VSCS Chancellor Defends Transformation Plan Before Senate Ed Committee

A bill brought forward by Rutland County legislators, which calls for tying the names of the existing Vermont State Colleges to a new name for a unified Castleton-Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College to state funding, was the subject of a discussion before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. (Photo by Amy Ash Nixon)

MONTPELIER — Three senators from Rutland County have introduced a bill calling for increased transparency about fiscal and enrollment details from the Vermont State Colleges System and specific protection for the Castleton College brand.

S.134 is sponsored by Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland, Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, and Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, and would require the VSCS to do the following:

• annually submit to the General Assembly its audited financial statements for the prior fiscal year, which would include separate financial statements for each university and college in its system together with information on their financial sustainability and enrollment;

• the Vermont State Colleges to publicly disclose its annual budget allocation to each of its colleges and universities together with the rationale in support of the allocations being made; and

• State funding of the Vermont State Colleges be conditioned on it not changing the name of any college or university to a name that does not include the current name of the college or university at the beginning of the new name.

The importance of retaining the individual university names at the beginning of any future merged university-wide system name is underscored, “If the (VSC) Corporation changes the name of any college or university in its system to a name that does not include the current name (such as NVU or VTC or Castleton) at the beginning of its new name, it shall no longer be eligible for State funding” under a subsection of the proposed bill.

Hooker said the purpose of the bill is to allow the Legislature and the public to more fully understand the problems facing the institutions, including where the profits and losses are for each campus.

She noted that while a proposed merger of several of the VSCS schools is on the table to transform the VSCS, the senators sponsoring S.134 seek more information about finances from the individual campuses.

Hooker raised concern over the names of the institutions shifting under the merger, and raised the name of Castleton University in particular, saying it denotes “a point of pride and also as an economic tool for our area.”

The transformation plans recommended in the Select Committee on Higher Education called into action last year by the Legislature calls for the residential colleges to be merged under a single accreditation umbrella: the Vermont Technical College, Northern Vermont University (NVU) and Castleton University.

Only the Community College of Vermont will be spared a merger under the plan, which has been advanced now by the VSCS Board of Trustees and is in motion to be in effect in a little more than two years.

Already NVU itself is a merged institution and less than three years into its newly-unified identity and goals; it was formed from consolidation in the summer of 2018 of the former Johnson and Lyndon State colleges.

VSCS Chancellor Responds To Bill

After listening to a quick overview of the bill, Sophie Zdatny, the VSCS chancellor, was invited to speak.

She said the VSCS recognizes the concerns from the host communities and said the transformation process is causing concerns. She wanted to assure the host communities about the VSCS’s commitment to the institutions existing brands “while also having a marketing strategy” that communicates the new entity, which will be sustainable.

The bill would impose additional requirements and add to auditing costs and personnel to manage the internal accounting the bill would require, Zdatny said.

She stressed that the VSCS’s finances have been examined and scrutinized very closely and are transparent.

Zdatny said information about the VSCS’s finances are publicly available, as are detailed enrollment data.

“None of these institutions within the Vermont State Colleges System are capable of surviving on their own,” stressed Zdatny in testifying about the bill’s proposed requirements. “To the extent there’s concern about … I know we have heard this, but somehow Castleton is the star of the system and somehow Castleton is going to be disadvantaged by being combined with the other two entities; this is all about the survival of Castleton, as well as the other entities (NVU and VTC).”

Zdatny said, “It’s not about winners and losers in the system. The winners — if we can pull this off, this transformation — is going to be the state and the students within the state.”

Maintaining programming across the state that is “relevant and high quality” and to be responsive to workforce needs are among the cornerstones of the transformation plans — which call for maintaining the VSCS campuses where they are located.

The proposed bill’s condition of funding being linked to the name change is concerning for the VSCS, noted Zdatny.

She said the merger process will seek to honor individual institutions and honor their traditions, but a new university is in the process of being built, and a singularly memorable brand that builds “on the Vermont brand” will need to be decided.

The chancellor said market research will help with that decision, saying the name Castleton will continue to be associated with that campus the same way that Lyndon and Johnson continue to be associated with NVU. She said the goal is to attract more in-state, out-of-state and international students to the merged university.

Sen. Brian Campion, D/P-Bennington, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, asked what the downside of keeping the existing college names as part of a new name would be.

Zdatny said, “We’re calling it NCE, new combined entity for now … it will be accredited under that name.” She said, “We need to be able to market … we’re really looking at creating a very different higher education system here.”

“If we’re limited because of the names, it’s going to create a problem,” said Zdatny. She said adding the existing names to whatever the new name is would be “a mouthful.”

The chancellor said, “I think if we’re forced to use Castleton University at New Combined Entity I think it’s going to be a real struggle.”

“There are things we want to preserve at all our campuses … but I do think it could create confusion for students,” said Zdatny, pointing to search engines and more, “We will do what we can to honor and market and preserve the things that are unique and special about each of these institutions.”

But trying to maintain multiple separate brands will be expensive and would send the wrong message, said Zdatny.

VSCS Chief Financial Officer Sharron Scott stressed that the VSCS institutions are “on shaky ground” at present, and transforming to meet the needs of the state for higher education and workforce need to happen in a way that is fiscally sustainable.

Zdatny said she didn’t want the VSCS to be hamstrung as it creates the new unified university.

Campion urged continued conversations with the Rutland County delegation.

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