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Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny to Resign


Published September 18, 2023 at 7:29 p.m.

Chancellor Sophie Zdatny, far right, at a meeting in June - COURTESY OF VERMONT STATE COLLEGES
  • Courtesy of Vermont State Colleges
  • Chancellor Sophie Zdatny, far right, at a meeting in June
Sophie Zdatny, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, announced on Monday that she will step down at the end of the year, the latest high-profile departure from a system going through immense upheaval.

The college system's board is already in the midst of hiring a new interim president for Vermont State University, the recently launched flagship school.

Zdatny, whose tenure has included three and a half turbulent years of cost-cutting and change, announced her decision on Monday after a two-day board retreat at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee. She said she feels as though administrators have a done a lot of the work needed to help the system succeed, freeing her to make a change.

"I feel like now is a perfect time to step away," Zdatny said in an interview. "We've worked with the legislature to increase the base appropriation; we've launched the new university and got accreditation; we've got a really strong team in the chancellor's office."

"It is bittersweet to accept her resignation, but I speak for all trustees in wishing her well," board chair Lynn Dickinson said in a written statement.
Zdatny, 59, has worked for the colleges since 2014, as associate general counsel and then general counsel. She was appointed to serve as interim chancellor of the system in April 2020 when her predecessor, Jeb Spaulding, resigned. He'd sparked an uproar by proposing to close three of the system’s four residential campuses to shore up the system’s finances.

Zdatny was given the full-time gig in July 2020, by which time the campus closure idea had been shelved. But the legislature's Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont was demanding urgent action to cut costs and lower tuition at the system, which was operating at a deficit and losing students.
  • Courtesy of Vermont State Colleges
  • Sophie Zdatny

One solution: Merge Northern Vermont University, Castleton University and Vermont Technical College into Vermont State University, which officially opened in July.

A new president of that institution, Parwinder Grewal, started work in July 2022. But months later, the system’s leaders were again fielding a torrent of criticism, this time over a proposal to remove all the books from the college libraries. Community members accused administrators of inflating their own pay — including Zdatny's $238,000 annual salary — while cutting vital programs and services on the campuses.

Grewal resigned in April, and, days later, former Agency of Human Services secretary Mike Smith stepped in as the interim leader. He rescinded the library decision.
But Smith, 70, has vowed to work for only six months, a period that ends in October. The board is seeking to hire another interim president, this one to serve until summer 2025 to give the board time for a monthslong search for a permanent president. At its meeting on Monday, the board interviewed two candidates for the interim job, according to Zdatny. Both are from outside Vermont.

The state colleges system also includes the Community College of Vermont, which is in good financial shape. The nonresidential school reported in August that registrations were up 13 percent over the year before.

Vermont State University's new student enrollment is down 15 percent this year, a drop administrators blame on publicity about the library plan, confusion that they anticipated in the wake of the reorganization, the impact of COVID-19 and the state's population, which is short on young people. There are 5,200 students enrolled, including more than 4,000 undergraduates, 500 in graduate programs and 700 in apprenticeships.

“Reductions in student [numbers] were anticipated and budgeted for,” Smith said last week in a written statement. “We know this is a strong foundation on which to build future classes who will grow in numbers and skill each year.”

Zdatny said something in similar on Monday. In charting a path forward for the state colleges system, she said, administrators have saved an asset that will benefit all of Vermont.

"Although the plan had originally been to close some of the campuses, I think the entire system was at risk of going under in 2020," she said. "I see us as essential to the future of Vermont. We educate teachers, nurses, social workers. We educate the plumbers, the electricians."

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