VTSU President Grewal resigns; interim president appointed


Mike Smith

In an April 24 email to the Vermont State University community, Interim President Mike Smith announced the shelving of controversial plans to reduce the university libraries’ book collections by up to 80 percent in persuit of a digital first policy.
Also announced was suspension for at least three years of plans to downgrade athletics at the Johnson and Randolph campuses.

Students, faculty and staff greeted both announcements with relief following a tumultuous week beginning with VTSU President Dr. Parwinder Grewal’s resignation “for personal reasons” on April 14.

This news, which came less than three months before the official launch of VTSU, followed two special meetings of the VSCS Board of Trustees, both of which were primarily held in executive session, meaning that the public was not able to observe.

In the first emergency meeting on Tuesday, April 11, the board went into executive session almost immediately, and when they emerged nearly two hours later many of them looked distraught, disheartened, and upset. Trustee David Silverman sighed deeply as he looked away from his computer.

The April 14 executive session lasted less than an hour before the board announced that Grewal had stepped down from his position as president of Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College, and as the inaugural president of Vermont State University.

Following this announcement, the trustees, along with other meeting participants such as Chancellor Sophie Zdatny, thanked Grewal for all that he had done for the university. “I just want to say that as the chair of the Board of Trustees, I would like to thank Dr. Grewal for all his hard work and support of the colleges, the system, its faculty, students, its staff and its communities,” said Lynn Dickinson, “And we wish him all of the best in his future endeavors. We appreciate his spending the time with us and working so hard.”

The board also announced that a replacement for Grewal had been selected. Mike Smith will serve as interim president for VTSU for up to six months as the board searches for a permanent replacement.

Parwinder Grewal (Courtesy Parwinder Grewal)

“Within the last week, Vermont State University reached out to me to see if I would have any interest (in the position). And I said I would,” said Smith in a Basement Medicine interview. “I was interested because when I started to look into it I read a lot […] and I was really impressed with the incredible work that has been done by the board, the chancellor’s office, the leadership at Vermont State University, the faculty and staff, the students to put this plan into action, the transformation plan to the university and the support that it’s received from the communities and the Legislature and the governor and his team, I was really impressed with it because to me, this is a national model on how to tackle rural education.”

Smith served as Secretary of Human Services for the State of Vermont from January 2005 to January 2006 and again from October 2019 to January 2022 before retiring. He also sits on the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) Board and served briefly as the interim president of Burlington College in 2015, shortly before the institution shut down for good.

Along with Burlington College, Smith has served in interim positions with a number of other organizations, which has earned him the title “interim fixer-in-chief.”

Smith himself said that it’s “not unusual” for people to ask him to take on interim roles such as the one he has just accepted.
The April 14 release stated that Smith “will initially focus on implementing transformation plans and meeting with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and communities with an eye towards ensuring the successful launch of Vermont State University in just a few short months.”

Also announced was a pause to the plans to drastically reduce collections in all VTSU libraries as part of a digital first initiative and downgrade some athletics programs across the campuses would be put on hold during this transitional period.

“The Board has asked me to pause those proposals and come back to them with recommendations. I intend to do that as quickly as possible,” said Smith.

True to his word, he scuttled those proposals on April 24, viewing them as major distractions to the larger work of transformation.“My goal is to keep the university focused on that mission of the transformation and complete the implementation according to the plan and not get distracted by other events,” said Smith. “So I see my job as being supportive, not disruptive.”

Katherine Levasseur, Director of External and Governmental Affairs for the chancellor’s office, outlined what the chancellor is looking to to provide. “What the board and the chancellor are looking for is the development of a comprehensive set of recommendations about the continued transformation work,” said Levasseur. “The entirety of the project is being done in partnership and across the system. […] We’re all moving forward to a successful launch at Vermont State University and we are all moving forward with a successful and continued transformation.”

Despite his resignation coming less than a year after his appointment, Grewal played a role in making a number of changes in the VTSU, including several appointments to high-level positions. According to Levasseur, those appointments will remain in place. “There have been no other personnel changes,” she said.

Still, Smith’s only experience in higher education is his seat on the VSAC Board and his brief role as interim president for Burlington College, which has left some members of the VTSU community feeling skeptical about Smith’s appointment. “I don’t understand why the board selected an interim president with so little experience in higher education,” said Hattie Ebling, a senior at the Johnson campus majoring in Performance Arts and Technology with a dance concentration.

The board and chancellor feel confident in their decision to appoint Smith as interim president of VTSU, however, despite his relatively little experience in higher education. “There’s a lot of excitement on the board for (Smith) to take on this role,” said Levasseur. “And I also know that he’s really excited to do this work. He has a really long history of service to Vermont and (of playing) a lot of really key roles in various projects and a lot of different leadership capacities, whether it’s been in state government or the private sector with nonprofits. And he’s bringing his passion for Vermont and that experience to the role of interim president.”

Levasseur also noted that Smith seems like a good fit for the role. “He’s really closely connected to a lot of our communities,” she said. “He served as an interim town manager – I believe it was in Hardwick, not too far from two of our campuses. […] Like the board, he’s focused on launching Vermont State University and he’s focused on moving transformation forward.”

The search for a new president of the VTSU has not yet been launched, though Nolan Atkins, vice president of academic affairs and provost of Vermont State University edicts that the search will be conducted in much the same way as when Grewal was selected for the position. “(During the prior search) they created a position description for the presidency,” said Atkins. “They worked with a search firm to help with creating a list or a candidate pool of individuals who were interested (in the position). They formed a search committee that included all constituency groups within the institution and they executed the search by doing a first round of preliminary candidate review and identifying a list of individuals they would like to meet with for an interview. The interviews were done through Zoom and maybe they would do that again. Then they identified a short list of folks to bring on campus to meet and continue to interview. Then they would sort of identify somebody to make an offer with and negotiate the offer. I would expect a similar process to be put in place again for the next president beyond the interim.”