Unification: a Lyndon perspective


Sam Hartley

Lyndon State College Interim President Nolan Atkins

Despite the fact that Lyndon State College is only slightly more than an hour away by car, Johnson students are more or less unaware about what goes on at the Lyndon campus or how they feel at Lyndon about the big changes that will soon impact both of the colleges. Now that the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees has officially resolved to merge Lyndon and Johnson into one unified institution, the success of the unification process will, in large part, hinge on how well the students of the two colleges can develop ties with one another.

Seeing an opportunity to gauge sentiments at Lyndon, Basement Medicine recently attended the “community conversations about unification” hosted at the college on Oct. 21.

“The overall reaction to unification is mixed,” said Nolan Atkins, Lyndon’s interim president. “A lot of folks, a lot of alums in particular, they feel a sense of loss. In some sense, I do as well. On the other hand, looking forward, there’s a lot of opportunity. That’s what we need to be focused on here. We need to be focused on what is possible. This campus will always be Lyndon. The Johnson campus will always be Johnson.”

If alums feel a sense of loss, then students feel a sense of uncertainty, according to Taylor West, a Lyndon student.

“I feel like a lot of Lyndon students are nervous about the unification process,” said West. “The general consensus that I’ve heard is that people are unsure about what it means for our school. Some people are happy about it, some people are on edge about it. It really depends. A lot of people think we don’t have enough answers to the questions that matter to them.”

One month ago, at the final public discussion about unification before the board’s final vote on Sept. 29, several Lyndon faculty members expressed strong concerns about Lyndon’s voice not being heard in the unification process. West, on the other hand, felt that Lyndon students’ voices generally have been heard by the administration.

“The key is getting people to actually come to the meetings,” she said.

The three Lyndon community conversation sessions were sparsely attended by faculty, staff and students alike. However, the students that did attend, like Alex DeWitt, were engaged, opinionated, and had many ideas to share.

“It’s anywhere from interesting to almost necessary to have a group of students spend some significant time at Johnson that are from Lyndon and then vice versa,” said DeWitt. “And not for a day. We should find a way to have five or ten students spend a week at each of the campuses and get to know the places so that we can really say, ‘this is what we’re missing here at Lyndon, and this is what we can offer to Johnson.’ And vice versa.”

DeWitt said he believes unification could turn into success or failure, depending on how effectively the two colleges use their given resources.

“My opinion is that if unification is handled properly, this could be a great opportunity for all involved. I also believe that if we don’t utilize every possible opportunity this creates, if we don’t utilize our time and our resources in the most efficient way possible, this will not succeed,” he said.

West’s concerns about unification were mostly centered around how the transition period will be funded. She thinks the VSC leadership is overly optimistic about the likelihood of securing grants from the Vermont legislature.

“In other states they’ve been able to get grants from the state to help pay for this transitional period. Statistically, if you look back, Vermont has not been very good at funding higher education. While, yes, it has worked in other states and they’ve gotten these grants, I’m concerned that they may not be able to secure the funding that they need through the state to make these changes and that that money will fall back on each of our colleges,” she said.

Theresa Conant first attended Lyndon back in the 1960s, returned to finish her education in the 1980s, and is currently on staff as a laboratory technician. She hopes that unification will be carried out more effectively than the protracted efforts at consolidating what the VSC administration calls “back-office functions.”

“I feel like the colleges have missed opportunities in the past,” she said. “We’ve been talking about consolidating back-office functions ever since I’ve been here and I’ve been here 23 years. It’s always been put on the back-burner. It’s brought out, everybody gets scared, then it goes on the back-burner again instead of constructively making changes over the years as the opportunities arose so that nobody felt like they were threatened. I wish that that would happen with this process.

“It’s taken us a hundred years for each institution to grow up and develop those identities and those connections and interconnections,” she continued. “The interconnections have grown because of the things we’ve done, whether it’s joining IT to two campuses so that they can collaborate or some of our people moving to the chancellor’s office. I don’t want to lose that. I would love to expand that. I would love to feel like I could pick up the phone and know that there are people at Johnson that I can [connect] with.”

Brandon Stroup, an assistant professor in Lyndon’s criminal justice department, voiced his concerns about a potential disconnect between actual future course offerings and the promise of increased academic opportunities for students.

“The only way to expand the options for students is to allow there to be differences at the colleges,” he said. “Limiting the curriculum to one unified curriculum, one unified general education program, is not expanding opportunities. That’s very Orwellian in that we do this and we limit opportunities, but then we tell students that we’re expanding their opportunities. You can’t force people to have one curriculum. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Jonathan Davis, Lyndon’s dean of students, wanted the administration’s focus to be on ensuring that Lyndon students who don’t want to physically travel to Johnson can take advantage of Johnson’s programs: “It’s wonderful that our students would have so many more departments to choose from, but if they made the decision to be at Lyndon, if this is where they find a sense of place and home, how can they take advantage of a different program at Johnson?”

“I really feel like this will be more of a unified leadership than a unified campus if we don’t provide the students with expanded opportunities to get a degree more quickly, more efficiently and perhaps not leave here with so much debt,” Davis said.

Dana Mitchell is Lyndon’s student representative on the Unification Advisory Committee, the body tasked with collecting information and advising the VSC, Johnson and Lyndon administrations about unification. She said she felt glad that Lyndon is unifying with a college of similar size: “We’re a small campus. Having another small campus to join along with us — it’s not like we’re going to the Boston suburbs to join a 30,000 population school. It’s just Lyndon and Johnson. It’s not like either of us have an overwhelming presence. I don’t really think that that part of it is going to be a big deal once we really get into the nitty-gritty stuff.”

As for the name of the new institution, everyone had a different opinion.

West wanted to emphasize the new institution’s sense of place: “I’d like to see it as ‘Northern Vermont University,’ or something like that. Or ‘Northern Vermont College.’ I think the important part of the name is that we are in northern Vermont. We’re not just a Vermont State College, because there are other Vermont State Colleges in the system.”

Dewitt focused on maintaining a differentiation between the campuses. “I major in graphic design and my particular area of focus is branding and identity,” DeWitt said. “It has been a very puzzling thing to me as for the name. Ideally, if I was in charge of it, it would be something along the lines of: ‘Vermont State Schools: Lyndon.’ Have Lyndon be secondary, with the Vermont State Schools being the primary entity. Not too dissimilar to what we have, but making it more obvious.”

Mitchell passed along the current ideas floating around in the Unification Advisory Committee: “I think most of us in the UAC are pretty universal when it comes to saying ‘Northern’ is probably going to be in the name. I also think most of us are in favor of ‘University’ over ‘College,’ but I’m not 100 percent sure about that.”

In the end, what President Atkins took away from the day’s community conversations was that the two campuses need to work on connecting with one another.
“The loud and clear message from our meetings this morning is that the two campuses need to get together and get to know each other,” he said. “You can’t really answer a lot of these questions unless you know the other institution, the people, the facilities, the look, the feel, what’s important, what’s unique, what the two campuses identify with, etc. etc. It’s hard to come up with what the new identity should look like if you don’t know what is important to the other campus. I think that’s got to be our immediate focus, moving forward. As in, within the next few months.”