This letter is by John Bramley an interim president of the University of Vermont and former UVM professor, chair of the department and provost.
I spent 20 plus years at the University of Vermont as professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and in the College of Medicine. I held the administrative positions of Chair, Dean, Provost, Senior Vice President, Acting President and Interim President and I was proud to lead the Faculty Senate. I say this in no sense of self-importance but to illustrate that I came to know the University from all perspectives. Since retiring I have resisted the temptation to comment from the sidelines but the recent events in our nation and in Vermont have prompted me to do so.
Vermont faces many challenges, some might say a crisis, in its higher education sector requiring bold action not short-term fixes such as COVID one-time funds. Vermont has a long history of inadequately “supporting” public higher education and there is no evidence to believe that this will change. The state population is too small, there are too many institutions, too much brick and mortar, significant duplication of programs and a dwindling high school population educated at among the highest per capita cost in the nation. At the same time public confidence in the value of higher education is low, in part because many students find their degrees do not automatically qualify them for rewarding employment and party because of the crippling student debt they incurred obtaining those qualifications. Simultaneously a revolution is occurring in information technology and digital access leading to the relevance of the “sage on the stage” model for education being increasingly questioned. No longer are courses required to be physically delivered at a particular location or even by the “parent institution” since they can be accessed asynchronously from anywhere across the globe. The traditional model of young people leaving home at 18 to attend a residential college arguably has less to do with learning and more to do with being a rite of passage to adulthood and a milestone in parental lives.
The state colleges have substantial on-going financial shortfalls that will be solved, not by one time money, but by radical change. The University of Vermont (UVM) is fiscally sound but has an unsustainable financial model. The state appropriation to UVM is increasingly inconsequential and historical trends show it will never approach adequacy. For nearly 50 years the University has relied on the high tuition paid by out of state students to plug the gap, subsidize Vermonters education and keep the lights on. That cannot continue for another decade because UVM’s out of state tuition is among the highest per capita and will result in the University being increasingly uncompetitive for students. That tuition is high not because of over bloated administration, excessive administrator salaries and the other fripperies that some raise to obscure the obvious truth that Vermont cannot, or will not, support higher education adequately.
UVM is Vermont’s only research university and land grant institution. It must provide high quality programs, delivered in various ways, in collaboration with other institutions and organizations in Vermont and beyond. These programs must be cost-effective and accessible to audiences ranging from adolescents to the retiree. Simultaneously UVM is the research engine that generates external funding, attracts gifted academics to Vermont in a global competition, informs Vermonters with clear objective facts, and helps create jobs and business opportunities. That is the essence of being a land grant university. The Land grant Act was introduced by Vermont Senator Justin Morrill and passed by congress in the dark days of the civil war. Vermont has faced dark days through COVID and perhaps can find the courage to address these challenges.
UVM is seeking to face its fiscal reality by undertaking an analysis of academic programs and operations. To be successful and accepted that must be an open process, based upon objective data and trends and employing sound fiscal analysis. Through such a process, programs that are low quality or duplicative should be eliminated or redesigned. Obviously low enrollment programs or courses must be scrutinized. The half-truths and slogans generated by different constituencies around this topic are not helpful to understanding why enrollments or student interest are low in a particular area and do not contribute ideas or solutions in the best interests of students and the institution. Neither is it honest to suggest that the university endowment, most of which was donated with a specified purpose, is fungible to solve the fundamental fiscal problem or put off an analysis.
Frankly, I reached the conclusion several years ago that the 1955 legislation, through which UVM became a public university after 150 years as a private institution, was misguided. Furthermore I am convinced that Vermont higher education cannot prosper as it is currently configured. In a future op ed I will seek to expand upon that thesis and offer some ideas for a transformation that might better serve Vermont and its institutions.
John Bramley was the interim president of the University of Vermont and former UVM professor, chair of the department, and provost.