My not-so-funny Valentine


Gunter Kleist

Students gather with placards before VTSU President Parwinder Grewal’s Valentine’s Day visit

By all accounts, it was strange and not-so-funny Valetine, when on Feb. 14, university president Parwinder Grewal, along with several of his cabinet members, arrived on the NVU-Johnson campus for a meeting to discuss the widespread concerns following the decision to drastically change the libraries and athletic programs on campuses across the VTSU.

About an hour before the meeting was set to begin in Bentley 207, students began gathering on the quad for a protest that continued even as the meeting was happening. Students arrived with signs proclaiming messages such as “hands off my education,” Johnson Badgers came to play,” and “we need books.”

As students continued to gather, they grouped together on the concrete steps outside of the library, and began a series of chants and call-and-response messages, growing louder both as more students joined in and as the clock ticked closer and closer to 11:30.

Grewal, who spent the morning preparing for the meeting in his Martinetti office, walked steadily up the path along Dewey’s edge to the Bentley building a few minutes before the meeting was set to begin and, upon arriving in front of the building, stood silently for a few moments, simply watching the students chanting before him. Eventually, he stepped forward and, in response to cries and chants of “hear our voices” and similar sentiments, told the students “Okay, I hear you. Can we have a conversation now?” When the students continued to chant, he turned away and walked into Bentley so that the meeting could begin.

Students began to file into the building, quickly filling the seats in the lecture hall. President Grewal and the attending members of his cabinet were already seated in a row at the front of the room, a screen behind them displaying the many individuals joining via Zoom. After introducing himself and those joining him, Grewal began by briefly explaining what the changes regarding athletics and libraries would entail, and students were quickly confused due to some of the information seeming to be much different than that which had previously been shared.

When Grewal stated that only certain books were to be removed from the libraries, those which had not been used in over twenty years, for example, one student was quick to point out the discrepancies between his statements and the information shared in the Feb. 7 email.

“Is what you just said an updated version of the proposal?” they asked, “because the students were told that the library space would no longer function as a library, period.” After sharing a few more details concerning the libraries’ changes in the email, the student said,“What you’re proposing now is something completely different.”

In response, Grewal said that the initial email stated in the frequently asked questions section that not all books in the various libraries would be done away with. This caused a brief uproar before one student asked that the cabinet share exactly what the initial email said in that regard. When Grewal again tried to paraphrase, the student requested a direct quote, as they did not remember reading such a thing in the email.

After a few moments of fumbling while several cabinet members tried to find the email, the student eventually found it themself, walked to the front of the room, and read the quote: “What will happen to the existing campus libraries? Will they close? No, these spaces will not close. We understand the important role libraries play in the fabric of Vermont life, as well as within our campus communities. We want to re-imagine the use of the library spaces to provide resources such as community commons, enhanced study spaces, student services, and access to other innovations and tools. We will engage with our campuses and larger communities to re-imagine the spaces.

“As of July 1, 2023, these spaces will no longer provide services including circulation and physical materials (these materials will be available digitally). Interlibrary loans will still exist, but with a shift to e-books and digital articles and other materials. We plan to launch a request-for-proposal process to engage architectural resources for this purpose. In the short term, we will make some changes to these spaces in the lead up to the Fall 2023 semester.”

After one student brought up concerns about the Student Advisory Board being presented as a rather major component in making the decisions surrounding libraries and athletics when it is only made up of four students, Grewal acknowledged he did not know much about the student panel and was not aware that only four students were on it.

Throughout the student meeting, there were a number of outbursts from the student body when a cabinet member said something that either contradicted a previous statement, seemed to disregard student concerns, or avoided a question altogether. These outbursts also came about when a student made a particularly impressive and/or moving statement, and these outbursts involved shouting, clapping and/or snapping, and a number of students simply walking out of the building.
One such moment occurred when Eli Harden, the captain of the men’s volleyball team – one of the teams scheduled to be cut in the midst of the proposed athletic changes, shared impressive statistics about his team and a proposed solution which would allow them to keep playing. “We have a monopoly to Vermont high school boys’ volleyball […] Not only that, but we currently have a five-and-one record and we’re currently number one in the nation,” Harden said. The solution proposed by the men’s volleyball team involved a potential dual-affiliation with the NAIA, something that, according to the USCAA website, USCAA affiliated schools have the ability to do. While there is an entrance fee for the NAIA, the team captain pointed out that their eighteen-man roster would be able to cover those costs. In response, VTSU Director of Athletics Deanna Tyson said that while the NAIA might be the answer for the Johnson men’s volleyball team, she didn’t know for sure that it would be, and stated that she had a year and a half to figure it out.

There were, additionally, bouquets of flowers that were handed out to students which were later separated so that students could further distribute them amongst themselves. The intention on this Valentine’s Day was for these flowers to be laid down at the president’s feet after each student finished speaking.

This was initially met with looks of confusion from the cabinet, but as the flowers began to pile up, those looks gradually became those of resignation.

For students, the most frustrating part of the meeting was that, though Grewal and the rest of the cabinet claimed to be hearing students, they seemed to have no intentions to change their plans based upon what students said, and even stated outright that the library and athletic changes will be happening regardless of what students say, do, or ask.

By the end of the meeting, many students were still lined up, waiting for a chance to speak that they never got.
Instead, they joined those who either had spoken or did not line up to speak as nearly everybody filed out of the room, out of the building, and into the quad, silent and disheartened.

About half an hour after the student meeting ended, the faculty meeting began. The setup was nearly identical to that of the student meeting, with Grewal introducing himself and those joining him and Graham asking those who spoke to come to the bottom of the steps in order for the microphones to pick up their voices.

The first to speak was Dr. Jean-Paul Orgeron, Johnson’s new research librarian. “I’m profoundly disappointed by the recent news both in terms of the physical library collections as well as the impact on student athletics […] The messaging being used to describe the digital library ignores significant realities concerning copyright and database licensing. For the sake of sound bite messaging, phrases like unlimited access for example, we sacrifice deep understanding and subtlety and that is a real shame. […] Higher education is itself an empty phrase in the absence of deep understanding and subtlety. We stand to lose, well, everything when we employ surface level characterizations of systems that are by definition complex,” said Orgeron.

Throughout the meeting, a number of faculty members expressed their deep concern over the changes for everybody involved, but made a point convey their support for the students in particular. Many of the concerns raised by faculty and staff members reflected this support either because those speaking directly stated that they spoke to students and were sharing questions and concerns that they had heard or simply because their questions and statements matched those shared in the student meeting.

For example, a major concern in both meetings was that despite claims that campus members – especially students – were consulted when making these decisions, the reality seems to be quite the opposite. Beth Walsh, who runs the Career and Internship Center on the Johnson campus, said that she attended a Board of Trustees finance and facilities meeting on Feb. 13 and, at this meeting, shared her “extreme disappointment and disgust at the VSC, our chancellor, our VTSU president, and the VSC Board of Trustees.” She stated that the “closed door decisions to make disastrous changes to the way we operate our libraries and the way we value our student athletes” is essentially moving the college backward to a time when then chancellor Jeff Spalding suggested closing a number of VTSU campuses. Furthermore, she made several arguments against the data collected in order to make these decisions, even using actual data from the surveys to prove why the results of those surveys should not be a basis for these changes.

“The so-called student survey that was conducted while students were in the midst of completing their fall semester that included at as much as 30% of respondents coming from CCV, and with questions designed to get the data that decision makers were looking for is bad data at the best and inauthentic and manipulative data at the worst. […] Once again you’re creating a situation that those of us dedicated to the success of the VTSU, our communities, and our students will be trying to recover from for years – if we ever can,” said Walsh.

Other concerns that were brought up included a lack of representation within the cabinet, especially regarding certain campuses – like Johnson – not having representatives on various panels, boards, and committees that have a hand in making decisions such as those concerning the libraries and athletic programs across the VTSU. There were additional concerns about these changes having disproportionate effects on students of color and neurodivergent students.

In regards to the latter, Michele Feiner, director of Academic Support and TRiO, brought up the risks that these changes will have on the TRiO program. She stated that the Johnson TRiO grant is for half a million dollars but requires that the program supports 235 students with that grant. Feiner stated that 5-8% of those 235 students are made up of student athletes, and that there is no guarantee that the USCAA athletic program will bring in enough students to maintain the TRiO program’s funding.

Much like the student meeting, the faculty meeting did not result in campus members finding answers to their questions or feeling as though their concerns were truly being considered. Even seemingly simple requests, such as the faculty and staff receiving information prior to the student body so that they could, in future, be better able to answer student questions – rather than be just as surprised and confused – were not met with solid answers.