This commentary is from the members of the Vermont State Colleges Labor Task Force: John Diebold and Joan Richmond-Hall of Vermont Technical College; Jonathan Kaplan, Alison Lathrop and David McGough, all of Northern Vermont University-Lyndon; Helen Mango, Linda Olson and Shaun Williams of Castleton University; Elizabeth McHale of Community College of Vermont; and Sandy Noyes and Beth Walsh of Northern Vermont University-Johnson.
The Vermont State Colleges Labor Task Force is made up of staff and faculty who have been working together for the past year to figure out a path forward for the state college system that is student-centered, enables us to better serve the public good, and improves the many aspects of education and student services that will create a more affordable and accessible education for Vermonters.
While the task ahead of us is complex, we are eager to do our part. We are pleased that Covid relief funds and the Vermont Legislature are providing a temporary increase of support to allow us to reimagine and reinvigorate public higher education in Vermont.
While we dive deep into this work with our colleagues across the campuses, we hope that the Legislature, board of trustees and chancellor’s office focus on creating a better system for tracking costs and creating administrative efficiencies at each campus and across the state college system.
Like all Vermonters, staff and faculty are taxpayers and we are acutely aware of the investment that our fellow Vermonters are making in higher education. The changes we make now must be done well and monitored carefully to preserve the public trust. We ask that the Legislature consider its responsibility for oversight.
Legislators need to play a lead role not just in distributing resources, but in making certain that those resources are being used responsibly. For example, we believe hiring outside consultants to do the work that is better suited to insider experts is both costly and inefficient. The outside consultants hired to make recommendations about the future of the state colleges, as well as ones hired to make recommendations about academic consolidation, have cost taxpayers almost $450,000 in the last year alone.
We also believe that there are redundancies in administrative positions that can be consolidated as well to save costs. For example, we have not been able to find another college system in the country that has both a chancellor’s office and a separate executive team on each campus for a system with only 12,000 students.
For decades, the Vermont State Colleges System has survived by attempting to cut its way out of each crisis by focusing on eliminating staff and faculty positions. Those staff positions are responsible for the health and safety of our campus community; the professional staff positions provide critical student support; the faculty are responsible for the teaching and advising of students.
When these positions are cut, it impacts the educational and student life experience for our students, and it makes it more difficult for the colleges to serve their mission for the public good.
It is time we focus on consolidating upper-level administrative positions to save money, rather than student-facing positions, which have already been cut to the bone. It is the faculty and staff who create the programs and experiences that cause students to choose the Vermont State Colleges institutions in the first place, and then stay to graduate and find a welcome home in Vermont.
We need to improve access and affordability for all Vermonters, whether they are traditional college-age students, those who have lost jobs to Covid, or those preparing for second or third careers. We need to reach them at home, at campus locations close to home, at traditional residential campuses, and at specialized facilities.
And we need to invest in teaching and learning, as well as providing financial, mental health and family support systems in the post-Covid reality. We need to build better bridges to Vermont employers to ensure that our students learn on the job in internships and externships in addition to academics.
What we don’t need is to rebrand again, or to create new administrative systems. Real change isn’t about websites, signage, letterhead and logos. It’s about education and students.
It is possible to unify into one system while maintaining the individual names and identities of each institution in the system. If unification is the path forward, the focus should be on providing better learning opportunities for students across campuses. We should be working to capitalize on the unique identities and strengths of each campus and making that available to all students, rather than trying to create some new homogenized entity.
We are looking forward to a busy summer of work focused on unifying and improving many aspects of education and student services to create more affordable and accessible education for Vermonters. In the spirit of transparency, and with the goals of spending our funding wisely and improving our public higher education system for the benefit of our students and our state, we all need to have a seat at the decision-making table.