Is This the Worst Job in Vermont?

A fond farewell to Parwinder Grewal, the president of Vermont State University who didn’t even make it to the first day of VSU’s existence.

Grewal has “resigned for personal reasons” without further explanation from himself or anyone affiliated with the nascent university. I can think of two ways this might have gone down, and neither is flattering to the VSU board.

First, Grewal realized he had an impossible job and decided to GTFO. He was tasked with merging three institutions into one while imposing severe spending cuts and somehow making the thing more attractive to students, but couldn’t count on the backing of the board or Vermont’s political class. In fact, he’s the guy who was encouraged to go out on a limb only to turn around and realize all his friends are wielding saws.

Second, the board got cold feet and fired the guy. That would be a spectacular display of gutlessness. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of severance package he’s getting, all at taxpayers’ expense of course.

Look, I was loudly and repeatedly not a fan of Grewal’s plan to close the system’s libraries. In addition to all its flaws, it seemed unlikely to save any money. But the board thought enough of him to hire him in the first place, and then they balked at the first sign of trouble. I wonder what kind of luck they’ll have in their search for a successor. If you were a potential candidate with the kind of administrative chops needed to guide VSU into a successful future, would you want to step into this political briar patch? I don’t think so.

Jonathan Spiro, retired interim president of Castleton University, came in with guns a-blazing.

“(The board of trustees) hired Grewal to be their puppet and do their bidding, then they fired him because he did their bidding. They fired him to deflect criticism from themselves,” Spiro said. “You can’t start fresh (with a new president) because the same people who thought of the library scheme and bungled its implementation — the chancellor and the board of trustees — are still there. They’re hiring a new puppet? Big deal.”

It’s hard to tell whose hand was up whose ass from here, but either way it’s not good. Vermont State University faces some huge challenges. A structural deficit, falling enrollment, how to merge three institutions with their own history, culture, and constituencies, how to make things run efficiently when you’re dealing with multiple far-flung campuses. Oh, and how to impose change in a state that’s pretty much allergic to change.

It’s been kclear for years that tough measures and/or a massive investment would be required to turn this situation around. I’m sure you’ll recall when then-Vermont State Colleges chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing the two Northern Vermont University campuses and the Randolph campus of Vermont Tech, consolidating university programs at Castleton and two-year/vocational stuff at Williston.

It made perfect sense. Geographic consolidation makes cost-cutting a hell of a lot easier. You get out from under most of the system’s deferred-maintenance burden. You site the merged university at the system’s most successful campus, and the two-year institution in the state’s population center.

And you know what that got Spaulding. He was out the door so fast it would have made Parwinder Grewal’s head spin.

Vermont’s state colleges are in a world of hurt thanks to perennially inadequate state support. We like the appearance of a robust public system of higher education, but we are not willing to pay the freight. At the same time, political considerations have trumped hard-nosed decision-making. Every campus has its constituency and its high-powered defenders.

We have two choices. Well, three, and I know which one we’ll go with.

First, enact the Spaulding Plan or something like it. Make the quick surgical cut and move on. Not gonna happen.

Second, provide a sound financial base for the system as it is. That includes a healthy ongoing boost in state funding and a big infrastructure investment. Not gonna happen.

Third, muddle through. Kick the can down the road. Take some painkillers and hope the disease heals itself. VSU isn’t going to die because that’s politically unacceptable. Neither is it going to thrive, nor will it accomplish what we want and need it to do — provide robust and reasonably-priced public options for two-year and four-year education.

But hey, the campuses will still have libraries and we’re rid of that pesky furriner, so it’s all good.

The only smart thing they did was bring in Vermont’s uber-fixer Mike Smith, who’s got a track record of reviving troubled entities — and has the ear of our political class. If anyone can write a prescription for strong medicine and get the patient to take it, it’s Mike Smith.

But can even Smith devise a plan that’s most transformational than patchwork? I’ll believe it when I see it. This job has been virtually impossible at least since Spaulding left. Right now, it looks like you can drop “virtually” from that description.


3 thoughts on “Is This the Worst Job in Vermont?

  1. montpelier28

    I guessed Mike Smith before I saw his picture. A top job he hasn’t held? Can’t think of one at the moment. I find it funny. Closing libraries, now, even for money is a BAD idea imo.

  2. snafu

    “VSU isn’t going to die because that’s politically unacceptable.”

    I hope you’re right, but it may die because no one’s going to feed it. Who in the hell wants to go to a place like this for, what is it, $20,000-$30,000 a year?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s