Parwinder Grewal Settles In as the First President of Vermont State University | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Parwinder Grewal Settles In as the First President of Vermont State University

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Published November 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Parwinder Grewal meeting staff and students at Vermont Technical College - BEN DEFLORIO
  • Ben Deflorio
  • Parwinder Grewal meeting staff and students at Vermont Technical College

Not long after he took the top job at the newly created Vermont State University, Parwinder Grewal attended a five-day workshop at Harvard University for new college presidents.

Experienced higher ed leaders shared their insights with 58 first-year presidents like him throughout that summer week. All of them, Grewal said, had something to say about the task ahead at Vermont State University, which will launch in less than a year by combining three institutions in the Vermont State Colleges System.

While college mergers are common these days, Vermont's is the first nationwide of an entire statewide colleges system, Grewal said, and the goal is lofty: to make every course as accessible in a rural corner as it is in a city. "They agreed that I have the toughest job in the country," Grewal said of his peers.

Grewal's job starts with the merger of Castleton University, Vermont Technical College and Northern Vermont University — itself the product of a merger between Johnson State and Lyndon State colleges in 2018. By July 1, 2023, the Vermont State Colleges System will include the newly formed Vermont State University and the separate Community College of Vermont. Grewal will lead the university; Sophie Zdatny will stay on as chancellor of the overall system.

Combining the three schools, which have 5,500 students and a budget deficit of $20 million, is a big task. Among other things, Grewal is eliminating about one-third of the system's administrative jobs, restructuring academic programming and selling off unused buildings.

The Community College of Vermont will remain freestanding, but it'll share IT, human resources, financial offices and workforce development programs with Vermont State University.

While Grewal says he doesn't plan to eliminate any academic subjects, he does expect to reduce the number of individual programs from 250 to 100, and the number of deans from more than a dozen to just five. Meanwhile, he hopes to expand enrollment by more than 80 percent, to 10,000 — an ambitious goal at a time when the number of college-age people in Vermont is declining. To that end, the system announced in September that the schools will lower tuition by 15 percent for the 2023-24 academic year, to around $10,000 for Vermont residents — about half the sum it charges out-of-staters.

Managing the transformation is an ambitious task for Grewal, a lifelong academic who grew up in India and was educated there and in London.

Grewal is a scientist who completed his undergraduate studies and a master's in agricultural sciences specializing in nematodes, microscopic creatures that are crucial to soil ecosystems. He continued his work on nematodes and plant pathology for his doctorate in zoology from Imperial College London, and he gained distinction as a scientist in the years after, serving as president of the Society of Nematologists and racking up $20 million in research funding.

Grewal also served on Ohio State University's faculty for 16 years; holds three patents, according to official bios; and has published 133 peer-reviewed scientific papers. His résumé reflects decades of work in topics such as slug control, lawn care, urban food systems and specialty crops.

His most significant achievement, he said, was leading a team of international scientists who first sequenced the genome of a parasitic nematode. He sees his time in the laboratory as proof that he can wrestle with the plus-size problems facing higher ed administration these days.

"I want to work with people to come up with new solutions," he said. "That's who I am."

Along with shepherding the merger successfully, Grewal's mandate includes restoring the public's trust. That took a dive after former Vermont State Colleges System chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing the Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College campuses in 2020, setting off protests from students, alumni, faculty and state officials. Spaulding resigned soon afterward. 

Unpopular as it was, Spaulding's proposal was not entirely unexpected, because the state colleges system has struggled financially for years. State Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), a Lyndon alumnus, said he remembers governor Dick Snelling talking about closing one of the state colleges in 1979.

Grewal is no stranger to institutional transformation. He said he honed those skills at his previous job, as the founding dean of the College of Sciences at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, created through the merger of three institutions with many campuses.

"I want to be challenged, always," Grewal said in an interview in mid-September at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, where he has an office.

Megan Cluver, a member of the system's board who served on the presidential search committee, noted that Grewal has the personality to work with the large cast of characters whose cooperation will be essential. Grewal comes across as relaxed and informal. He and his wife occupy the president's residence on campus.

When he was on the faculty at Ohio State, Cluver said, he used to invite students to his family home for board games. When he can, she added, he goes out of his way to meet with students, faculty and administrators in person, not by video.

"He's been spending time on each of the campuses, and that is his priority," she said. Many of his colleagues refer to him by his first name.

This fall, Grewal is getting to know Vermont, a place to which he didn't pay much attention until he learned of the job opening. Prior to that, he said, he knew of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Vermont's progressive history in areas such as gay rights.

"I also knew the state has been really underfunding higher education," he said. "The state knows it, and the legislators know it, as well."

For Grewal, who was the first in his family to attend college, making higher education affordable is a top priority — as is promoting Vermont State University to out-of-staters who can make up for the shortfall of in-state students. At the Texas school, he increased enrollment in online programs by 235 percent.

Chris Reilly, an engineering professor at Vermont Technical College, said Grewal has solicited faculty input on combining the classes taught on individual campuses so they can be offered system-wide.

"He seems comfortable with us; he listens to what we're saying, and he's taking notes," said Reilly, who is president of the state colleges' faculty union. "He seems to be a very reasonable person."

Vermont, which has lost four small, private colleges in the past few years, is not the only state taking big steps to shore up flagging state institutions. More American colleges have been shuttered since 2012 than during the previous 40 years combined, according to University Business, a higher ed publication. On average, 100 institutions vanished as a result of mergers or closures each year between 2015 and 2020, it reported.

With a dropping birth rate and one of the oldest populations in the country, Vermont doesn't have the college-age students to support the state colleges system as it was designed. Higher ed, especially in rural areas, faces very real threats.

"A fair number of institutions are sitting on the precipice," Cluver said.

But Grewal has arrived at a time when public support for the state colleges system is high. Finding and training workers has become a critical need in Vermont's economy, and the state colleges system has produced thousands of skilled ones over the years.

After Spaulding brought up the specter of closure, Vermont lawmakers raised the annual state appropriation to the state colleges system from $30 million in 2021 to $45 million this year. The state colleges are also benefiting from other one-time federal and legislative spending.

But financial security is a long way off. Meanwhile, there's still anxiety that the contraction ahead will pit one campus against another. Now that individual presidents' jobs have been eliminated, each campus will have less of a voice in its own future, said Castleton alum Jarrod Sammis.

"[Grewal] seems like a nice guy, but I have serious concerns about the merger," said Sammis, who works for his parents' real estate company and is running for the Vermont House. "I envision a reduction in course diversity, a reduction in staff and a reduction of the organization's representation."

Grewal is not counting on state support to keep Vermont State University in the black. He wants to raise money in other ways, such as by offering customized training and professional certificate programs for local businesses.

He's also looking for ways to keep graduates from moving elsewhere, a perennial problem in the state. He plans to introduce a "micro-credential" to regular diploma requirements so that students learn practical skills such as Microsoft Excel or data analysis, or study entrepreneurship along with their core studies. 

"Imagine an engineering student being empowered to develop a business from their idea," he said. "It will provide them the opportunity and support to develop their own small business right here in Vermont."

The system plans to reduce campus square footage by 25 percent. The campuses in Castleton and Williston don't have enough room as it is, so they won't shrink; the Lyndon, Randolph and Johnson campuses have more space than they need, so buildings are going on the market. Benning, who is running for lieutenant governor, thinks it makes sense to sell off unused buildings. He'd also like to see better marketing to appeal to out-of-state students.

"It requires master salespeople to sell these institutions in places where there is still population," Benning said. "I have always felt salesmanship is one component that could use some beefing up."

Grewal agreed, saying he expects advertising to help him reach his enrollment goals. He sees the system as a business and the streamlining this year as essential to its survival — including the job cuts under way now.

"There is no secret about it; everybody knows it," Grewal said. "There will be one university with one president." He said no faculty members will lose their jobs. 

"If anything, we plan to increase the number of faculty in certain critical workforce-related programs," such as nursing, engineering and criminal justice, he said. 

As the state colleges eliminate about 20 executive and dean positions, some administrators have already been shown the door. Others have been offered positions with the new institution, and the university is also hiring from out of state for some of its top jobs. Grewal expects a significant savings in salaries.

"Next year, we will have far fewer managers at this university," he said. 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Makeover Man | Parwinder Grewal leads the state colleges that will soon become Vermont State University"