President Collins to resign, interim chosen by VSCS Board of Trustees


Kayla Friedrich

Elaine Collins during her first year as president of then Johnson State College

On Monday, May 17, Northern Vermont University President Elaine Collins announced her resignation in an email addressed to students. Collins will officially step down in Mid-August, after which point, John Mills will take over as interim president.

“I am honored to have served as your president,” Collins said in her email announcement. “It has been a privilege to lead Northern Vermont University during your time as [students].”

Collins has led NVU since its inception, and she was president of Johnson State College for several years beforehand. She joined the University as president on July 1, 2015, and in total, she has held the title of president for six years.

“Obviously, this is sad news,” said Tyrone Shaw, who acts as NVU’s faculty assembly chair. “She’s been a leader of great courage, integrity, and vision – unfailingly candid and respectful with faculty, staff and students and fierce in her defense of this university and the liberal arts in a particularly difficult time.”

In email regarding her announcement, VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny praised Collins for “leading the unification of Johnson State College and Lyndon State College into Northern Vermont University,” adding, “we are grateful for her many years of service to the VSCS and NVU.”

Collins hosted a meeting over Zoom the day after her announcement to update students and answer questions. “What was really important to me when I came here was to be able to kind of see a project through,” she said, “and given the length of the next project, I won’t be able to do that with you.

“So, I made a personal choice, and it was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever made, but I decided to step down and create a space for somebody else to come in on an interim basis to get you to the point where a full president will be hired to lead the new… merged entity of NVU, Castleton, and VTC.”

Collins’ decision comes after a tumultuous year for NVU–fewer than twelve months prior, both of its campuses were under threat of being shut down due to the chronic underfunding of Vermont’s higher education.

“I feel like if we waited any longer… then it would look like I gave you two days’ notice, and then I left,” she said. According to Collins, this decision has been made for some time, but due to the chaos of remote education and the COVID-19 pandemic, announcements were repeatedly postponed.

The chancellor’s office also requested Collins hold the news for a time, as “they wanted to make sure that we were far along in the process, because Sophie really didn’t want any kind of misunderstandings.”

A trend at the end of many school years, Collins is one of several resignations from NVU as the system prepares for a massive transformation. Not wanting conclusions be drawn too quickly, she notes “there is nothing ominous that is looming out there, as some kind of horrible thing that’s going to happen.”

She elaborated, saying “this is a period of transition, and I have to say that I think that COVID also has played a role in that. I think that people have had time to really think about what’s important to them and what they want to be doing in the next chapter of their lives.”

In an email press release from the VSCS, Zdatny announced the Board of Trustee’s vote to appoint John W. Mills to the position of interim president pending system-wide unification. Mills will begin working for the University in mid-August following Collins’ departure.

According to the press release, “Mills served as president of Paul Smith’s College in New York for ten years and two years at Mount Aloysius College in Pennsylvania. He also served as Provost at both institutions.”

Dr. John Mills (Courtesy Paul Smith’s College)

Mills is studied in natural sciences, with a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Rhode Island and a Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University. The release also notes Mills’ time serving as faculty member across various Ivy League institutions. In addition to his work in the educational field, Mills has spent a deal of time in the private sector.

“With his strong background in economic development, community engagement, and his recognition of the imperative link higher education plays to advancing the economic wellbeing of individuals, we are confident Dr. Mills will be at home in his new role at NVU,” Zdatny said in the release.

Seeing as the VSCS will soon be merged into a single university, Mills’ primary responsibility will be ensuring NVU has a smooth transition into its new form. In her update to students, Collins said, “right now, [Mills is] operating as a consultant. So, he’s doing short term projects, and in that capacity, he’s very much interested in a transformative type of project like this.”

The period Mills was hired for, which sets his contract to expire in the summer of 2022, is open to renewal, although it likely won’t be needed due to the VSCS plans for consolidation, which include removing individual campus presidents.

“The goal is to bring a new President on board by next summer (2022), even though the new university is scheduled to be launched in the summer of 2023,” Zdatny said in an email to Basement Medicine. “Consequently, to retain maximum flexibility, John’s appointment runs through to June 30, 2022, with the possibility of renewal for an additional term.”

Zdatny said that the VSCS has an RFP (Request for Proposal) published, asking for an “executive search firm to work with the VSCS in conducting a national search to find and hire a President for the new combined entity.”

Zdatny also notes that “VSCS Presidents are typically reappointed annually for one- or two-year terms… so this approach is consistent with our practice.”

Collins made note that Mills would not be taking over the consolidated university, and that the president of the currently unnamed entity “will be chosen with [students] providing input as to the quantities that you think are important for that next person to have.”

In an email response to the VSCS release, Collins said, “Upon meeting John, I was impressed by his candor and down-to-earth demeanor. He has a wealth of experience in higher education and organizational change. Of great importance to me is that he has a natural affinity for NVU and the importance our campuses play as anchors in our communities in the northern tier of Vermont.”

During her update with students, she had further comments on Mills. She said she thought his experience with rural colleges would give him an edge working with NVU and noted his commitment to tight-knit communities and the health of the outdoors.

“I have been truly honored to lead JSC, LSC, and NVU over the past 6 years,” Collins said in an email to Basement Medicine. “One important take-away from my time here:  Always hire the best human resources you can find. Once hired, trust them to do their jobs well and stay out of their way.” 

Collins said she had “no specific plans moving forward,” but she’s “looking forward to picnics, walking the dogs, camping, playing music, and reconnecting with old friends.”

Collins–alongside the chancellor’s office–will be working with Mills over the summer to prepare him for his new workplace. NVU and the VSCS are in a complicated spot, so there’s a lot he’ll need to be caught up on.

Despite arriving in mid-August to meet students and attend convocation, Mills’ first visit to campus will be short-lived. With work to finish on his current consulting contract with another university, Mills will lack a physical presence on campus until Oct. 1 this year.

During this period, Collins said that NVU Provost Nolan Atkins will be stepping up as chief operating officer. While assisting Mills in transitioning into his presidency at NVU, Atkins will spend September in charge of physical campus spaces until Mills can be present.

“I recognize so many of the students on this call,” Collin’s said during her update, “and you’ve done amazing work, too, in terms of your support, in terms of how you’ve advocated for the student body, and I really feel like we pushed this institution ahead in many respects…

“I hope that… [as you] move into your next phase, that you will have those strong memories of what you were able to accomplish here and continue to fight with the same rigor and excitement.”