Board of trustees to vote on Johnson-Lyndon unification proposal


Sam Hartley

VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding addresses JSC students at a unification Q&A session on August 30, 2017

On Sept. 29, the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) board of trustees will vote on a proposal to merge Johnson State and Lyndon State into a single, unified college.
The potential merger is being described as a “unification” by the VSC board, the chancellor, and the presidents of both colleges to distinguish the move from corporate mergers, which are often one-sided takeovers of one entity by another.
“We’re trying to emphasize that nobody is a winner or loser. We’re not merging one into another. We’re something bigger and stronger,” said Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the VSC, at an Aug. 30 Q&A session with the staff of JSC.
The decision, which Spaulding says will “probably pass,” would mark a new chapter in the history of the VSC, but especially of Johnson and Lyndon State. Both institutions have histories that stretch back over a century. Both became teachers colleges in the early 20th century before becoming part of the VSC system in 1962 and 1961, respectively.
The national trend of decreasing support for public higher education is present and, in fact, especially acute here in the Green Mountain State.
According to a report prepared by the VSC, since 1980 the Vermont state legislature has continuously lowered monetary support for the VSC as a whole. Whereas in 1980 state funding covered 49 percent of VSC revenue, by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent. Consequently, the colleges of the VSC began to rely more and more heavily on student tuition. In 2014, student tuition and fees accounted for 82 percent of the VSC’s total revenue stream.
Declining numbers of college-bound traditional students in the New England region — and Johnson and Lyndon’s respective $1.91 million and $1.18 million projected budget deficits for the 2017 fiscal year — have forced the VSC into action.
“Moody’s [one of the three big credit rating agencies] has predicted that the number of small college and university closures in the coming years will triple and the number of mergers is going to double,” said Spaulding.
“We know that the kinds of colleges and universities that are especially vulnerable are the small tuition-dependent colleges and universities,” he continued. “That’s us. We want to make sure that we are not going to be left with no alternative at the end and say, ‘Uh oh, we should have done something when we had a chance.’ What we want to do is make sure we’re being proactive.”
Last year, the word from the chancellor’s office was that Johnson and Lyndon were to be joined in a “strategic alliance,” which would have been more of an intermediary step toward an eventual merger. Unfortunately for the VSC, the higher-education accrediting body for New England (NEASC) was having none of that.
“The question, related to the standards of NEASC, is that if you do a strategic alliance with one person leading two separate institutions, it violates one of the standards specifically,” said Elaine Collins, president of JSC. “It violates a standard that says that each entity, each college, has to have a CEO of that college.”
Spaulding explained why the board had originally favored the strategic alliance option: “One of the reasons the strategic alliance option was attractive was that you avoided — at least temporarily — some of the questions about new names and what a total unification-slash-merger would be, and that sounded attractive.”
According to the chancellor, the merger would not mean the end of Johnson and Lyndon’s distinct campus cultures. A name change would almost certainly occur, but the new names would still reflect the individual campuses. “Vermont State College – Johnson” or “Vermont State College – Lyndon” has often been tentatively suggested by Spaulding to give an idea of what the board has in mind.
The new dual-campus college would also have a single combined budget, a single accreditation, one president — President Collins — and a consolidated administration. Collins would receive an unspecified salary increase along with the increased responsibility of presiding over two campuses.
One thing that is essentially guaranteed to remain completely separate between the two campuses is athletics. The favored “St. Joseph’s College” model for the potential merger was specifically suggested by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) because that model was compliant with their standards. Under this model, each campus would be required to have separate athletics budgets and maintain separate teams and mascots. Students who are enrolled at the Johnson campus would not be allowed to compete for a team based at the Lyndon campus and vice versa.
Johnson’s recently acquired Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) recognition would not be threatened by the merger, according to President Collins. “I’ve spoken with the head of COPLAC, specifically,” said Collins. “Once I knew [unification] was coming, I told him what the plan was and I asked him if it had any potential impact on our status. He assured me that it would not and that I could make it work.”
Despite the positive language used by the chancellor and the presidents of JSC and LSC to describe the potential merger, many concerns were voiced at the staff and student Q&As at JSC.
Sandra Duffy, director of payroll and benefits, asked why some consolidation efforts were already occurring prior to the Sept. 29 vote.
Consolidation and unification, Spaulding said, “are not necessarily related. They have intersecting points because some efforts of consolidation may mean that they’re not necessary at a pair of colleges.”
“I know this is hard,” he continued. “I feel like I need to be upfront, because I don’t want people to say, ‘Hey, you didn’t say that.’ We are looking for how we can reduce administrative redundancies in back-office functions that should have no bearing on students so that we can put the money into the things that do matter to students, whether it is in student support services, extra-curricular or new programs. That’s going on at the same time.”
President Collins clarified this point at a later interview with Basement Medicine. “We are lean, especially Johnson,” said Collins. “Johnson is extraordinarily lean. In its business functions, we’re about average. In its full-time faculty, we are low. I’m very sensitive to those numbers. I don’t want us to get in a place where those numbers drop below the average. To consistently deliver high quality services, we need to ensure that we’re at least keeping up with our like institutions on that national average.”
The average that Collins refers to comes from a report used by the college to compare JSC to other small bachelor’s- and master’s-granting institutions around the country, based on their employee-to-FTE (full time enrolled equivalent student) ratios. While based on an older report from 2009, the data has recently been updated for 2016.
“I’m using those as benchmarks to help make my arguments that we can’t necessarily just cut and cut and cut,” said Collins.
“Even in a challenging kind of budgetary situation, my approach will be to look for grant opportunities, to look for revenue generating opportunities,” she continued. “Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that we just have to ensure that it’s enough to make both of these colleges sustainable.”
Margo Warden, director of first year experience, expressed her surprise at what was being said at the Q&A. “I’d say, in terms of Johnson — and Lyndon as well, probably — it’s such a small college that I don’t really believe we have back-office positions that [don’t impact students]. In accounts payable, there’s relationships and mentoring to our students across the offices. I just want to put it out there that, even though it might be back-offices, at Johnson it’s a family and it’s a community and I think people work hard to connect with students directly whenever they can.”
Another concern raised was the question whether students and staff would potentially be required to drive to either Lyndon or Montpelier.
“I don’t see a forced kind of situation,” PresidentCollins told Basement Medicine. “When I [first] came, I started a student advisory group. I learned that because of numbers sometimes students couldn’t even continue to stay on campus, that they were taking courses off campus in some cases. That disturbed me. I want students to have, if they want, a campus experience. That doesn’t mean sending them over here or over there. It means if you want a campus experience and you’re coming to a campus, like Lyndon or Johnson, to have that campus experience you should be able to get it.”
In a separate interview, Spaulding was insistent that this would not be forced on any employees. “I’ve heard some faculty members saying, ‘I don’t mind driving back and forth. I live in Hardwick so it’s easy for me to go.’ There’s others who say, ‘I live in Burlington. I don’t want to do it.’ I think those kinds of things will work themselves out over a number of years. We’re not going to come in and force that kind of change,” he said.
Yet, at the staff Q&A, his tone was markedly more blunt: “Do I think it’s asking too much for somebody to commute from Johnson to Montpelier to do a similar job? I don’t.”