Eileen Dickinson, the recently elected chair of the Vermont State Colleges System’s Board of Trustees is leaving the board’s options wide open as she looks to steer the system toward a sustainable future.
The VSCS Board of Trustees elected Dickinson chair on Aug. 12, following the resignation of former board chair and longtime member Churchill Hindes. “Suffice it to say that my primary reasons for stepping down as chair are personal ones unrelated to the VSC or any of its institutions,” Hindes wrote in a recent email. “I have full faith and confidence in the VSC and its leadership at the system-level and at each of its colleges and universities.”
Dickinson takes leadership of the board in a historically uncertain time for the system.
The VSCS was already facing significant challenges before COVID-19. However, the disease’s arrival in March prompted a pivot to online instruction, and the refund of roughly $5 million in room and board fees made necessary by that pivot helped bring the system’s underlying financial issues to the surface in spectacular fashion.
For much of the public, the system’s financial woes sprang to light on April 17, when then VSCS Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed shuttering the campuses of Northern Vermont University and the Randolph Campus of Vermont Technical College in a bid to cut costs. This proposal came as the system projected a $7 to $10 million deficit for the fiscal year 2020.
Spaulding framed his proposal in dire terms for the VSCS as a whole. “The reason for making this recommendation is because the entire system is at risk, and without decisive action, or with inaction, we jeopardize all the pieces,” Spaulding told the trustees on April 20.
Even with his plan, Spaulding said the VSCS would be on the financial rocks within months if it did not receive significant financial assistance.
Spaulding’s plan was met with swift pushback. In the days immediately after the proposal, VTDigger reported that the governor and legislative leaders made statements against the plan as proposed and that the faculty at NVU issued a no-confidence vote and a letter calling Spaulding’s recommendations a “shortsighted massacre with lasting and irrevocable consequences.” And reaction did not end there, VTDigger also reported on public demonstrations, constituents sending trustees and lawmakers hundreds of irate emails and over 30,000 signatures piling up on a petition calling for the state to reinvest in the system.
Spaulding withdrew his plan four days after announcing it. Within two weeks, he had resigned. The Legislature, galvanized by the failed proposal, committed to providing stopgap funding to get the system through the fiscal year and started talking about providing further funding in fiscal year 2021.
But the challenges remained, both those caused by COVID-19 and the decades-long chronic underfunding that brought the system to the brink in the first place.
In late August of 2019, then-Chancellor Spaulding’s office produced a white paper outlining the challenges facing the system. Headlining this list were adverse demographic trends and chronically low state funding. According to the paper, the number of students graduating from high school had dropped by 25 percent over the previous 10 years, and record low birth rates were expected to continue this trend into the future. This decline, though not unique to Vermont, has a particular impact on the VSCS because roughly 80 percent of its students are in-state, the paper said. The second issue, according to the report, was chronic underfunding by the state. From 50 percent in 1980, revenues provided to the VSCS by the legislature sank to a low of 15 percent in 2015. The state has since upped its support to somewhere closer to 17 percent, which is still barely above half the average state support in New England. This low level of support, according to the paper, left Vermont ranked 49 in the nation for state funding per student in 2018. And, the report said, the dual problems of adverse demographics and low state funding led to a third compounding issue – high tuition and a regional inability to compete for students.
Against this backdrop, through the summer, the VSCS has been trying to procure $30 million in “bridge” funding from the legislature. Getting this money, Dickinson said in an interview on Aug. 31, is the system’s current over-arching priority. The money, she said, is meant to get the system through the end of this budget year, creating space for the VSCS to find a sustainable business model.
“Our first job is to set priorities,” Dickinson said of the board’s search for this new model. “We have to set priorities for the needs of the state, for the needs of our students and for the needs of our employment community.” From there, she said, “We have to create strategies from that that reflect our resources … and then we will have to come up with a plan that is sustainable.”
As for Dickinson’s vision of what that plan, “I have no idea what that plan will look like,” she said. Her role as board chair is to set the agenda, work with the chancellor, and “let the board members and the committees do their work,” she said. “I’m not going to make any decision all by myself. That is for sure.”
VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny has been quoted in multiple recent news articles as saying that if the bridge money does not come through, the system would have to take similarly dramatic steps as former Chancellor Spaulding proposed back in the spring. However, since the initial quotes came out, she has clarified her statement.
The Caledonian-Record reported on Aug. 29, that Zdatny said that her comments were in response to a specific line of questioning from legislators trying to make a point to their colleagues that the consequences of not passing bridge funding would be significant. As reported in The Record, Zdatny then stressed that the system is doing everything it can to avoid such an outcome.
Dickinson also left the door open for drastic measures, but similarly stressed that the board is not planning for such an adverse scenario. “We aren’t making any contingency plans until we set our priorities, [and] examine what the strategies are to achieve those with the resources we have. … We don’t have any set contingency plans anywhere. But, the fiscal reality is the fiscal reality, and at some point, it’s going to be fish or cut bait,” she said.
Dickinson said that leadership in the Legislature has committed to providing the one-time bridge funding, but that there has been no commitment to increased funding in future years. And, she said, it’s possible that even the current level of funding may not last. She said that being level-funded for this year was fortunate compared to other government agencies that had to take funding cuts due to the fallout from COVID-19.
The VSCS holds a key role in the state, Dickinson said. “I think it’s that really vital piece of our future. I mean, education’s been imbued in me since I was a child. It’s an investment in yourself, an investment in your state, an investment in your people. … Human capital is the thing we really want to work on and develop, and that is what the VSC schools do.”
Dickinson is a legislative delegate to the board of trustees and was vice-chair under Churchill Hindes. When Hindes resigned, nobody else wanted to take up the chair position, Dickinson said. “I thought this is crazy, we have to move on, we have things to do, and I said I would be willing to do it, and they all thanked me profusely,” she said.