Another queen sacrifice: Castleton University in Vermont

The queen sacrifice remains in practice among American campuses.  This week’s practitioner is Vermont’s Castleton University, a public liberal arts institution founded in 1787 that is now considering cuts and layoffs.

VermontBiz reports that Castleton is facing “a projected operating loss of $1.5 million for the current year”, and will respond with “restructuring.”  The last term here means “a combination of layoffs, position eliminations, and early retirements” and “what will amount to close to a 10 percent reduction in the University’s operating budget”.

As usual, the problem is primarily about enrollment decline:

While Castleton traditionally relied heavily upon students from Vermont and its surrounding counties and states in growing from 1,200 to more than 2,000 students from 2001-2014, the University has seen its enrollment decrease in recent years to around 1,800 full-time undergraduates.

Remember that Vermont’s population is aging rapidly, and actually starting to decline.  The state system’s leader put Castleton’s crisis in a state-wide setting:

“The competition for a smaller number of students is intense,” [Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of Vermont State Colleges] said. “Vermont’s other state colleges are all in different situations and different stages of response, he said. Vermont Technical College underwent significant cuts several years ago. Lyndon and Johnston merged at a savings of $1 million a year. Community College of Vermont has been budgeting for declining enrollments.”

(At the same time, many Vermonters don’t think this demographic trend is a problem.  It’s a terrible and ultimately destructive delusion.)

Castleton’s president, Karen M. Scolforo, describes the crisis and response in terms of sustainability and overbuilding: “While the University’s previous efforts to maintain staffing levels despite enrollment declines were admirable, they are no longer sustainable.”

It’s not clear yet which jobs will be cut:

Jeff Weld, Dean of Advancement, told VBM: “We have around 450 employees, including part time staff and faculty. We have yet to make a determination of the number of employees who will be impacted. The faculty task forces will play a role in the academic side and senior leadership will work to determine appropriate staffing levels with department managers, with a focus on student impact first and foremost.”

There are hints at program shuffling, with the mention of “additional [academic] programs”, such as “an innovative new ‘Content Lab’ aimed at getting students into the communication workforce.” Scolforo also uses the classic language of departmental prioritization:  “We’ve convened three faculty task forces to explore new program development; assess, consolidate, and strengthen current programs…”  i.e., Castleton is likely to reduce or close some programs, most likely those with lower student enrollment, while expanding others and introducing new ones seen as more likely to win attendance and majors.

According to the Rutland Herald “the number of majors [will be] consolidated from 79 to an expected 55.”

The administration is also up for cuts.   “One of the first things that I looked at was my senior leadership team,” [Scolforo] said. “My cabinet members and I are carefully looking at the leadership team and the structure there. There’ll be some changes there as well, so really, there’s no department that’s exempt from this process.”

Recommendations and announcements are scheduled for April and May.

The Vermont Biz article also suggests Castleton is considering a greater emphasis on technology through distance and hybrid teaching.

To sum up: this is another case of a campus gearing up for cuts, which sound likely to include faculty as well as staff.  Enrollment plays a key role, as ever.

I wish I didn’t have to keep tracking these moves, but they seem likely to play a significant role in shaping American higher ed.

(via Robin DeRosa on Twitter)

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9 Responses to Another queen sacrifice: Castleton University in Vermont

  1. I am watching these closings/restructurings with interest because I wonder: how far down in terms of institutional prestige will we go? How long will it take? Will a school like mine eventually be in this mix? Right now it’s not in this kind of danger (at least we are thusly told by the administration and the trustees).

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great point about prestige.
      In every case I’ve seen the institution’s leadership has emphasized growth to come – which is appropriate for the queen sacrifice metaphor (give up something now for victory to follow). So that should imply maintaining or even growing campus prestige.

      In reality? I don’t know how we will view such cuts over time. Many boards, businesses, and states support them. Few academics seem to notice, especially when cases occur elsewhere in the country or involve non-elite institutions. Perhaps we’ll accept queen sacrifices much as we accepted the transformation of the professoriate into a majority adjunct status.

  2. Robin DeRosa says:

    Also today announcement of two private colleges in MA merging (Mt Ida and Lasell). Not too surprising, but whew it all feels like it’s coming fast and furious these days.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a good example. Again, taking place in a region with depressing demographics.
      Will try to blog soon – crazy week, though.

  3. Roxann D Riskin says:

    The obsolesce of traditional HE…”Traditional higher education is simply cost-prohibitive”.
    The on-boarding of more virtual university models .

  4. Jim Bradley says:

    Unless we address the population models, the downturn in enrollment will have predictable results and these events are more the symptom than the problem. Economically, a school that grew from 1200 to 2000 should be able to return to its original size and be viable, but the human cost is terrible. There are, of course, contributing factors…the rising cost of tuition and student desk, the facilities arms race, and the expectation (and therefore staffing requirements) of concierge-level services.

    If there are fewer people who require higher education (which should have been predictable as boomers aged), then we will necessarily see a contraction in the market – which isn’t a horrible thing if there are other jobs for the displaced people…but I fear there are not.

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