VPR Special Series: UVM At A Crossroads

Comment: What should the future hold for UVM?


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UVM Searches For New President, Balanced Budget

07/14/11 7:50AM By John Dillon, Lynne McCrea
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UVM At A Crossroads

VPR Photo/J. Dillon
Some observers speculated that the sale of UVM's dairy herd signals an abandon of the school's agricultural heritage. Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean Tom Vogelmann disagrees.
(Host) As the University of Vermont looks for a new president, it's also searching for a new way to make its books balance.

The next leader of the state's flagship public university will have big shoes to fill. President Dan Fogel led a campus-wide building boom, expanded the student population and raised tuition to bring in more revenue.

But UVM still faces financial problems, and there's wide consensus that the options are more limited this time around.

VPR's John Dillon has the third and final part of our series, UVM at a crossroads.

(Receptionist). "Hi, you're here for Tom Gustafson?"

(Dillon) It's a quiet summer morning on campus, and the new leaders of the Student Government Association arrive at the Waterman building, for a ‘meet and greet' with Tom Gustafson, the UVM Vice President for campus life.

(Gustafson) "Good to see you. Have a seat, guys."

(Dillon) The meeting is the administration's latest effort to build bridges with student leaders.

(Gustafson) "It's important that we - you, me, Dan Fogel, whatever, have a chance to anticipate big issues as they start to form." 

(Dillon) One big issue the school faces is a continuing budget shortfall in the years head.

(Rob Cioffi) "So I'll call the meeting to order and ask for approval of the May 19 meeting minutes."

(Dillon) The tough choices for UVM's next president were crystallized at a recent meeting of the presidential search committee. Outgoing President Dan Fogel told the committee that it needs to find a "development" president - someone with a passion for raising money.

(Fogel) "We are looking at significant gaps in the budget. Five years out, we need to close a gap of $28 million per year".

(Dillon) Vice President Tom Gustafson outlines for the committee the challenges ahead. He says the next UVM leader will have to build on Fogel's success in raising revenue. Fundraising has increased and research grants jumped from $74 million dollars in 2000 to $146 million last year.

(Gustafson) "A lot of really great things happened. But I think they were also fueled I'll just say by some relatively low hanging fruit, which was growing enrollment. So now it gets hard. Now it gets harder."

(Dillon) Under Fogel, UVM grew by attracting more students and charging them more money. Since 2002, in-state tuition and fees have risen by about 60 percent.

John Isaacson runs the search firm that's looking for a new president. He described Fogel's success in dramatic terms.

(Isaacson) "You genuinely had to move 10 years ago. The place was a little tattered and shabby and had lost its sense of aspiration. And what Dan did was he magically unlocked a big bundle of money."

(Dillon) But in an interview, Fogel says that big bundle of cash has pretty much dried up.

(Fogel) "We need to re-think the business model of the university. We need to become less reliant on both enrollment growth and tuition increases. We need to learn to do more with less while delivering increasingly superior outcomes."

(Dillon) What does that mean? UVM wants to rely more heavily on researchers, who attract dollars to campus to help pay for their work. The school has established three units within the university designed to foster research across academic areas.

The idea is that faculty in different disciplines will collaborate on projects and improve the quality of undergraduate education.

Jim Vigoreaux chairs the biology department. He says research growth can lead to more financial and academic opportunities.

(Vigoreaux) "The more funding you have, the more students you have, the more productive you are, so the more leverage you have to secure more funding, so its sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

(Dillon) Other larger, more powerful universities have launched similar efforts. And some have even chosen the same label as UVM's initiatives - "spires of excellence."  So UVM faces tough competition as it tries to build those spires.

(Tuchman) "Good luck to you. I wouldn't want to compete with Iowa or Kansas or any of those truly good universities in the heartland."

(Dillon) Gaye Tuchman is a University of Connecticut sociologist who has studied how universities are re-shaping themselves. She likes the idea of inter-disciplinary research - as she says that's often where scientific breakthroughs happen.  But she questions UVM's chances for success in the competitive market for scare federal research dollars.

(Tuchman) "In general the public moneys are being cut back nationally. And there are so many universities that can fit on top of a ladder."

(Dillon) UVM faculty initially voted against the spires of excellence proposal.

Cameron Wesson chaired the anthropology department at UVM. He spoke by phone from Alabama, where's he's leading an archeological dig this summer. Wesson says the spire concept itself needs more support at UVM.

(Wesson) "These trans-disciplinary research areas, they're not funding them. There are no new resources being brought to bear to make those things actually bear fruit."

(Dillon) Wesson recently decided to leave Vermont for an endowed teaching post at Lehigh University. The decision to pull up stakes was tough. Wesson and his family love Vermont, but in the end he says he was concerned about what he thinks is UVM's uncertain future. He says he's not the only tenured faculty to leave.

(Wesson) "I think it's really a troubling sign when five or six senior faculty, tenured faculty, are all leaving at the same time. And I think it speaks to at least on some level to a lack of clear institutional vision for where we head next."

(barn, tractor)

(Dillon) If UVM is successful with its new research focus, part of that success will be built on one of its traditional disciplines - here at the school's old dairy barn.

There are fewer cows in the barn these days. UVM sold its research herd last year. And some saw that sale as a sign that the school had abandoned its agricultural heritage. Not so, says Tom Vogelmann, dean of the college of agriculture and life sciences.

(Vogelmann) "We've developed architectural plans for new teaching labs and new teaching facilities out here with the idea that this really needs to become not only a center for agriculture, but a center for food systems studies."

(Dillon) One of the three trans-disciplinary "spires of excellence" focuses on food systems. And Vogelmann says the school will help Vermont become a leader in regional agriculture. As examples, Vogelmann cites microbiology research that could lead to more energy efficient methane digesters for smaller scale farms. He envisions new greenhouses that will extend the Vermont vegetable growing season to nine months. And he says researchers will focus on new cash crops that could be grown locally.

(Voglemann) "There's something here I think for every single unit of the university. I'm sort of hard-pressed to think of one that would really not fit."

(Dillon) UVM is a land grant university, which means that part of its public mission is to focus on agriculture, science and engineering.

But the school receives the lowest level of state appropriation per capita of any public university in the country. President Fogel doubts that will change, given the budget pressures facing the state.

He points out that Vermont is among the highest in the country for spending on K through 12 education. But it has among the lowest levels of spending for higher education and early childhood education. Fogel wants Vermonters to consider whether that skewed distribution of resources makes sense.

(Fogel) "I think that's a reasonable question to ask and I would probably encourage my successor to engage in very sensitive and diplomatic ways in that dialog."

(Dillon) For incoming students at orientation day, UVM's money worries are the last thing on their minds. James Pospishil is from Newton, Massachusetts. An avid snowboarder, he chose UVM over competing schools in part because of its off-campus offerings, especially the nearby mountains.

(Pospishil) "I don't think you can have a better location for college than Burlington, personally, for me." 

(Dillon) He's not worried about larger classes or being crowded into a three person dorm room.

(Pospishill) "Even a forced triple. I think I'd be happy. I can't wait. Can't wait to go snowboarding. I'm ready."

(Dillon)  And Pospishil is the kind of student UVM needs to attract. His higher, out of state tuition means the university can charge Vermonters less.

The next president faces the formidable challenge of keeping UVM attractive to out-of-staters, fulfilling its historic mission of serving Vermont, and building a research institution for the 21st century.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.

(Host) "UVM at a Crossroads" was also reported and produced by Lynne McCrea. Chris Albertine was our audio engineer. Ross Sneyd was the editor, and John van Hoesen the executive producer.



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