MARSHFIELD, Vt. (AP) — Following an outcry from students, instructors and legislators, the head of the struggling Vermont State Colleges system on Wednesday withdrew his proposal to close three campuses because of added financial troubles from the coronavirus outbreak.
The college system's board of trustees heard from thousands of people in emails and two online meetings who opposed the proposal that Chancellor Jeb Spaulding had introduced on Friday.
“Our Board of Trustees heard loud and clear from thousands of students, employees, communities, and the State’s elected leadership and determined that my recommendations would be damaging on many levels and would not be acceptable. I accept their judgement," Spaulding said in a written statement.
He had proposed that the campuses of Northern Vermont University in Johnson and Lyndon and the campus of Vermont Technical College in Randolph, which has another campus in Williston, would close. Liberal arts programs in Johnson and Lyndon would be moved to one campus, Castleton University.
The four-college system, which has been struggling for years with declining enrollment, low state funding and other problems, is facing a deficit this school year of between $7 million and $10 million, including $5.6 million in refunds of room and board fees and moving to online learning.
This year’s deficit includes the expected $3 million in federal assistance. Next year’s deficit could reach $12 million.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson issued a statement Sunday saying an abrupt vote to close three campuses without a public plan for the future was inappropriate, “especially in this era of unknowns.”
Johnson on Wednesday called Spaulding's decision to withdraw the proposal the right move and Ashe said it would allow for “a clearheaded analysis of what a healthy higher education system in Vermont could look like."
“Indications are positive that the State leaders will be assisting us to get through the immediate problem, although we are not sure of exactly how at this time," Spaulding said in his statement. “We will be taking additional time to work with elected, campus, and community leaders to redesign the Vermont State Colleges System to be sustainable. That means we do not plan to close campuses this fall.”
When asked about Spaulding’s decision, Gov. Phil Scott, speaking at his regular COVID-19 update, said he was unaware of the change in direction but knew that the state colleges have been facing a variety of pressures for years.
“Whatever we do as we move forward, we have to keep an eye on how do we preserve the system after the fact. We don’t want to just pour $50 million into a system, let’s say, when a year from now we are going to end up in the same spot,” he said.
Scott said he looked forward to working with the Legislature on finding a solution.
The current situation “cannot continue for long,” Spaulding said, and a more workable solution would disrupt the four institutions and five campuses.
He said he would begin work on a new plan immediately, including seeking input from the Legislature, administration, community and campus leaders.
Associated Press writer Wilson Ring contributed to this report from Stowe, Vermont.