I’ve heard this criticism of higher education inside Vermont and out: University leaders are using the pandemic as an excuse to implement large budget cuts they were planning to make anyway.

I don’t agree, at least in the case of the University of Vermont, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think.

The pandemic is the prime cause of the budget crises currently roiling higher ed, it’s true. It’s also true that some may be exploiting COVID-19 to make reactive cuts that ease long-standing financial pressures.

But my view of the pandemic’s impact is that, rather than serving as an excuse for the actions of overeager budget cutters, it’s a distraction, one that threatens to prevent higher education leaders from pursuing the truly transformative change that our times urgently call for.

Change is sorely needed. Tuition is rising unsustainably, saddling record numbers of students with crushing debt. The hangover from the 2008 recession is causing many students and families to view higher ed purely, if misguidedly, from an ROI perspective, to the detriment of the arts and humanities. Many employers are dissatisfied with the critical thinking and communications skills of college graduates. And equity is an issue throughout the country, with too many deserving students from low income and diverse backgrounds thwarted in their attempts to pursue higher education. Exacerbating all these challenges is a tectonic demographic shift that has greatly reduced the size of the traditional college-going population.

The pandemic and its financial impacts on the University of Vermont—$40 million or more in unplanned expenses and significant lost revenue on top of that—arrived eight months into my presidency. To be sure, the university took immediate steps to stem the red ink.

Because we couldn’t confidently gauge demand for in-person learning, we reduced some lecturers’ time by 25% (most since restored, thanks to better-than-expected enrollment). All non-represented employees except those earning less than $45,000 took pay cuts of between 2.5% and 5% (also recently restored) with senior administrators giving back 8.3%. And we put an early retirement plan in place.

But despite the enormous financial hardship the pandemic was causing, the all-consuming attention required to keep on-campus students safe and academically engaged, and our effort to avoid large-scale layoffs and furloughs, another priority, there was something we didn’t do: deviate from our development and implementation of an integrated, multi-pronged strategic plan to renew the University of Vermont so it better met the needs of today’s—and tomorrow’s—students.

The plan, which connects directly with the challenges higher education has faced since long before the pandemic, was set out in a strategic document titled Amplifying Our Impact that the university released last year.

Actions we’ve taken that grew out of its recommendations include:

• Freezing tuition for a third consecutive year and forgoing room and board cost increases—despite the financial pressure we are under.

• The creation of an Office of Engagement that is instrumental to our land grant mission and our ability to meet the needs of Vermont and Vermonters, a top priority for the university.

• A willingness to choose areas of emphasis in our research program—those that support healthy societies and a healthy environment, based on our strengths and the state’s needs, and to focus investment in those areas.

• The implementation of a wide-ranging partnership program with corporations and non-profits to help support their progress with our research and to increase internship and employment opportunities for our students.

• A decision to end our endowment’s investments in fossil fuels, at a pace that is among the most aggressive in the country, because they run counter to UVM’s reputation as an environmental leader.

• Retiring majors and minors with very low enrollments across the university, so we can invest in those with high student demand and create innovate new course- clusters that will prepare students to thrive in the 21st century.

• Taking the first steps in a forward-looking academic reorganization that will simplify and streamline our schools and colleges in a way that decreases administrative costs and promotes interdisciplinary research and learning.

UVM is not alone in making strategic moves like these. Other schools are also following roadmaps set out in books like The Agile College and widely circulated reports such as The Transformation-Ready Higher Education Institution. But we are in the vanguard.

While I’m confident UVM can successfully navigate the challenges that lie ahead and emerge an even stronger institution that is Vermont’s pride, we can’t do it alone. We’ll need the continuing support of both the state of Vermont and the federal government. Without the roughly $30 million in CARES Act funding we gratefully received via the state this fiscal year, financial pressures would have forced us to make changes that were not strategic. Federal dollars from the next round of COVID-relief funding and this year’s state appropriation will be critical to keep us on track. With our history of both attracting Vermont’s top students and graduating them on time, UVM is an enviably good investment for the state.

After the severe dislocation COVID-19 has caused in the higher education community, many are asking: Will things go back to normal once the population is vaccinated and we can return to on-campus life and learning?

My answer is that “normal” should not be our objective. Some campuses may aspire to business as usual. But others, like UVM, will continue to look deeply at the structures and the systems we have in place and make bold changes so our institutions can thrive in the very different world the mid-21st century promises to be.

We need no excuse for that.

Suresh V. Garimella is president of the University of Vermont.

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