The Vermont State Colleges System's chancellor has withdrawn his proposal to close three campuses in response to a fiscal crises caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Our Board of Trustees heard loud and clear from thousands of students, employees, communities, and the State’s elected leadership and determined that my recommendations would be damaging on many levels and would not be acceptable. I accept their judgement," chancellor Jeb Spaulding said in a press release Wednesday morning.
The decision marks a huge win for the thousands of Vermonters who have advocated against Spaulding’s proposal, arguing that it would have shrunk Vermonters' access to higher education and devastated local economies.
Spaulding crafted the proposal in the face of a looming deficit rooted in enrollment declines and exacerbated by the coronavirus. The system faces up to $10 million in losses this academic year, due in large part to anticipated reimbursements to students sent home when campuses closed. It's also projecting a $15 million to $18 million shortfall next year because of more drops in enrollment.
In response, Spaulding proposed a dramatic restructuring of the college system that would have closed Northern Vermont University's campuses in Lyndon and Johnson and shifted programs to Castleton University. The plan would also have closed the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph Center and moved operations to that school's Williston campus. About 500 people would have lost their jobs.
The state college system’s board of trustees planned to vote on the proposal Monday, three days after it became public. But the board delayed action for at least a week in light of widespread opposition, including from lawmakers who have raced to buy the state time to consider alternatives.
Trustees took testimony from more than 100 concerned students, faculty and community members over the course of more than five hours on Monday and Tuesday. Many urged them to reconsider, passionately describing how the closures would negatively impact their lives. Some students said they would have no idea what to do if the campuses closed.
Legislative leaders informed Spaulding this week that it was "possible" the legislature would be willing to fund a 2020-21 "bridge year" to cover the immediate losses from the coronavirus crisis. Lawmakers have yet to decide on any specifics but floated a $25 million figure that may come from Vermont's $1.25 billion federal stimulus relief funds.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), who with House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) had urged the trustees to delay action over the weekend, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that Spaulding’s decision to withdraw his proposal is an “important first step toward developing a transition plan” for students, faculty and the host communities.
“It allows for a clearheaded analysis of what a healthy public higher education system in Vermont could look like, and how we can integrate broader state interests into that analysis,” Ashe said in the statement.
Spaulding cited the potential temporary bailout in Wednesday’s press release, though he acknowledged that questions remain. He said he will begin work “immediately” on a new proposal, one that includes input from lawmakers, the administration of Gov. Phil Scott, and community and campus leaders.
Still, he said he was withdrawing his proposal "with strident caution" that the system's current configuration is unsustainable. He warned that no matter how the system arrives at its final decision, the result will still “be disruptive."
Spaulding, who has been chancellor since 2015, faces a difficult road ahead given the widespread distaste with his handling of the situation. Many have accused him of drafting the proposal behind closed doors before trying to ram it through without careful consideration of the consequences. Some college employees have criticized his leadership, and a Northern Vermont University faculty group passed a no-confidence vote over the weekend. More than 2,300 others have signed an online petition demanding his removal.
Vermont State Colleges System trustees chair Churchill Hindes seemed to come to his chancellor’s defense on Wednesday, saying in a press release that decisiveness during urgent times is a “critical element of sound leadership.” That’s particularly true, Hindes said, when the sense of urgency is “not widely shared or understood.”
During a press conference Wednesday morning, the governor said he was not aware of the chancellor’s announcement.
“That doesn’t make the problem go away,” Scott said. “They are still facing a cash flow problem that will rear its head in June, as I understand it.”
Scott said he welcomes the legislature’s involvement in solving the funding crisis, but cautioned against just throwing money at the problem. “We don’t just want to pour $50 million into a system when a year from now we’re going to end up in the very same spot.”
Kevin McCallum contributed reporting.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.