When it comes to the board of trustees of the Vermont State Colleges System deciding that the name Vermont State University should now represent Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College, an adage comes to mind: “It it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Former VSCS chancellor Jeb Spaulding was eviscerated for proposing a merger of the state colleges, forcing him to resign. Now, we are just going to keep on rolling with consolidation, this time with an eye toward branding.
Except that Castleton was doing just fine without the merger. And for all intents and purposes, this feels like another example of Rutland County getting looked down upon, or getting the short end of the stick from Montpelier.
“The establishment of the name — Vermont State University — is a pivotal point in the creation of our new and innovative university,” stated board of trustees Chair Lynn Dickinson. “Vermont State University capitalizes on the nationally and internationally known Vermont brand and highlights our connection to the state as a public higher education institution. In establishing the identity of the new institution, this is the first step. We are looking forward to the continued work over the next several months on the additional critical elements of the brand identity of Vermont State University: the mission, vision, brand identity and academic structure.”
Except that nobody asked for this. Nobody around the Castleton campus thinks this is a stroke of academic brilliance. Castleton University and Northern Vermont University were doing fine with the rollout of their new brands — both of which happened during the past few years. What about that time and money that the new VSU is now going to spend again on another branding and marketing campaign? The arrogance of this move overlooks all of the work the schools have done to find their brand and messaging. Castleton, especially, has been standing up (and out) as the flagship.
And yet ...
“(T)he VSCS board of trustees is committed to fully unifying Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College. With the guidance, support, and financial investment of the State, the board of trustees plans to accomplish a unification that expands opportunities for learners throughout the state, restructures the system for financial success, and retains our current campus locations and thus our commitment to serving Vermont’s rural communities,” Dickinson was quoted as saying in a release issued at 9 p.m. Wednesday evening, minutes after the board unanimously voted to accept the name change.
There is one point the trustees keep returning to: They are tasked with keeping this system alive and providing public higher education to Vermonters. They believe creating a unified system with a unified brand is the best way to do that. They may believe that is the best approach for right now, but clearly the message — from alumni and even current staff and faculty and more than a few students — is that the board and Chancellor Sophie Zdatny are deaf to what is being said against the fast-moving merger.
(To his credit, Trustee David Silverman was the only one who showed any kind of acknowledgement that people’s opposition is valid and said he hoped that as branding is developed there will ways to give each campus its own identity.)
Everyone keeps saying that this is the first step. We see it as the first misstep.
Zdatny noted on Wednesday night, “One key takeaway from the research done is the importance of innovation and technology with a focus on the future. … Another is how embedded Vermont is in our collective identity through our workforce partners, applied learning opportunities, our local communities and alumni, and connection to the state. The importance of the word ‘University’ to convey the variety, strength, quality and prestige of the education provided was another key indicator. Vermont State University gives us incredible flexibility in bringing the brand identity of the new university to life. In the coming months, we will be continuing the exciting work of establishing a unified brand identity for Vermont State University.”
There is a disregard for what is already in place; a chorus of voices in opposition; and another big step toward homogenizing the Vermont State Colleges System.
Hopefully, “fixing” the fiscal and enrollment problems the system faces by rebranding at this “pivotal point” doesn’t just dilute the uniqueness of these schools, their unique programs and their talented staffs.
That would be very unfortunate.