The Vermont State Colleges System said Monday that all of its campuses will welcome students back for in-person instruction this fall, despite a looming financial crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The move comes as the ailing college system finds itself within reach of a legislative bailout, with Vermont’s top lawmakers reaffirming their commitment over the weekend to helping the schools survive the next academic year so that the state can adopt a “transitional plan.”
"This summer and fall, we will focus attention on creating a 21st century higher education system that meets the needs of Vermonters, our communities and our workforce," Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) wrote in a joint statement released Saturday.
Ashe and Johnson were among thousands of Vermonters who opposed former chancellor Jeb Spaulding's April proposal to close three state college campuses in an effort to address a multimillion-dollar deficit.
Spaulding later withdrew his proposal and resigned last week over his handling of the matter. But many have feared that the damage is done, with some students now considering whether to continue with the state college system over concerns that their school might shut down before they graduate.
Sophie Zdatny, who is serving as interim chancellor until a longer-term one can be appointed, sought to steady the ship with Monday's announcement that state colleges will join the University of Vermont in resuming in-person learning this fall.
Noting that the system has extended application deadlines through the summer, Zdatny urged students to stick with the schools in spite of their recent turmoil and said she will work with lawmakers to produce the information needed to secure bridge funding. The system will then turn its focus to identifying a “viable path forward,” she said, a process she assured will remain “inclusive and transparent.”
That will be important work, seeing how lawmakers — while supportive of a temporary bailout likely to draw on federal funds — have so far shown little appetite for a longer-term increase to the state college system’s annual appropriation.
“I want to thank everyone who has advocated so fiercely for our VSCS," Zdatny said in a press release. "We must harness that energy for good as we consider strategies to address our ongoing financial challenges and position ourselves for success in the long-run."
System leaders won't need to look far for ideas. Northern Vermont University, which would have lost its Lyndon and Johnson campuses under Spaulding's plan, announced Monday that it will create an advisory committee to examine how the school might address its financial and demographic challenges.
The committee, which will include students, faculty, alumni and community members, expects to report its findings to NVU president Elaine Collins at the end of May, according to a press release. The president will then submit the university's proposals to the board of trustees next month.
“While NVU has made incredible strides since its formation 22 months ago, today it is clear that we cannot continue with business as usual,” Collins said in the release. “To ensure that we can continue to deliver a high-quality higher education for our students and be an economic engine for our region, we need to innovate for the future."
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.