What is Happening at Castleton University and Why
by J. Churchill Hindes, Chair of the Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees The higher education business is not for the faint of heart. Colleges and universities around the nation are challenged as never before by declining numbers of high school graduates, rising costs, and declining support from state governments.
The Vermont State College System is not immune to the pressures facing higher education. Each institution in our system has responded in ways appropriate to their circumstances. In recent years, Vermont Technical College has restructured its operations and budget to deal with significant losses, and it is now well down the path to a strong, sustainable future. In 2016, the Board of Trustees approved the unification of Johnson State College and Lyndon State College to become Northern Vermont University, a move that is already achieving demonstrable savings and expanding opportunities for students and faculty. The Community College of Vermont has maintained statewide access to post-secondary education through prudent fiscal management.
Currently, Castleton University is tackling its own restructuring to address a $1.5 million budget gap brought on by lower than expected enrollment this past fall. While this deficit represents just 3% of Castleton’s overall operating budget, if the University does not respond with immediate and thoughtful action it will be substantially worse in subsequent years. I am confident that because of these actions, Castleton will continue its role as a vital partner and resource for the Rutland region, Vermont and beyond.
In these circumstances, the future will favor universities and colleges with clear-headed leaders willing to act boldly and strategically. Institutions that continue to pin their hopes on maintaining or regaining the status quo will be more likely to flounder. Last fall, the VSCS board wholeheartedly endorsed the recommendation of the Castleton University presidential search committee to appoint Dr. Karen M. Scolforo because she has demonstrated that bold, strategic leadership. Knowing that difficult decisions would need to be made, our confirmation was fully in the context of assuring the long-term stability of Castleton University.
President Scolforo is leading a transparent process, initiating change with students as her priority. She is demonstrating the integrity, thoughtfulness and decisiveness that made her such an attractive choice to be our President of Castleton University.
This process will empower faculty to complete the changes necessary to right-size academic offerings and to develop entrepreneurial programs that will serve more students. Through this process Castleton University will not merely survive, it will thrive.
My optimism about Castleton's future is not an attempt to ignore the difficulty of the changes underway. Simply said, there is not enough money to continue every offering and position in place today. Some courses, programs, and people will be missed. No matter how necessary, choices made by leaders during these times are very difficult. Collegial relationships are inevitably strained. Across our region, several commercial businesses have experienced these realities and have seen similar angst and disruption.
I remember three years ago when the Board of Trustees approved the new name, “Castleton University.” It was an exciting moment for Castleton, for the VSCS, and for those who had led important progress at the school. I thought of the sidewalk in front of the Calvin Coolidge Library with steps featuring the different names the university has had--since 1787! Those steps tell the history of a university that has adapted to its times to remain strong and relevant and of one that has always remained true to its mission.
The Board and leadership of the Vermont State Colleges System stand with Castleton University and with President Scolforo. The Board, the Chancellor, and the other colleges in the system are working hard together to share more services to reduce expenses, to open new collaborations, to do all we can to assure that Castleton and all of our institutions have a bright future. We remain committed to our core mission: to provide broad access to high quality, affordable post-secondary education across the state, as only we do.
As long as we hold students and their wellbeing at the center of our deliberations, our decisions – tough though they are – will yield the right results.