Sophie Zdatny, the newly named chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, certainly has her work cut out for her.

The VSCS’s board of trustees made the announcement on Monday. Yesterday, the state announced mandatory guidance and health protocols for colleges and universities to follow — including a health safety contract for staff and students to sign — as they reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The guidance, developed by a task force, includes initial quarantines for students arriving from certain areas of the country, testing of all students and staff at the start of the school year, and the use of face coverings while around others in public. The density of classrooms and dining halls also must be reduced.

The academic calendar also is likely to change with students going home at Thanksgiving and returning later in the spring. Students and staff face discipline if they do not abide by the signed contract, which states that they are willing to abide by the state’s and institutions’ virus-related restrictions. Schools will enforce the contracts and students who violate major health components, like quarantine requirements, shall be immediately removed from campus for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, the guidance states.

The “new normal” for higher education is going to be a challenge, perhaps more so for Zdatny and the VSCS. The system is made up of Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College. VSCS has become a valuable option for many Vermont students who could not otherwise afford private college, or even the University of Vermont.

It is in trouble, financially. The school system could face operating deficits from $19 million to $46 million next year depending on how the pandemic further depresses enrollment. Eyeing that challenge, Jeb Spaulding, the former chancellor, proposed an explosively controversial plan to close three state college campuses for good. Amid the massive backlash, Spaulding resigned. As has been the case at many colleges and universities nationwide, the end of in-person instruction and move to online learning amid the pandemic has taken a financial toll.

In the meantime, the colleges have launched several task forces and working groups at the school and system level to propose reforms. They are bracing for more tough times.

According to a news release issued this week, Zdatny has been given a one-year contract with an option for renewal — the same as her predecessor.

The VSCS board voiced its faith in Zdatny this week.

“Sophie stepped up to lead at a time when the organization needed a steady hand to guide it forward,” said board of trustees Chairman J. Churchill Hindes. “She has exceeded our expectations as a leader by bringing stakeholders together through thoughtful collaboration and openness. We know this is precisely the leadership style we need at this critical juncture. We are so pleased she has agreed to stay on and continue the work she has started.”

Zdatny is a practicing attorney who has been with the General Counsel’s office since 2014, and has served as the System’s General Counsel since January 2017. Since assuming the role of interim chancellor, Zdatny has prioritized outreach to stakeholders across the VSCS and across the state in an effort to create an inclusive and well-informed process for charting a path to viability for the organization.

In her own words, Zdatny stated: “We have a lot of important work ahead in the months to come, and I could not be more encouraged by the intelligence and commitment of those involved. I want Vermonters to know we are already making good progress towards transformation. All of this effort is in service to our faculty, staff, students and employers who are counting on us to be a strong and reliable partner.”

It is an understatement to say that this chancellor faces the greatest challenges of any leaders of these schools in modern history. It will be a Herculean task that will take out-of-the box thinking, significant outreach and lobbying, as well as a keen ability to develop partnerships.

Also, it will require thick skin. Zdatny is going to be forced to make hard and unpopular decisions, and the outpouring of anger that fell upon Spaulding is hanging precariously over her head now.

The class of leaders in the state right now that are taking us through this pandemic and the economic recovery will be forever remembered for the roles they played. It is a heavy burden to bear. Zdatny seems to be up for it.

We wish the chancellor the best of luck.

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