Vermont State University releases painful plan for 'Administrative Optimization'

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Plan to “right size and restructure” administrative positions follows Optimization 2.0 plan for streamlining academic program array; plan will reduce redundancies and decrease layers of reporting for unified university.

by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Vermont State University (VTSU) Interim President Mike Smith released his final set of recommendations which, when taken together with Optimization 2.0 released earlier this month, positions Vermont State University to achieve fiscal sustainability by Fiscal Year 2027. This includes cutting 33 positions.

Smith said these changes combined with previous transformation efforts, along with growing enrollment in high-demand programs like nursing and apprenticeships in electrical and plumbing, allow VTSU to close its structural deficit in just three years for the first time in recent history. 

Optimization 2.0 recommendations largely dealt with restructuring curriculum and cutting some programs while strengthening others, while this plan focuses more on staffing and cost savings.

The report released today states: "Taken together, these recommendations, in conjunction with Optimization 2.0, will achieve ongoing cumulative structural savings of $12 million. It is not an overstatement to say that this report and the recommendations outlined in Optimization 2.0 are crucial for the future academic and fiscal health of the university."

The plan was accepted by the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees on Tuesday and notifications were made to bargaining unit leadership and impacted personnel this week. 

“This is a hard process for all, but it’s especially difficult for impacted staff. These team members have given innumerable contributions over their years of service to VTSU and I want to thank and honor our colleagues for their work,” said Mike Smith, Interim President of Vermont State University. “The need to restructure and reorganize is the result of a changing economy and the shifting role of higher and continuing education shared across the country. These caring and dedicated teammates will always be part of the VTSU family, and my pledge is to work with the unions to ensure a financial relief package that reflects our respect for their service.”

VTSU currently estimates that its administrative staff structure is larger than peer universities by approximately 20 percent. Some of that additional staff can be attributed to the university’s rural nature and multiple campus settings, as well as the need to staff the three unifying institutions during the transition to a fully unified Vermont State University. 

Union leaders and others have argued for reductions in administrative roles to reduce expenses and leadership agreed there were opportunities for savings as well as greater efficiencies in operations. 

The Administrative Optimization Plan sets forth that strategy. Highlights of the plan include:

  • Total administrative savings of approximately $3.1 million.
  • A reduction of 33 full-time positions with 21 being at executive, management, or supervisory level. 
  • Shared services savings of $500-600K across the Vermont State Colleges system in Fiscal Year 2025. 
  • Savings in the Vermont State Colleges health care plan of $3 million while maintaining a platinum plan for employees much like the state’s plan for its employees.
  • Recommended restructuring of retirement benefits to add match and vesting requirements, in alignment with the benefits provided by other public and private employers. These shifts will allow VTSU to increase compensation for under-salaried staff.
  • Additional savings will be realized through the facilities master planning work currently underway.

In conjunction with Optimization 2.0, these plans put Vermont State University on a path to fiscal sustainability by FY2027, Smith said.

Smith cautioned that, like Optimization 2.0, some savings must be achieved over time, while other savings could be implemented right away.

“We are now one unified university and as such, in addition to the program restructuring outlined in my Optimization 2.0 recommendations, we must also adjust the way our administrators operate, lead and manage to focus on being more efficient, relevant and always student-centered,” Smith said. “This work is an honest assessment of where we can and must restructure to reduce redundancies across campuses, eliminate unnecessary layers of reporting, and shift positions to meet the demands of a modern, rural university with multiple campus settings. Like Optimization 2.0, our students will be better served for this work because our teams will be more closely connected across our settings.”


VTSU Interim President Mike Smith offers sweeping course changes

In recent years, VTSU has benefitted from significant state investments and support from lawmakers and Governor Scott. In turn, VTSU is charged with developing a path to close its ongoing structural deficit, which was budgeted at $22 million for Fiscal Year 2023. Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees Chair Lynn Dickinson shared her appreciation for the difficult but important work contained in the report.

“I want to thank Mike and his team for this very important work and share my gratitude for all the employees, especially those who are most directly impacted by restructuring,” said Dickinson. “We have a lot of hard work ahead in implementation and the trustees will be supporting leaders as they operationalize this plan. We know that we have to change, but that doesn’t make it easy. It is the right thing to do, however, and together we are building a Vermont State University that can thrive as we begin its next chapter and move forward on stable footing.”

As Vermont State University restructures and continues its transformation work, opportunities for growth and development in high-demand certificate, training, apprenticeship and degree programs are already bearing fruit. Examples include the recently announced nursing program expansion by approximately 50 percent to nearly 1,000 nursing students, the largest ever class of plumbers and electrical apprentices in history and a new $1.5 million contract at the Advanced Manufacturing Center, which has already completed over 100 projects for businesses large and small.

Incoming Interim President David Bergh is set to join Vermont State University next month and will focus on continued growth opportunities. 

“I want to echo gratitude and appreciation for the tremendous staff at Vermont State University,” said Bergh. “This work has been hard; I know, and more challenges lie ahead for us as we implement these recommendations, but I am optimistic about the university’s future and am energized and ready to be part of it.”

You can read the full Administrative Optimization Plan here.

Vermont State University combines the best of Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College and serves students on five campuses and multiple learning sites across the Green Mountains and beyond, as well as online. Vermont State provides a high-quality, flexible, and affordable education for students seeking associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, certificates, and in-demand professional credentials. The university builds upon a history of public higher education in Vermont dating back to 1787. Learn more at VermontState.edu.

Source: 10.27.2023. RANDOLPH, VT — Vermont State University. Office of the Chancellor | Vermont State Colleges. File photo from Castleton campus.