Fifty-five faculty members at Castleton University are calling for the consolidation of the Vermont State Colleges system to be put on hold, saying the process is happening too quickly and risks damaging the schools.
In a letter sent Oct. 26 to Sophie Zdatny, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, faculty expressed concern that the speed of the three-college merger put academic programs at risk.
“We are greatly concerned that the haste with which the transformation process is proceeding, with decisions being made in advance of data being collected and analyzed, will result in a system that will collapse,” faculty wrote. “It is a building being constructed before the blueprints are finished.”
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The letter is the latest backlash to a controversial plan to rescue the troubled colleges.
After enduring years of dwindling enrollment and a dearth of state funding, the Covid-19 pandemic left the Vermont State Colleges system — which includes Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — on the brink of shutting down. It also includes the Community College of Vermont, which is not part of the merger plan.
Flush with federal pandemic aid, lawmakers sent the colleges an $89 million lifeline — more than twice their usual annual allotment — with the condition that school officials come up with a plan for long-term sustainability.
In September, at the recommendation of a legislative task force, Vermont State College trustees voted to merge the three schools into a single institution called Vermont State University. But that plan has angered students, faculty and alumni.
In last week’s letter, Castleton faculty wrote that they had raised concerns about the future of the Rutland County university and its academic programs — “we see programs being eliminated or diminished in a haphazard manner,” they wrote — but had been met with “deflection and obfuscation.”
“The Castleton University faculty are united in the opinion that the transformation of the VSC system, as it is currently proceeding, is on a path that will irrevocably damage the very institutions it purports to be ‘saving,’” faculty wrote in the letter.
In an interview, Zdatny, the chancellor, said she was sympathetic to worries about the merger, but said it was necessary for the colleges’ survival.
“These are historic institutions,” Zdatny said. “They’re beloved institutions. People feel very passionately about their institutions, about their students. And we recognize that.”
The administration, she said, had been “incredibly transparent” during the process.
“This is change that we’re being asked to do by the state, and change we have to make in order to move forward,” she said.
Preston Garcia, president of the Castleton Faculty Assembly and one of the letter’s signatories, said in an interview Monday that nearly 70% of the school’s full-time faculty had signed the letter.
“We’re not anti-merger. We’re not anti-transformation,” he said. “We understand that we can be optimized.”
But ultimately, Garcia said, he is worried that the merger will destroy the universities’ unique identities and transform them into “one homogenized unit.”
“Each of our campuses have strengths,” Garcia said. “Certainly we have weaknesses. But to lose those strengths, both in our programs and our actual identity, is something we’re very worried about.”
That’s a fear that many on campus and in the surrounding communities have expressed. Castleton University recently underwent its own rebranding, shedding the name “Castleton State College,” and some community members fear the merger will wipe out the benefits of that initiative.
But it’s unclear how much support pausing the merger process might have among other Vermont State Colleges faculty members.
Janet Bennion, the chair of Northern Vermont University’s faculty assembly, said she was sympathetic to concerns about the process’s timeline, especially as the fall school year is just beginning.
But she spoke highly of the merger itself, saying it was the only way to keep the university system viable.
Northern Vermont University went through its own merger four years ago, with the consolidation of Lyndon State College and Johnson State College, although both campuses remain in operation. Faculty there “have already gone through the emotion work required to transform ourselves,” Bennion said.
“The bigger picture is that we are creating something new and great,” she said. “And it must go forward. There’s no other way. We can’t go back.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a plan to merge Vermont State Colleges originated with school officials. That proposal was first put forth in a study commissioned by a legislative task force.
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