By Edd Merritt
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me
This Land is Your Land
– Woody Guthrie
By the time this issue of the News comes out, the state college board of trustees will have received Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s resignation following public reaction to his plan to close the campuses of Northern Vermont University and relocate their student populations to Castleton.
The state college system brought me to Vermont 40 years ago, and I’m very happy that it did. Had it not I may still be in the metropolis where coronavirus crops up in one of every eight citizens. In the course of my stay as an administrator at Johnson State College I discovered how institutions like Johnson add human value to their communities. These institutions provided Vermont with a workforce of higher education graduates to a much larger degree than did its major university—UVM.
This is not to say that UVM is anything less than a fine university. In seeking to compete with other major northeastern institutions, however, and to reap the financial benefits of students paying higher out-of-state tuition, it drew a majority of its student body from well beyond its home state. As a result, many graduates left Vermont upon earning their degrees. The state colleges, on the other hand, most often drew their student majority from Vermont where they stayed upon graduation.
My exposure to the education in the state college system told me that while the smaller size of the schools led each to focus on particular elements of learning, those elements came through in high quality.
I was pleased that the arts were a major focus at Johnson and that the campus was the site of events that drew participants and viewers in large numbers. Though never truly an artist myself, I was drawn to learning through activities that carried artistic elements. I will not forget my first day on campus being called to the college pond to witness the “Bread and Puppet” mime troupe march in from the woods and surround the water, displaying signs that opposed a national government that had promoted war in Vietnam. To me it was artistry that was being directed at politics. Moreover, it was seeded by the nature of communal life in this state, and the college fertilized that seeding.
As an undergraduate, I attended a college in Wisconsin known for its student activism. Therefore, witnessing it occur at Johnson State, I appreciated it as a learning opportunity, something that my graduate school dean maintained occurred in many settings, not all of which required a classroom.
The state colleges have enriched Vermont through individuals, too. In thinking about their possible closure, I recalled the students and faculty I knew at Johnson, all of whom stayed in the area and contributed politically, educationally and artistically.
My first day on campus, after having moved items into my office I was gazing at the magnificence of the Sterling Mountains rising not far away when there came a knock on my door. Longtime political science professor and state senator Bill Doyle said, “Welcome to Johnson. Vote for me.” Then he left immediately.
Two students who had yet to graduate when I arrived went on to serve in the State Legislature, one after earning her law degree. Another became a school principal and is now head of the Vermont Principals Association.
Renowned poet and adjunct faculty member David Budbill and I often stood together in the sandwich line of the delicatessen a block off campus.
After serving as a head resident on campus, Rachel Bissex went on to cut several CDs of her own songs.
Who knows what college will be like following the pandemic, what we educators will learn from the new technologies drawn on to cope with distancing. I personally hope that human interaction will remain part of the process. The state colleges serve that interaction well and have a history of providing positive learning environments to those who choose them for the start of their higher education. Whether they use this start as impetus to continue may be prompted by the undergraduate experience.
I hope that as of today we have not acted too soon.