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On Course? 

UVM and Champlain College navigate 21st-century ed

The Red Cross sign posted outside the University of Vermont’s Waterman Building last week implored, “Please give blood,” as hundreds of noisy demonstrators stormed the administrative office building. The raucous but civil crowd, hundreds strong and armed with bullhorns, picket signs, marching drums and cowbells, wasn’t there to bleed but to plead for the life blood of their university: funding.

Across Main Street and several blocks downhill, the mood on the Champlain College campus was decidedly mellower. While UVM students were clamoring for President Dan Fogel’s head, a smattering of Champlain students sat outside the new IDX Student Life Center enjoying the early spring weather. One, a new student in the criminal-justice program, thumbed lazily through the New York Times while listening to his iPod. When asked how he liked Champlain so far, the young man gave a hearty thumbs-up and proclaimed, “Loving it!”

Those snapshots only hint at the differences between the two institutions, differences so numerous and far-reaching that locals might hesitate to draw comparisons between UVM and Champlain beyond noting their common ability to offer a four-year degree and impressive views of the Adirondacks.

But the two institutions do share a city — one where space is at a premium. To the extent that both are convenient options for Vermonters, they occasionally court the same students. Finally, in turbulent economic waters, both grapple with the issue that marks the greatest difference between them: size.

Champlain College is a small, private college with just over 1900 full-time undergraduates and an endowment of $7 million. UVM is a huge (by Vermont standards) public land-grant university with nearly 10,000 undergrads and an endowment of $239 million. Champlain has 141 enrolled graduates; UVM has 10 times that number. Fewer than one in 10 Champlain students goes on for a graduate degree. UVM trains 38 percent of Vermont’s doctors and a third of its schoolteachers.

Champlain College has 80 full-time faculty and a somewhat smaller number of support staff. Tally all the faculty and staff at UVM and Fletcher Allen — technically two separate businesses, but for all intents and purposes joined at the hip — and UVM is the largest employer in the state.

Some might argue that in turbulent times, a larger vessel provides a smoother ride. Others would contend that there’s a strategic advantage to being a smaller, more nimble craft that can turn on a dime and react to rapidly changing conditions and unforeseen hazards. While Champlain College seems to have figured out its answer to the size problem, UVM is still wrestling with one. The question takes on an added significance this month as a five-member panel begins discussions for a possible merger of UVM with Vermont’s five state colleges.

And the question, “How big is big enough?” has ramifications not only for each institution but also for the citizens, businesses and nonprofits of Burlington. With nearly one in four residents enrolled full-time in college, Burlington is a haven of youth in a graying state. Any further influx of young people has a significant impact, good or bad, on the city’s housing market, transportation and parking needs, emergency services and overall neighborhood character. Likewise, when it comes to commercial and institutional real estate, UVM and Champlain compete for buildings not only with each other but with other businesses and organizations, including the city itself. Thus, all city residents have a vested interest in the questions: Where are these institutions headed? In 10 or 20 years, will they coexist with each other — and the city — in the ways they do now?

******

At UVM, expansion isn’t the current watchword. Last week’s student walkout was a reaction to the administration’s first round of budget cuts totaling $10.8 million, which could result in scores of faculty and staff layoffs, the elimination of the baseball and softball teams, and increases in class sizes, tuition and fees.

Hence the students’ thunderous chants of “We are UVM!” and “Cutback? Fight back!” which echoed through the halls of Waterman as protesters surged toward the third-floor suite of President Dan Fogel. They fell silent only when Richard Cate, vice president for finance and administration, stepped into the hallway to address the crowd, flanked by campus police.

Cate’s words did little to assuage students’ anger. Although the administration hopes eventually to invest $2.5 million back into its academic units, Cate acknowledged that not all eliminated positions will return, nor will the ball clubs. Moreover, he added, the final depth of the cuts will depend on both the legislature’s largesse and the number of students who enroll this fall. Both are difficult to predict in the current economy.

Moments later, Cate was ferried back to his office by a police escort. It wasn’t the kind of humiliating moment that doomed former President George Davis in 1991, when he climbed a ladder to get back into his own office, which had been occupied by student protesters. Actually, Cate seemed unfazed by, if not defiant toward, the irate assemblage. “I was here in the ’60s during Vietnam,” he said later. “I know what protests look like.”

Still, it was hard not to come away with the impression that UVM suffers from a campus morale problem. Only a year ago, Fogel was named “Vermonter of the Year” by the Burlington Free Press. Two months ago, union rep Carmyn Stanko stood up in Ira Allen Chapel at a forum on UVM’s future and called for Fogel’s resignation. She got a standing ovation.

Of course, few colleges are faring well in the current economy, and budget pinches breed discontent. But down the hill at Champlain, students and faculty alike express a pervasive sense that their school isn’t just hanging on but hanging tough.

President David Finney remarked recently that the impact of the economic downturn on Champlain has been “very small” — understandably, given that the college is, too. Already a tight operation, it’s neither subject to fickle public funding nor reliant on an endowment battered by plummeting global markets. “It’s never good to be poor,” Finney joked, “but it in this instance, it didn’t hurt us.”

At Champlain, where instructors all work under individual, multiyear contracts, employee unrest isn’t an issue. Faculty Senate President Laurel Bongiorno says she’s never heard serious talk about forming a faculty union, or grousing about Champlain’s lack of tenured positions.

“We’re a very different place [from UVM],” Bongiorno notes. “We’re so small that we work together. If we have differences with the administration, we meet with them and work through it.”

There’s no call to suggest that Champlain is “better” than UVM or vice versa. But the economic downturn has certainly highlighted some of the differences between the two institutions in terms of their educational and business models. And, as at any historical turning point, it’s worth asking which model is the way of the future. Will undergraduate liberal-arts schools such as UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences survive the economic crisis and live to grow another day? Will smaller, lower-profile colleges such as Champlain thrive to the point where they attract the region’s best and brightest? And how will the decisions of the schools’ leaders affect those trends — and the city?

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Fogel and Finney both say they’ve spent considerable time plotting their future courses. For his part, when Fogel arrived in July 2002, figuring out UVM’s optimal growth was one of his first self-appointed tasks. He concluded that UVM was too small, population-wise, to meet all its various needs. Between 1989 and 1997, the university actually lost about 1000 students. Declining enrollment was driving up the cost of tuition for all students, which itself decreased the number of applicants in subsequent years.

Moreover, since there weren’t enough students to cover all the university’s operating expenses — despite UVM’s endowment, the school remains heavily reliant on student tuition to pay its bills — the school couldn’t adequately maintain its physical plant, pay its faculty competitive salaries or offer adequate financial aid to all the students who needed it. As Fogel puts it, “The university was really in a negative spiral.”

Within seven months, he had unveiled a 10-year vision for the university, which he dubbed the “invest and grow” strategy, aimed at increasing undergraduate and graduate enrollments, building new facilities and expanding research opportunities on campus. Fogel made it clear that his long-term goal was to turn UVM into one of the nation’s “premier small research universities.”

The progress was hard to miss. Applications more than tripled, from 7100 in 1997 to more than 22,000 this year. Both the quality and the diversity of UVM’s student body increased dramatically, as did the competitiveness of professors’ salaries.

Granted, much of the credit for those higher salaries goes to United Academics, the union approved by the faculty in April 2001. Since then, two of the three professorial ranks on campus — associate and assistant professor — have jumped ahead of the national median pay for public universities. Only the salaries for full professors still lag behind the national median, and only by single digits.

Fogel claims credit for other campus-wide improvements, including raising what he calls the “competitive metabolism” of the undergraduate class. The average SAT scores of incoming freshmen have risen 70 points since the late 1990s; GPAs have made comparable gains. Financial aid is also up, from $52 million to $63 million. Last year, one in four UVM students who graduated from a Vermont high school paid nothing in tuition.

Fogel points out that the university has managed to enhance its academic rigor without “purchasing” national merit scholars for their prestige. And, he claims, UVM has been amassing a reputation as a “public Ivy” without compromising its core mission of providing a top-notch liberal-arts education to all its undergrads.

Does this mean UVM has finally reached its ideal size? “I think it’s in the ballpark,” Fogel suggests. “There’s obviously more art than science to getting this right-sizing right. We can’t be all things to all people.”

Robyn Warhol-Down is a UVM English professor and the outgoing senate faculty president. Despite the student protest going on outside her Waterman office on the day we meet, she says she suspects faculty dissatisfaction is waning from its high earlier this year. In her opinion, most faculty would probably say that, overall, UVM has been “on a big upswing” in the last five or six years, due to the higher salaries, rising quality of students, lower attrition rates and improved student diversity.

“The one big negative is that classes are getting bigger,” Warhol-Down acknowledges. “They’re not all getting bigger, but there are more large classes, and the large classes are even larger than they used to be.”

When asked whether the university’s growth has eroded UVM’s core mission of providing a strong liberal-arts education, Warhol-Down offers an interesting reply.

“I can’t call it an ‘erosion,’ because I think it’s been intentional. We still provide a liberal-arts education and, I’m happy to say, a damned better one than some places,” she says. “But it’s no longer at the core of UVM’s mission the way it was 20 years ago.”

Tellingly, Warhol-Down, who’s been teaching at UVM for 26 years, is departing later this year for a position at Ohio State University. When asked whether her decision to leave was based on a better offer elsewhere or her dissatisfaction with UVM, she admits, “It was both.” Ohio State, she says, offered her a 50 percent raise over her current salary, which is already one of the highest in UVM’s English department. Warhol-Down says a trustee told her recently, “It sounds to me like Ohio State is investing in something UVM is not.” She agreed.

“I’m leaving because I don’t see a future at UVM for the kind of work I do,” Warhol-Down adds. “Not at the level I want to do it.”

Nancy Welch, who’s been a UVM English professor for 14 years, is among the administration’s most strident critics. In her estimation, Fogel’s “invest-and-grow” strategy doesn’t pay adequate attention to the long-term needs of the faculty.

Between 2002 and 2007, Welch says, UVM experienced a 30 percent growth in its student body, but only a 14 percent growth in tenure-track positions. In effect, UVM has been moving toward greater reliance on part-time faculty to teach its classes. And this, she says, has put unnecessary strain on many programs, since part-time faculty aren’t paid to do advising, teach graduate programs or participate in faculty committees.

Next year, Welch notes, 17 percent of undergraduate classes will be in the 150- to 300-seat range. Overall, more than one-third of all available seats will be in classes of 60 or more — what she dubs “supersized classes.” UVM has grown too big, Welch asserts — for its dorms, its faculty, its facilities and Burlington in general.

“I don’t know what the magic size is for UVM,” Welch concludes. “But I do know that in the environmental program, 404 majors with 4.6 full-time-equivalent faculty next fall is not sustainable.”

Fogel insists that his emphasis on growth won’t compromise UVM’s core mission. “If you hear that UVM wants to be among the premier small research universities and you think that means abandoning undergraduate education ... you’ve got it wrong,” he says. “We haven’t fundamentally changed our business model. We’ve just overhauled the engine and gotten it to run on higher octane.”

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If UVM’s dilemmas are typical of similarly ranked liberal-arts schools, they’re foreign to Champlain. Though the college dates back to 1878, it’s easy to forget that, until 1991, Champlain didn’t even offer a four-year bachelor’s degree. For years, the Burlington business school was seen as a place that, in the words of one longtime local resident, “trained secretaries and cops.”

Today, Champlain College is earning a national reputation for innovative programs that train students for careers in such fields as Internet gaming, digital forensics, computer animation and criminal justice. Its new Emergent Media Center in Winooski bridges the gap between higher ed and industry by giving students real-world problems to solve, for real-world clients, using the latest computer technologies.

The college maintains overseas programs and campuses in Montréal, Mumbai and Dublin for the study of international business. Locally, it’s become a training ground for Vermont software development firms and other high-tech employers. Little wonder, then, that many of its campus buildings bear the names of prominent Burlington-area businesspeople: Hauke, Ireland, Tarrant. In fact, about two-thirds of Champlain students accept jobs in Vermont upon graduation.

Finney, who came to Champlain College from New York University in 2005, says virtually everything his institution is doing these days revolves around two words: “Vermont” and “career.”

“A lot of 21- and 22-year-olds walk out of college, and they really don’t know what comes next. It’s like they’re missing an owner’s manual,” he says. “We’re trying to put together a career-management piece that allows students to be more comfortable with the notion that there is no owner’s manual. They have to make it up as they go along.”

If UVM is seen as a liberal-arts school where undecided youths test the waters and find themselves, Champlain looks like the place where students with a clearer vision of their career paths can embark on them right away. Recently, the college adopted a new interdisciplinary core curriculum; Finney says it aims to prepare graduates for success “not just for when they walk out the door, but over the course of their careers.”

Also, Champlain students are now required to enroll in the “Life Experience and Action Dimension,” or LEAD, Program. The goal, Finney explains, is to provide students with the basic skills needed to become successful and productive members of 21st-century society. Those skills include managing their finances, negotiating business contracts, participating in civic affairs and understanding business networking etiquette.

Yet, despite such curriculum changes, Finney emphasizes that the college’s core business model hasn’t changed much: It’s still about offering programs that are attractive to students and enable the school to hit its enrollment goals. Unlike some academics, who shy away from ever seeing students as “customers,” Finney acknowledges that their satisfaction keeps Champlain alive. “If we can meet those [enrollment] goals, we’re fine. And if we can’t, we’re in trouble,” he says. “It’s pretty simple.”

So, does Champlain plan to get any bigger? Finney’s answer is more definitive than Fogel’s — and he’s put it in writing with the city. Given Champlain’s location in the heart of a historic residential neighborhood, he says, the college has capped enrollment at 2000 students. Any additional growth will have to occur at its overseas locations or online, with virtually no impact on the hillside campus.

Champlain’s growth plan differs markedly from UVM’s in another respect: It intends to house all its students on campus, in housing more akin to apartment living than the classic dormitory experience. The impact on Burlington’s rental market, which currently has a 99.1 percent occupancy rate, will be considerable — namely, 1000 fewer college students occupying off-campus housing.

Moreover, city officials note that Champlain has a visionary parking plan: It doesn’t want any. Eventually, Champlain plans to remove all cars from its campus and set up remote parking lots off-site, either on the waterfront or in the South End. Buses will ferry students, faculty and staff to campus. (By contrast, UVM is seeking approval for a new parking facility.)

Which is not to suggest that Champlain’s growth hasn’t occurred without controversy or grumbling from its neighbors. In its early days, when Champlain was still a two-year business school, it barely registered on the city’s radar. Until the early ’90s, it had a small, mostly local student body that tended to commute and rarely created problems with neighbors.

In 1994, shortly after becoming a four-year college, Champlain agreed to limit its “institutional encroachment” on the neighborhood. That encroachment has always been met with considerable neighborhood resistance, despite what one city official describes as Champlain’s “unparalleled” efforts to address neighbors’ concerns and build within the neighborhood’s historic character. Last year, when Champlain outbid the YMCA and the City of Burlington to purchase the Ethan Allen Club building and the Eagles Club for eventual use as student housing, some people openly questioned whether Champlain was growing too big for its britches.

But Larry Kupferman, director of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) says both Champlain College and UVM have come a long way in addressing the city’s concerns about their growth. Notably, UVM just agreed to a memorandum of understanding that stipulates it will house any increases in its student body, on a one-to-one basis, from this fall through 2015.

“We value each school. They’re important members of this community,” Kupferman says. “They know it and we know it. What they can bring to the table is important for our entire economy.”

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In the coming weeks, high school seniors around the country will be deciding where to attend college in the fall. It’s worth noting that right now, even in Vermont, the number of students choosing between Champlain and UVM is small. Despite the schools’ comparable requirements in terms of SAT scores and high school GPAs (see sidebar), Champlain and UVM rarely compete head-to-head for tuition dollars.

That’s because — to use the dreaded business language again — they offer such different products. UVM promises broad, interdisciplinary liberals-arts education on a more traditional college campus. For students — particularly older ones — who already know they want to design computer games or work in e-marketing, Champlain offers an excellent opportunity to dive right in.

Some have criticized Champlain’s approach to higher ed as being too focused on career development, and even suggested that the school churns out workers instead of well-rounded citizens. Finney sees their point, but strongly disagrees.

“Well rounded and well educated aren’t just lofty goals, I think they’re necessary,” he says. “That said, having a good education in the liberal arts and being well rounded doesn’t strike me as nearly enough.”

Finney adds: “In six weeks, my daughter graduates [from Hamilton College] with a degree in philosophy. She’s got to make a living somehow.”

By the Numbers

The University of Vermont and Champlain College at a glance

Total undergrads

UVM: 9867

Champlain: 1900

Graduate enrollment

UVM: 1384

Champlain: 141

In-state students

UVM: 26 percent

Champlain: 27 percent

Out-of-state students

UVM: 74 percent

Champlain: 73 percent

Female students

UVM: 60 percent

Champlain: 39 percent

Male students

UVM: 40 percent

Champlain: 61 percent

SAT math scores

UVM: 550-650

Champlain: 510-600

SAT critical reading

UVM: 540-640

Champlain: 500-600

ACT Composite

UVM: 23-28

Champlain: 20-26

Percentage in top 10th of graduating class

UVM: 29 percent

Champlain: 10 percent

Percentage of applicants admitted

UVM: 65 percent

Champlain: 74 percent

In-state tuition, fees

UVM: $12,844

Champlain: $24,355

Out-of-state tuition, fees

UVM: $29,682

Champlain: $24,355

Room and board on campus

UVM: $8534

Champlain: $11,210

Estimated personal expenses

UVM: $1202

Champlain: $600

Average indebtedness upon graduation

UVM: $25,599

Champlain: [not reported]

Most popular major

UVM: Social sciences

Champlain: Business marketing

First-year students living in college housing

UVM: 97 percent

Champlain: 90 percent

Total undergrads living in college housing

UVM: 53 percent

Champlain: 40 percent

Source: CollegeBoard.com, uvm.edu, champlain.edu

Want to hear more?

See Ken Picard discuss this story on Inside Seven Days, Thursday, April 16, at 8 p.m. on channel 16, RETN. You can watch Inside Seven Days online at www.retn.org or www.sevendaysvt.com.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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