MONTPELIER — Work on creating a single institution from Northern Vermont University (NVU), Vermont Technical College (VTC) and Castleton University and streamlining programs across the three institutions is a mammoth undertaking in which some 85 faculty have been working this summer.

Their work to date was presented on Thursday in a virtual meeting of the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS) Board of Trustees Education, Personnel and Student Life Committee or EPSL — with an update about the VSCS’s Program Array Optimization Project.

The merger of the three VSCS higher education institutions is the most significant piece of a transformation of the state colleges system with goals of fiscal sustainability and ensuring higher education pathways for Vermont’s students of all ages and the state’s workforce development needs with degrees and certificate programs to help Vermonters have the credentials and qualifications to meet employer needs.

The goal of the summer work has been to develop the first draft of an “aligned and streamlined academic portfolio” for the new combined institution that “prioritizes student success, statewide access, and financial sustainability,” states information prepared for the VSCS meeting.

VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said listening tours as part of the transformation process had been planned in-person, but now will be held virtually due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases with the Delta variant.

On the vaccination front, she said students except for those with valid health or religious exemptions will be required to have vaccinations and the system is currently surveying employees to determine vaccination rates. “Zdatny said about 58 percent of faculty and staff have responded, and more than 97 percent of the respondents said they are vaccinated.

Zdatny said the colleges “do currently have a mask mandate in place” given the Delta variant’s spread and very contagious nature. She said there is work currently underway evaluating HVAC systems across the campuses.

She said a branding workshop was held last week to discuss some of the characteristics of the new university.

The chancellor said the plan is for the Board to decide on the name for the new university and branding at its October meeting. She said a draft mission and vision statement for the new university will likewise be before the Board in October and the search for a president to lead the new institution will begin this fall.

“The Board will be creating a 12-15 person search committee … to review potential candidates,” with visits this spring for an expected field of three finalists, Zdatny said. The new president will begin in the summer of 2022.

Board Member Megan Cluver, chair of the EPSL committee, asked Zdatny about enrollment. Zdatny said VSCS is seeing increases in out of state students, with “out of state students viewing Vermont as a safe place to come to college … the scholarships and the free tuition opportunities kind of muddle the picture a little bit … for the residential colleges I don’t think they’ve had as much impact, but I think we’ve definitely seen an increase at CCV in those programs.”

“Certainly the nursing program at VTC has seen significant new starts as a result of the critical occupations scholarships,” said Zdatny.

VSCS Chief Academic Officer Yasmine Ziesler praised what she called “an incredible accomplishment” that the faculty have contributed to help launch the charge from the EPSL committee, to “develop a plan for program optimization” as the process to unify NVU, VTC and Castleton advances.

The Davis Foundation provided a $281,000 grant to help fund the work of this summer, according to Thursday’s presentation.

Ziesler said some 250 programs students across the VSCS system are now enrolled in served as the starting point, and the process began in June and faculty “really had only a month to do this work … when it comes down to it so you’re seeing a tremendous effort in a short period of time.”

The goal set was “absolutely ambitious and necessary” said Ziesler, and charged the group with coming up with what they saw were most viable within the charges, including creating singular programs, to think about shared curriculum or shared courses, and designing programs to incorporate meaningful work to include civic engagement, service, internships, and research opportunities for students to learn and contribute to their communities.

“We have to be affordable and we have to be sustainable, and we can’t be either unless we have high quality,” Trustee Karen Luneau said.

The new comprehensive program array that the group has come up with which features the following:

• Balance of liberal arts, professional and technical programs;

• Focused on VSCS mission for the benefit of Vermont;

• Strengthened quality for students via unified, more diverse faculty;

• Increased student access across campuses and via flexible delivery;

• Greater efficiency via shared, aligned course offerings.

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