A chat with VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding


Kayla Friedrich

Jeb Spaulding

Given the financial challenges facing the VSC and the frustration previous chancellors have had with turning around the Legislature, why have you accepted this position?

Well, I accepted the job because I think that the state colleges are going to provide an opportunity for young people and adults, that they’re going to need to have a good career and a good life. Without the state colleges, people’s opportunities and options would be severely limited. I have to tell you, I don’t think that the Legislature is going to ride into town with a treasure chest of money. I mean, we’re going to have to do this with a focus on recruitment of more students. The biggest challenge that the state colleges have is the demographics. We have fewer graduates from high school than we used to. You hear that a lot about K-12 education, that there are fewer students and we have to restructure or resize ourselves appropriately, and that same dynamic applies to colleges as well. The graduating classes are smaller than they were, and they’re projected to continue to get even smaller. On the other hand, while Vermont has a very favorable high school graduation rate compared to other states, in terms of the percentage of high school graduates that continue on to post-secondary education, we leave a lot of room for improvement.

There are a lot of efforts that state colleges are making to do more outreach and make connections with people as early as middle school or high school. There are people in the early college program here at Johnson State, and the Duel Enrollment Program, and VSAC has an aspiration program going on with middle school and high school students and their families to try and help them to understand why post-secondary education is critical for their futures. So, I think that while you could look at the situation and say, “Gosh, the pool of high school graduates is shrinking,” actually there is a significant number of them who are not going on to post-secondary education. And that’s a travesty, and it’s dangerous for state policy, and so I think there are definitely opportunities there. The real issue is attracting more students and retaining more students, and I am confident that we can do better in both of those areas and that will provide a bright future for Johnson State College and the other colleges as well. I’m very excited about the opportunity to be a part of the state college team.

Do you think that your previous positions will help you when you try to move the Legislature?

In short, yes, I do. I think part of the reason that the board thought of me for this position is because I could be helpful. It’s a small state and I know an awful lot of people. I think that they thought that my relationships with those people is pretty good. Now, I’m not a partisan person and I work well with political people from all persuasions. I like working that way. I also think that the board also probably thought that I have some experience in leadership and making decisions that require good judgment, which would be an advantage for the state colleges. So, in my role, I don’t want to come tell college presidents what to do. I want to help them, support them, advise them, and we can make a sound decision together. I’m a collaborative type, so yes the political connections and experience are helpful. Most recently I’ve been [Governor Shumlin’s] secretary of administration, which is somewhat similar to being the chancellor. My responsibilities included putting together the budget, which required some hard work and good listening. When you have to make tough decisions, I’ve found that it’s not what you say that matters: it’s how you say it, and it’s not what you do that matters: it’s how you do it. I still have to make difficult decisions, but letting people know what went into those decisions and being upfront can make a big difference.

The subject of using tax revenues from marijuana sales came up when people were discussing sources of funding for the VSC, but what were some other suggestions?

There was a study committee and a portion of that study thought that we should legalize marijuana and dedicate the revenues to college affordability, but the majority of the committee did not agree. I think that the connection between legalizing marijuana and college would be counter-productive. It’s also not clear whether the Legislature is going to legalize marijuana, so that wouldn’t have solved anything in the short term.

My hope this year – and maybe this is some news – is that the state colleges and the University of Vermont and VSAC can agree on a unified “ask” of the Legislature this session and say that we didn’t get into the situation  we’re in – where we have rather paltry support from the state – overnight. It happened over a period of decades. We don’t expect it to get better overnight, but we cannot continue to level-fund our higher-education in Vermont year after year. We need to reverse the trend. Give us a modest 3 to 4 percent increase and we can show you how to raise that money. I think that I could show the Legislature how to raise that money without taking it away from other needs or putting us in a deficit situation. There are opportunities out there. I think if we just go in there and let them know we’re not asking for the moon, we’re just asking for stable increases like other parts of the government get, I’m optimistic that we could reverse the trends we’ve been having lately.

The evolution of your career – going from starting a radio station (WNCS) to joining politics – has been interesting. What was it that drew you to politics?

Well, I am a perfect example of how you never know what opportunities are going to come next. Most of the things I’ve done in my adult life are things I never imagined I would be involved with. I know a lot of people who can say that they’re taking a risk if a door opens and you walk through it, but I also think that you’re taking a risk by not walking through that door. When I had new opportunities I would think “I don’t know if I’m ready for this, but I’m going to try it anyway,” and it’s always worked out well for me. I would also say that’s worked out well for me on a personal level, too. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to get married and I’ve been married now almost forty years. I’ve always encouraged people to take every opportunity, because that’s what will open you up to the next one. If you don’t go through the first door, there won’t be a second door. In high school I was involved in radio, and then in University of Vermont radio and I knew that was what I wanted to do. I knew there was no FM radio station in Montpelier at the time, so my wife and I – as newlyweds – moved to Montpelier and applied for a frequency that wasn’t being used. Just a slight deviation to show you what a small state it is – we moved to Montpelier in 1976 to do the work with the station, and that year a young couple from Iowa moved to Montpelier. The husband’s name was Tim Donovan, and he eventually became the chancellor of the State Colleges. Tim and his wife, Mary, were our two first friends in Vermont. After that, though, my family always talked politics around the dinner table and they always believed that public service was important. My father died young – he was around sixty. I was about thirty-one and I started to think that if there were things I wanted to do with my life I shouldn’t wait around. Now, I’ve lived longer than my father and I feel good, but you never know what’s going to happen. Politics was just one of those things that came along. I didn’t know how long I was going to stay, but I stayed for a lot longer than I was expected. Now, this is a new opportunity. I really admire people who start their own businesses. My daughter runs her own business – it’s a brewery in Nashville, Tennessee. I recognize the courage it takes to do that, go out on your own and put your heart and soul and sometimes your entire savings into it.

What is the best thing anyone could say about you?

You know, this sounds kind of corny, but I hope that people would say that I’ve been a good parent. I love my kids. They’re grown and they’ve done very well for themselves. That’s the most important thing.

What do you do for fun?

I do a lot for fun. I believe in keeping balance in life. I work hard and I like to have a lot of fun too. My idea of fun is almost anything outside that requires exertion. I like to hike, ski, golf, bike. I like music – I don’t get to go out and enjoy music as much as I used to, but I like it. I like to work, too.
What was the last book that you read?

I’m in the middle of one right now. It’s not that exciting, it’s called College Unbound. It’s a book about what the future of college will look like and how students these days are accessing content through technology and how technology will fit in with residential colleges. It’s helping me think about where higher education is going. I want to help get the colleges on a financial stable footing because if they’re not, they won’t be there for the students, and it’s all about the students. We need to get the colleges stable financially so they can be here for the students now, but also for the students 10 or 15 years from now. The big question is what colleges are going to look like 10 or 15 years down the road. There are changes that are taking place because we’re trying to figure out what the role is of advanced technology in the future of higher education. Guessing too much on the cutting edge there would be dangerous, but also changing nothing would be dangerous. On a more recreational level I’m reading a book about an expedition in the Soviet Union that got lost out in a mountain. I’m still in the middle of that one, though, so I don’t know what happens to them.

What is your favorite Ben and Jerry’s flavor?

Oh, there’s no question in my mind. I’m a big fan of the Grateful Dead, but that’s not the only reason I like it. I love Cherry Garcia. I’m all about cherries and chocolate.

How has it been for you to jump in to the tail end of a presidential search?

It’s really exciting! First of all, to spend a lot of time this week on the campus has been great, and now I can see the energy on campus from the students, and the enthusiasm from the faculty. We have four outstanding semifinalists. The next president of Johnson State College – whoever it ends up being – will be worthy of carrying on Barbara Murphy’s legacy. I’m very excited to have such strong candidates. We have people of such caliber who want to come here. President Murphy was part of the state college system, but now we have people coming from quite a distance away who want to be part of the system. I’m confident about the candidates and I know that once we make a final decision everyone will be very excited. I’m feeling positive about how well-crafted and open a search can be. No matter what happens we’ll be in good hands.