Smith: We can make thoughtful budget decisions at UVM

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Smith: We can make thoughtful budget decisions at UVM

Fri, 12/18/2020 - 3:57am -- tim

by Shap Smith The University of Vermont is an important part of many people’s story. It’s central to our family. My spouse and I are graduates of UVM, and our son just completed his first semester. Many of our closest friends are people we met while at UVM. My liberal arts degrees provided me with a firm foundation for a career in law and public service. So, when I was elected to serve on UVM’s Board of Trustees, I felt a special kinship to the students, faculty, and institutions that make it such a sought-after university. 

As has been widely reported, higher education in the United States is in a period of transition. Several forces were challenging postsecondary models prior to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Notably, institutions across the country have been experiencing declining enrollment and, as a result, revenues have not kept pace with expenses. Even the best resourced institutions, like Harvard and Princeton, have adjusted offerings and trimmed programming.

Here in Vermont, three colleges have closed within the last three years and this past spring, the Vermont State College System (VSC) was on the verge of financial collapse. It was only through a massive injection of public dollars that VSC was able to prevent the closing of several campuses. UVM is not immune to these stresses – this year’s budget required us to close a projected $21.4 million deficit, primarily due to a decline in revenue.

It is against this backdrop that Dean Bill Falls has proposed eliminating 12 majors and 11 minors in the College of Arts and Sciences. His proposal is similar to recommendations made by a faculty committee in 2018 after a year of review. While the proposal would reduce majors and minors, in many instances it would not eliminate class offerings in those areas. For example, while the German major will be eliminated, students will still be able to take courses in German. 

As has been reported, most of these majors and minors have enrollment of less than 5 students. This fact does not diminish the impact on the students or faculty. Those impacted are not numbers on a page – they’re real people who are hardworking, dedicated, and talented. Their goals and careers brought them to UVM, and as an alum and member of the Green and Gold family, I always have these UVMers front and center as I balance the facts confronting the Board.

However, UVM’s current fiscal course is unsustainable. For the last decade, the institution has had a structural deficit. Each year its expenses have exceeded revenue. You cannot balance the budget and set UVM on a path forward without making changes. That requires looking at administrative expenses. It also necessitates a review of expenses in academic programs.

This is a moment when we must come together to make UVM the best it can be now and into the future. As an alum, proud UVM parent, and Board Trustee, I want what’s best for our community. That’s why I write to share the truth and to open the door to dialogue. Failure to act now will jeopardize UVM’s mission into the future. We cannot allow that to happen.

The decisions ahead will be difficult. The final choices may look different than the initial proposals. But inaction is not an option. We must evolve to meet the times in which we live as well as prepare our students and institution for the future. If we don’t, we risk having decisions made for us.

If we do this right, we will strengthen the University, foster student success and ensure that the University is accessible and affordable for all of its students. That would be a legacy about which we could all be proud.

Shap Smith is a former Speaker of the House from Morrisville, alumnus of UVM and parent of UVM student.