For unification, knowledge is power


Sam Hartley

Kate Abdel-Fatah

It’s one thing to propose a unification between the Johnson and Lyndon State Colleges as an abstract possibility. It’s quite another to actually make it a reality. For that to happen, it’s necessary to gather and compile loads of information from all the stakeholders that make the two colleges function: the faculty, the staff and, of course, the students. That is the charge of the Unification Advisory Committee (UAC).
The UAC was formed on Aug. 12, 2016 and is comprised of 12 members. Chaired by Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s predecessor, Tim Donovan, the committee also includes Vice Chancellor Yasmine Ziesler, five members from JSC and five from LSC. Each membership team from the college campuses is made up of allotments from the campus stakeholder groups: two faculty, two staff and one student.
JSC’s representatives on the committee are Lisa Cline of the humanities department and Julie Theoret of the mathematics department for the faculty, Registrar Doug Eastman and Controller Toby Stewart for the staff and SGA Vice President Kate Abdel-Fatah for the students.
For LSC, the representatives are Bill Morrison of the business department and David Johnston of the humanities department for the faculty, Terry Dwyer of vehicle repair/grounds maintenance and Sylvia Plumb of communications and marketing for the staff and Resident Assistant Dana Mitchell for the students.
The purpose of the UAC is simple, but of vital importance if the unification of the two colleges is to be a success. “Our mandate is to talk to as many people on campus as we can and gather opinions,” said Cline.
Cline has been at JSC for just shy of 10 years and teaches courses in the history program. She describes how the task of the UAC is likely to change if the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees’ votes in favor of the proposed merger on Sept. 29: “Before the vote, our mandate is just gathering information about what will need to be addressed. What are the programmatic concerns? What are the administrative concerns? I don’t have any idea what the anthropology unification needs to attend to, but the anthropologists do.
“Then how that will happen and in what order, that’s for after the vote,” she continued. “If the vote doesn’t go through, then we never have to figure out how it’s going to happen. If they don’t vote for it, then we don’t need to worry about that stuff.”
But how likely does she think it will be that the board will vote for unification? “99.99 percent. I haven’t heard anything that would suggest that it’s not going to be approved,” she said.
Cline feels that unification is a both necessary and positive step for JSC. “If you pay attention to academic literature and journalism on higher-ed, it’s really clear that the demographics in New England are terrible for colleges and that there’s a lot of competition from online programs from elsewhere in the country. I don’t believe that we will survive as an institution 60 or 50 years from now unless we are able to adapt in some pretty dramatic way,” she said.
Theoret, a mathematics professor and the other JSC faculty member on the committee, feels similarly that unification is a necessary move for the college. “In an ideal world, if we were getting enough funding from the state of Vermont, this wouldn’t be necessary and I wouldn’t want to do it. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world,” she said.
“Vermont state statutes actually say that the state will support the Vermont State Colleges in ‘whole or substantial part,’” she continued. “Ten to 15 percent is neither of those things. Given our current situation, I think it’s going to be really difficult for Lyndon and Johnson to move forward if nothing changes. I feel like something has to be done. Something big, something bold. Maybe this is it, maybe it isn’t. But I’m coming at it like, ‘we’re going to give this a shot.’”
Though she has worked at Johnson since 2008, Theoret previously worked at Lyndon as well, making her an ideal member for the UAC. “I’ve worked at both institutions. Lyndon and Johnson have a lot of strengths in different areas. Lyndon has a lot of really good professional programs. Atmospheric sciences, music business industry, etc. Johnson has a lot of really good arts and sciences programs. We have that core foundation. Our big thing is that we just got Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges recognition and we’re really about being that public liberal arts place. Lyndon has the professional programs with a strong foundation in the liberal arts underneath. So we sort of are complementary in that way,” she said.
Eastman has worked on the JSC staff for 18 years and has served as the registrar for the past 10. “To slim down the job description, the registrar is basically oversight of all academic records at the college. As most everything at the college has to do with a student and a student’s record, we’re involved in just about every aspect of the institution in some way,” he said.
While nothing is certain at this point, Eastman seems to have a well-developed idea of one task of the committee if unification is approved. “One role of the UAC after the vote could be looking at the hundreds of decisions that need to be made,” he said. “Looking at each one of those and identifying what’s upstream from that decision and what’s downstream from that decision. We would determine who the affected stakeholders are and how we get them in a room to coordinate that discussion.”
Having conducted a number of meetings and interviews with staff so far, Eastman said that stress levels among that group are high: “I can tell you that from the interviews that I’ve had with departments, I think there’s a pretty high level of anxiety from the staff about what it means for them. I think that comes from not having a clear line of where the targeted consolidation of administration ends.”
“The fundamental issue is that people are anxious because they don’t know what to be thinking about,” he continued. “That is rooted in the fact that we’ve not had a formal, tangible plan to look at. I think the community meetings have been helpful with Chancellor Spaulding, President Collins and Interim President Atkins at Lyndon, but they haven’t been specific. People are asking, ‘What’s the plan?’”
Stewart, who, as controller for JSC, is primarily responsible for accounting and budgeting, has heard that same concern in his talks with the staff, but thinks it is too early for the kind of details that people are asking for.
“Even though we would all love a plan right now that shows us everything, I think it would be a little premature to go too deep with that plan,” said Stewart. “That’s my perspective on the whole thing. It’s like if you’re the general manager of a football team and you’re going to hire a head coach, you’re not going to give him the playbook. You’re going to give him the vision for the team and whatnot and then the head coach is going to come up with a playbook in conjunction with the general manager.”
He continued, “I think that question probably comes from the fact that we’ve all heard Jeb’s vision, and he’s been very clear with that. He’s been very consistent and the points have been the same each time. I think we’ve heard that enough that we’re now searching for that next level. I mean, I’m searching for it too.”
As representative for JSC’s students on the UAC, Abdel-Fatah says that students are expressing concern also. “Students are most concerned about the identity of the campuses and losing faculty and staff. I think one big thing that people don’t realize is that students interact with everybody on this campus. Not just faculty, not just financial aid. Everyone here. If you have a problem, you go and talk to them. I think that we’re scared because that might be considered a ‘back-room’ kind of job, but they still matter and we still want them as a part of this campus because that’s what makes the identity of this campus. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Personally, Abdel-Fatah is hopeful that unification will work out — so long as it’s done correctly and with care.
“I think if it’s done right and with a lot of time and consideration it will benefit both schools,” she said. “Right now it’s a big change and a lot of people are scared of that. I get that because I’m scared too. There’s a lot of what-ifs, and I just hope when this is done it’s done in a respectful and meaningful way.”