Vermont State College Chancellor Jeb Spauding resigned his position Wednesday. Karen Scolforo, president of Castleton University, resigned Thursday. Northern Vermont University President Elaine Collins is a finalist for a job in her home state of Michigan. To call the exodus a challenge to the VSC system is like calling the Covid-19 pandemic a hiccup.

Broadly speaking, the state college’s educational system is close to being leaderless, if not in actuality, certainly in perception. Students are on the cusp of deciding where they will attend school next year. The perception of NVU being fiscally at risk is likely to reduce the number of students willing to attend, which could make Mr. Spaulding’s call to shut the Johnson and Lyndon campuses down a self-fulfilling prophecy. Keeping the two campuses open for the next academic year, but losing Ms. Scolforo, creates another set of challenges at Castleton, something that wasn’t considered before this week.

It would be difficult to choreograph a more stressful circumstance for the colleges.

That said, when things hit rock bottom, the upside is that the pretense has been stripped and things are seen for what they are. That’s when it’s easier to see the better path forward.

That’s where we are today. The way forward is not to replace what’s missing, the way forward is to change the way the state addresses its higher education responsibilities. Instead of having two higher education systems — the University of Vermont and the Vermont State Colleges — they should be collapsed into one.

The administrative function of the VSC system is an eight million dollar annual expense. Let’s figure out a way to combine the two and plug the lion’s share of the savings back into tuitions or whatever need is most pressing to our colleges and universities. Let’s figure out how the combination could improve educational outcomes and could be used to solidify the state’s reputation for education excellence preK-16.

This evolution would be anything but easy. A lot of upfront work would be required before the combination would be something UVM should even consider. It wouldn’t make sense for UVM to join forces and then be saddled with the same problems that are sinking the VSC system.

That’s why the state should consider hiring outside consultants that have the necessary pedigree to help the state chart the way forward. They need to be people who have the experience and the creativity to consider our goals, to understand our needs, and to be given the latitude to present a variety of choices. It would need to happen quickly. Next year’s academic calendar would need to be put in place within the next six to nine months, tops.

This isn’t something that can be accomplished by a blue-ribbon panel comprised of legislators, or anyone else whose interests are to protect what exists. It’s time to lift our eyes to see how best to encourage tomorrow’s students to take advantage of a first class education, at an affordable price, in a way that best benefits the state of Vermont.

That is a message that needs to get out now, before students judge the leadership exodus and decide to follow.

by Emerson Lynn

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