have made a lasting impact on the institutions and the state. Please know we will work tirelessly to maintain a VSCS we can all be proud of now and for the future.”
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) made it clear he doesn’t intend to let the “unelected” 15-member board make such a consequential decision itself. It includes four members of the legislature and the governor. Five are appointed by Scott, four are elected by the board, and one is a student trustee.
“What bothers me here is, you have a group of unelected officials who are about to make a decision that will have a tremendous impact on the geographic areas of the state,” Benning said. The legislature should have a say in whether campuses close because of the serious economic consequences for host communities, he said.
According to Baruth, the chancellor’s position is that the trustees can decide to cease educational services at any campus, but it’s up to the legislature to decide what to do with the buildings and property.
“The legal aspects of it are a little muddled,” Baruth said.
The trustee meeting takes place at 1 p.m. on Monday, April 20, on the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Details are here.
Correction April 19, 2020: A previous version of this story misstated the size of the CARES Act and Vermont's expected share.