University of Vermont

Board of Trustees


Robert F. Cioffi
Board of Trustees, Chair's Report
February 8, 2013

Good morning everyone and welcome. As usual, we have a very full agenda over the next day and a half, including approving the naming of one of our buildings in honor of an important figure in UVM’s recent history. So let’s get to it.

I read all kinds of articles from all manner of sources, including The Burlington Free Press. On January 28th, I noticed a story by Tim Johnson with headline: "Interim Provost: Time to Tighten Belts." It was good, a straightforward piece about a no-nonsense guy: Dr. Robert B. Low. Let me state at the outset how pleased and grateful I am that Bob has stepped up to serve in this role, and I know that he is already working hard on the challenges and opportunities ahead. Thank you Bob, for all you are doing.

In the Free Press article, Bob had a number of pithy quotes that are worth repeating:

"Everyone is going to get less than they expected, on all sides – the academy and the administration," he said of the spending plan for 2013-14, now in preparation.

And this: "Fairly shortly we’ll have to come to grips with specific numbers, which will, from my point of view, protect the quality of what we do in the academy and are aimed at where we think we need to be in the next several years."

Also this: Low said that UVM will need "enhanced revenue streams" over the next few years, and has asked for the development of a five-year rolling budget plan. Responsibility for deploying resources for academic purposes rests primarily with the deans, in his view. "Deans are in a much better position to understand their academic units than I could ever be," he said. "You have to provide the deans the authority and responsibility to manage their ship."

Like I said, Bob is a no-nonsense guy. Doesn’t pull any punches. Here are the themes that I gleaned from Bob’s quotes:

  • More productivity with fewer resources
  • Protecting academic quality
  • Planning ahead for multiple years
  • A transparent, responsibility-centered management approach
  • Finding new resources for investment
  • Recognizing the necessity to adapt and change

Now that's a very good list, and a very solid start, Bob. Clearly I believe that you are on the right track. We all have to realize that in the future, we are going to be forced to make changes as budgets get tighter. However, I believe that cutting alone is not enough, we are also going to need to find ways to generate new revenue and invest in order to remain competitive whether it be in better facilities, new technology, or more options for students to complete their degrees and find meaningful employment. We must invest in high growth, high potential areas, and accept the reality that we can't be all things to all people. Of course this will require reallocating funds from one place to another in order to have the resources to invest.

I also read with interest Governor Shumlin's Inaugural Address, and appreciated his emphasis on education as the cornerstone of a better future for Vermont, including the need to strengthen and invest in higher education. He also recognized that post-secondary education is the key that unlocks successful careers for Vermonters and economic prosperity for the state. In his address, he said: "Our education system, from pre-kindergarten to higher education, is the state’s greatest economic development tool." The Governor went on to say "Vermont and this governor, places the highest priority on education. There is no greater responsibility that we have as elected representatives than ensuring that our children have the best education available in the country."

I am grateful that the Governor is so focused on the value of education for Vermont and for Vermonters, and that he is willing to make greater investments in UVM. We should be encouraged that the Governor’s investment priorities, particularly with respect to financial access and affordability, fit hand-in-glove with Tom Sullivan's strong emphasis on these issues, and I hope the legislature will be supportive. I also encourage our legislative colleagues to help us see that the Governor's initiatives come to fruition.

I am also seeing numerous perspectives emerging almost daily with prognostications about the future of the higher education enterprise. Some take a bleak view, comparing higher education to struggling institutions like the newspaper business and predicting widespread campus closures, largely due to the availability of online education (commonly known by their acronym, MOOCs) and the associated obsolescence of the classroom as the primary platform for disseminating knowledge. One was even titled: "Higher Ed: An Obituary." Other opinions are less jarring, but most all have something in common: ready or not, major changes are coming for higher education, rapidly.

Now, I am not going to claim that I have a crystal ball and know exactly what is on the horizon, but I do know this: going forward, we are going to see challenges and changes that we have not experienced before, coming at us at a faster and faster pace. To survive in, and indeed to take advantage of this chaotic environment will require that our creativity, focus, and adaptability reach higher levels than we have ever seen before. I believe that this is the central challenge for UVM and for this Board, this administration, and the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of our University. I have said on more than one occasion that I do not believe that the college campus that my 8-year old son comes to one decade from now will look much like the one that arrived at 26 years ago or the one that Dennis and Kyle know today. We need to be ready to face and prepare for those changes.

And very importantly, our search for the next permanent Provost must yield a highly talented individual able to cope with and embrace this new world order (or is it disorder?) in higher education and at UVM. I look forward to a successful search and I will ask some of the Board to be involved in the process toward the final stages.

On behalf of the Board, I want to publicly thank Jane Knodell for all of her hard work and accomplishments during her time as Provost. Thank you, Jane. And, Dom Grasso, the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate College, will be leaving us this summer to be Provost at the University of Delaware, where their most famous alum, Vice President Joe Biden, now must play second fiddle to Joe Flacco. Congratulations, Dom, and many thanks for your service.

Let me also take just a moment to recognize our retiring Trustees. There will be more to come on this topic tonight and tomorrow morning, but please join me in thanking five outstanding Trustees: Harry Chen, Jeff Davis, Kyle DeVivo, Donna Sweaney, and Jeanette White. Thank you all for the work that you have done to help us move forward during your terms.

We also have two new Trustees-in-waiting, who will begin their terms in March. The Governor has identified Carolyn Dwyer to replace Jeff Davis on the Board. Our new student Trustee, replacing Kyle DeVivo, is Raj Thakrar, a first-year student in our College of Medicine, who will join us later this afternoon. We welcome both of them and look forward to working with them. Carolyn and Raj will be joined by three new legislative trustees who will be chosen later this month.

On a personal note, as I wrap up three years as Chair of this Board, I am humbled by your confidence and desire for me to serve a fourth year as Chair. I look forward to working with you throughout this next year as we work with Tom to strengthen and build a bright future for UVM.

I should also mention the water bottles you have received this morning as a gift from me, they are meant to highlight the elimination of bottled water sales at UVM – one of just a handful of institutions that have done so. The concept of stations to encourage refilling personal water bottles was born here in the Davis Center (at the suggestion of a UVM custodian), and I hope you will adopt the habit of bringing your bottle along wherever you go.

As some of you are aware, there are proposals and ideas circulating with respect to UVM's endowment investments in petroleum or fossil fuels companies. I want to remind everyone of two things:

1)  UVM's endowment is made up completely from voluntary, private gifts, and our endowment contains no tuition dollars or other non-gift funds whatsoever and there are no state dollars in it either.
2)  We have a Socially Responsible Investments Advisory process that is specifically designed to consider such proposals, and it will be through that process that any recommendations will be brought forward for consideration by this Board. This issue is not on our agenda and will not be discussed at this meeting. Any future consideration by the Board will depend upon what emerges from the Socially Responsible Investing Advisory process.

I will close by quoting yet another article I read recently. This one was written by New York Post columnist and diehard New Yorker Cindy Adams, who has traveled the world but never visited Vermont until prodded to do so by Governor Shumlin. Adams visited Stowe last month. Here are a few of her observations:

Last year, between my enjoying Australia and Europe, Vermont's Governor Peter Shumlin said, "You've never visited Vermont."

I said, "Where is it?"

The state has 600,000 people. More marble and maples and Christmas trees that truck to New York in December than humans. Gorgeous four-lane highways boast four vehicles. A traffic jam is one pickup truck a half-mile away. No lights on the highway. No homesteads either. If your car's brights fail, it's through the woods to Little Red Riding Hood's grandma — or they'll find you come spring.

Locals have fierce rightly pride in their state. It's polite, friendly, stress-free, everyone helping everyone. Like America used to be. Many, coming to Vermont to settle, were born elsewhere.

Burlington, the nearby big airport town, has small local restaurants, wine shops, beer tasting, old-style hardware stores where the owner actually gives you personal attention. You can find bookstores with 10 percent off if you can quote a famous literary line or lessons on how to knit a sweater at Six Loose Ladies.

It's charming. It's small town. It's friendly. It's innocent.

I thank Vermont's Gov. Peter Shumlin. And I couldn't have loved it more unless it was in New York.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Vermont looks to a hardened New York Post columnist. Not bad at all, but also importantly for our purposes, it is how we are often viewed more positively by those from the outside than we realize. Something to keep in mind as we move forward with our meeting. This concludes my Chair's Report.

Last modified September 21 2013 06:48 AM