LYNDON CENTER — Members of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees heard recently from members of the public, as well as faculty and staff, about a plan to transform the state colleges system by creating a single-accredited institution from Northern Vermont University (NVU), Castleton University and Vermont Technical College (VTC). A committee called together by the State Legislature last year has recommended following an intensive study by an outside consultant.

An deadline to submit public comments on the plan closed last week and the written comments will be provided to the Board for its virtual meeting on Monday, Feb. 22.

A total of 188 public comments came in through the process, according to VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny.

While the trustees of the VSCS Board are considering the chancellor’s recommendation that the report be explored — it has not voted yet to pursue the plan — there is concern among some faculty.

Linda Olson, a veteran professor at Castleton University and a member of the Labor Task Force which put together a report outlining recommendations for how to transform the state colleges system, called on the Board to revisit the group’s plan.

Olson said maintaining the individual identities of the individual institutions is important as administrative functions are consolidated in a plan to transform the struggling state college system.

“It’s concerning that the NCHEMS (National Center for Higher Education Management Systems) proposal is the only one being debated,” said Olson. “It’s important that we all have a seat at the table.”

Brandon Stroup, an associate professor at Northern Vermont University, likewise urged the trustees to consider the recommendations made in the labor group’s report.

“We have been told there are very little differences,” between the legislative committee’s report and the report worked on by the labor group, “I believe those statements to be wildly misleading.”

He stressed that the liberal arts and humanities should not be shrunk and that the public higher education system is more than a workforce magnet — and needs to remain so. “Post COVID, future students are not going to pay for an education that relies heavily on Zoom and online classes,” he said during a meeting last Wednesday, which ran two hours.

Student, Alum Voices

During the virtual public session, Mary Fafard, an alum of NVU told the Board she supports the consolidated system proposal.

She said she transferred to then Johnson State College in the middle of her freshman year, “Joining the 70 percent of JSC students who are Vermonters,” and she landed a job immediately and has a job at an international nonprofit in Vermont, saying the colleges create a pipeline of skilled workers, and many Vermonters need access to education “in all corners of Vermont, including Johnson and Lyndonville.”

Student Lauren Tourangeau also spoke and told Trustees in part that being a sophomore at the NVU-Johnson campus was a decision she made because it was close to home.

“I chose it because of the affordability and the scholarships that NVU offered me,” said Tourangeau, a psychology major who earned a semester of college through CCV while still in high school. “The VSC has given me and so many other people that thought their dream of going to college would be obsolete … I am very appreciative of that,” she said, adding she works on campus, and at Smugglers’ Notch off-campus, to get through college.

Tourangeau said the proposed plan to consolidate the state colleges is something she believes “would be very beneficial to students,” including the opportunity to take courses at the other colleges. “Being able to attend NVU has been such an amazing opportunity for me,” she said, noting the consolidation will only add more opportunity for students.

Adrianne Hutchin is a non-traditional Student Government representative in her final year at NVU-Lyndon and a St. Johnsbury resident who is double majoring in Criminal Justice and Global Studies.

“I find there are some issues with it that many of us find quite troubling,” Hutchin said on Thursday. “It is proposed that CCV (the Community College of Vermont) be maintained as a separate institution. This is something that would be better served to both CCV and the brick-and-mortar colleges if they were to be brought together. The CCV students would have access to full-time faculty and the mentorship that we are able to avail ourselves of, while at the same time saving the cost of renting separate space in off-campus buildings that are not needed.”

She said, “The existing campuses already have the space for these CCV offices just standing empty — it is a win-win. The Chancellor’s office is another place where the college could save funds. Many other colleges in other states have integrated their Chancellor’s offices into their other systems successfully and have eliminated that overhead completely.”

She continued, asking, “How do the students learn about the democratic process without this education? In section B3 of the proposal, it refers to ’ … technology necessary for online learning.’ I realize we are in a digital age, but if we have learned one thing from COVID, it is that online learning is not the way to go! Students’ grades have plummeted, and their stress levels have skyrocketed. We need in-person learning, not Zoom or computerized classes.

“NVU Online is not taught by NVU professors. I pay for an education from the faculty at NVU, not some unknown face behind a screen in another state,” Hutchin said.

Kate Henriques, a senior at NVU-Lyndon whose major is Music Business Industry, is a 21-year-old from Hampstead, N.H. She is a club representative of the Student Government Association on campus and serves on the executive board of the Twilight Players at NVU.

“As long as the VSC stays true to their commitment to Vermont’s higher education, these changes could be good,” said Henriques. “Hopefully some of the signature programs of the schools will stay and keep their legacies going.”

Henriques added, “Honestly as a student, it would make things easier if it was a consolidated system. Course codes and descriptions would be the same. It would be even easier to transfer from CCV. And Zoom has opened so many doors. As a Lyndon student, I am now completely able to take classes at Johnson or even Castleton. This switch in education to Zoom and online learning will only make this kind of transition even easier.”

NVU Statement

On Thursday, NVU issued the following statement.

Northern Vermont University (NVU) supports the Legislature’s Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont’s recommendations for a transformed Vermont State Colleges System, including consolidation. At the heart of the recommendations is a commitment to access to higher education throughout the state of Vermont and a solid and lasting presence for NVU in northern Vermont. NVU ensures access to quality higher education in our region, a pipeline for a skilled and talented Vermont workforce and overall, has a significant economic impact in northern Vermont.

To ensure a strong, vibrant, and accessible public higher education system throughout Vermont, the VSCS must transform. There is no doubt that NVU provides vital access for Vermonters pursuing higher education and serves some of the state’s most vulnerable students. More than 90 percent of NVU’s students receive financial aid and/or scholarships. Nearly half of these undergraduate students are the first in their family to attend college. Seventy percent of NVU’s students are Vermonters and 75 percent of NVU Online students are in-state. Simply put, without NVU, many Vermonters would not receive a college education.

NVU, by unifying Johnson and Lyndon State Colleges, has saved the Vermont State College System $9 million and can provide valuable expertise to further unification processes.

NVU is an essential and driving economic and cultural force in northern Vermont. NVU’s total economic impact in the region is estimated at over $100 million annually. Additionally, NVU brings funding and resources to address statewide needs and stimulate future growth, including nearly $5 million in the past nine months alone.

NVU supports the Select Committee’s recommendations and embraces the transformation the system needs to serve the students and people of Vermont. NVU began this transformation with the creation of NVU. That transformation continues with the establishment of the NVU Learning and Working Community to create a pipeline of skilled workers for Vermont’s employers by combining academic study with real world experiences via partnerships with local businesses and organizations.

With recent federal grants to reinvigorate the forest industry in northern Vermont and a RUS grant to expand educational opportunities statewide and low cost professional development to mental health professionals in the most-rural reaches of our state, NVU is transforming how a university serves its communities.

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