Everyone knows the phrase “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Well, that maxim was sorely tested this past Friday at Castleton University.
The occasion was a Town Hall hosted by the administration of the Vermont State Colleges System. They had come to campus to update students, faculty, staff and community members on the planned merger of Castleton, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College into a new institution called Vermont State University. (Tellingly, the VSCS board of trustees, who will make the final decisions regarding the merger, were not represented at the meeting.)
The Casella Theater was awash in Spartan green and white, every seat was filled and standees were crowded in the back, while seated on the stage was the panel of administrators. The first speaker to address the audience repeatedly used the acronym “NCE” verbally and in his PowerPoint slides to describe the vision and mission statement of the soon-to-be merged institutions without explaining what the acronym stood for. Ten minutes into his presentation, an audience member finally interrupted him to ask what an “NCE” was. “Newly Combined Entity” was the answer. Either the administrator assumed the audience already knew the carefully crafted acronym, or he didn’t care if they didn’t.
Once his presentation was over, a host of students approached the microphones to make statements and ask questions. The students were almost uniformly polite, their statements well-researched and passionate and their questions pointed, articulate and unrelenting. Sadly, that was when the truth from the panelists was hard to come by.
There were four broad areas where the answers from the stage were wholly disingenuous. First was the issue how the “NCE” was going to fulfill its promise to the Legislature to save $5 million a year throughout five years. A panelist explained some facilities would be shut down but never clarified which ones or where or what the criteria for facility elimination would be. She repeatedly reassured student questioners that no faculty members would be laid off and savings would be accomplished by anticipated faculty retirements and relocations. But she never said whether those positions would be replaced with new hires. That would mean if one of five professors in a Castleton department retired, then that department would have to get by with four professors. Isn’t that the same as cutting faculty?
The second area where the truth was stretched was the distribution of the state’s annual allocation of funds to the VSCS system. The panelists rightly rued the parsimony of the Legislature, but never admitted to the fact Castleton gets fewer of those precious legislative dollars per student than any other VSCS school. When there were five VSCS schools (Castleton, Lyndon, Johnson, Vermont Tech and CCV), each school got one-fifth of the annual allocation regardless of their student population. Castleton has always had the largest enrollment in the VSCS system but has never gotten more than that 20%. When Lyndon and Johnson merged, the newly minted NVU got both schools’ shares (or 40%) of the legislative allocation, even though the combined enrollment at NVU was still considerably less than Castleton’s. In essence, Castleton students have been and continue to subsidize NVU students. One panelist repeatedly stated Castleton was unsustainable in its current state but refused to take responsibility by acknowledging Castleton has always been shortchanged by the very administrators now pretending to save it.
The third time the truth was blushing was the issue of athletics. When student athletes in the auditorium were asked to raise their hands, the sea of arms made it hard to see the stage, but the panelists refused to reassure the audience that “Castleton” would be in the university’s name or “Spartans” could still be used for the athletic teams. When pressed repeatedly as to whether Castleton’s sports teams were going to be cut, the panelists said athletics would continue at Castleton but they would not guarantee that every one of Castleton’s 28 varsity teams, by far the most in the VSCS system, would survive the merger.
And finally, one panelist sought to reassure everyone that Castleton students’ concerns were being adequately addressed because a student advisory committee had been formed and eight Castleton students served on that committee. Only under prodding did she admit that, almost one year into the merger process, the student advisory committee had met for the first time just the day before.
A Town Hall meeting designed to reassure the Castleton University community that the upcoming merger was well thought out and in Castleton’s best interests, failed to reassure anyone. The students were frustrated and the administrators on stage seemed flummoxed.
The most stirring moment of the two-hour meeting came at the very end. Led by Castleton music students, the audience rose and sang the school’s “Alma Mater.” But to quote Simon and Garfunkel in “The Sound of Silence,” the VSCS administrators on the stage were “hearing without listening.” And sadly, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth were in short supply.
Fred Bagley lives in Mendon.