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Program Cuts, Consolidation Proposed for Vermont State University

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Published October 2, 2023 at 8:18 p.m.


Vermont State University-Castleton - ANNE WALLACE ALLEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • ANNE WALLACE ALLEN ©️ Seven Days
  • Vermont State University-Castleton
Vermont State University would cut 10 academic programs and eliminate as many as 33 full-time faculty positions under a new cost-cutting plan that administrators proposed on Monday. Another 13 academic programs would be consolidated, and 11 would be moved to new campus locations.

Proposed to be closed over the next two years are the music, performance arts and technology, photography, agriculture, forestry, landscape, applied business, computer engineering technology, climate change science, and school psychology programs. Just 77 of VTSU’s 5,000 students are enrolled in those 10 programs now.

Many other programs would undergo big changes. Music theater would be consolidated with theater arts, and fine arts would be continued with “major modification and consolidation” and offered only on the VTSU-Johnson campus, according to the draft plan. Dubbed Optimization 2.0, it was emailed on Monday to faculty, who are on fall break this week. They will be asked to send responses to interim President Mike Smith, who will make final decisions on changes by October 31. That’s also Smith’s last day on the job.
The proposal is part of a yearslong effort to reduce costs at the financially troubled system and to hone academic offerings so they’re more in line with what students and employers are seeking. The state colleges system announced last year that it would consolidate four of its campuses — in Johnson, Lyndon, Randolph and Castleton — into one unified institution, VTSU, on July 1. The system ended the past fiscal year with a $22 million deficit on a budget of $134 million and is operating under a mandate to save millions of dollars over the next few years in order to balance its budget.
Many institutions in Vermont and nationally are also cutting back on programs as hiring needs and enrollments change. Three years ago, the University of Vermont eliminated more than two dozen programs with low enrollment.



But the faculty cuts are sure to upset many of the Vermonters who attend the schools or work there. The buyout program is expected to save as much as $3.5 million over the next two years, Smith wrote in the proposal — but he does expect some faculty members to decline buyouts and to be laid off instead. Faculty whose jobs are eliminated will continue teaching until the end of the academic year. There are 207 faculty members now.

The faculty contract requires administrators to announce any layoffs by October 31.

Critics of the trustees and administration have frequently charged that the system has too many managers and that those managers earn too much. Smith acknowledged this concern in his introduction to the proposal and said he planned to examine those costs and release a recommendation by the end of October.

“Please know that I strongly agree that administrative costs of the university must be optimized and reduced as well,” he wrote.
There are many details that still need to be worked out. While the agriculture program would be eliminated, along with forestry and landscape contracting — all programs that were offered at VTSU-Randolph — a replacement is expected to grow through a fledgling program called the Center for Agriculture & Food Entrepreneurship.

The popular outdoor education, leadership and tourism program at VTSU-Lyndon, which recently became the first such traditional university program to be accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association, would continue “with major modifications” under the proposal.

Broadcast journalism programs would be consolidated and located at the Lyndon campus; programs in film theory, analysis and print journalism would be consolidated at Castleton. Musical theater would be combined with theater arts.

Mathematics, statistics and data science would be consolidated and offered on several campuses. The university’s climate change science program would be eliminated but would be promoted as a concentration in the atmospheric sciences program, which has produced many of the region's weather forecasters. Environmental science would be consolidated with natural science. The wildlife and forest conservation program at Castleton and Johnson would be expanded to Lyndon.

The job of overseeing changes will fall to David G. Bergh, who was chosen in September as the new interim president to lead VTSU. Bergh is expected to stay in place until summer 2024 to give trustees time to search for a permanent president. Trustees will also be looking for a chancellor to replace incumbent Sophie Zdatny, who is leaving her post at the end of December.

In a note to faculty on Monday, Smith recalled a faculty member's email that said Castleton was being cannibalized "to feed the corpses of the other campuses, and provide whatever blood is needed to keep the chancellor's office fat and happy." The claim that Castleton is being drained to support other schools in the system is often made.

Smith noted that Castleton is using one-time funding from the Vermont legislature to cover deficits, just as other campuses are. He asked critics for civility and said pitting one campus against another would damage VTSU as a whole.

"Is this the way we talk to each other?" he wrote. "It's certainly not the way I've spoken to any of you."

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