Thomas P. Salmon (1991 - 1997)

Thomas P SalmonOn November 2, 1991, less than two weeks after George Davis had announced his resignation, the trustees appointed Thomas P. Salmon as UVM’s interim president. Thomas Salmon was born on August 19, 1932, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was raised in Massachusetts, and he earned his A.B. degree from Boston College, a J.D. degree from Boston College Law School, and a master of law degree from New York University. In 1959 he moved to Vermont where he opened his own law firm in Bellows Falls.

In terms of his background and experience, President Salmon presented a marked contrast to his predecessor. Whereas George Davis had spent his entire career in academia and had little prior knowledge of Vermont, Thomas Salmon was a successful lawyer, businessman, and political leader who had served as a judge, legislator, and former governor of Vermont, as well as the chair of the Vermont Higher Education Planning Commission.

By appointing such a seasoned leader as interim president, the trustees were relying on Salmon to bring stability to the university. Salmon, who said he regarded his appointment as “equal parts honor and challenge,” immediately threw himself into his new job. At his first meeting with the Faculty Senate on November 12, he made two promises. First, he said, “We will continue to make this university accessible to the young people of this state and their parents. An accessible education must be an affordable education.” Second, he announced that “we will build bridges, build public and private partnerships with our state, with other colleges and universities, and with the corporate community.”

The following day, in an open letter to alumni, parents, and friends of UVM, President Salmon advised that the Strategic Planning Council’s suggestion to eliminate the College of Engineering and Mathematics had been rescinded. In his letter he stated, “This does not mean that the problems have somehow magically gone away. . . . The fiscal problems we face on this campus are more profound than I anticipated when I took this job ten days ago. We have a problem. We must deal with the problem through the most comprehensive strategic planning process this campus has ever experienced.”

Once President Salmon took control of the university, the mood on campus became more optimistic. He and his wife, Sue, were generous in using Englesby House to host social affairs for faculty, staff members, students, and alumni. One unexpected source of community building appeared during the fall semester of 1992. UVM had been long known for its strong winter athletic teams in skiing and hockey, and the women’s basketball team now became a source of excitement and inspiration as they exploded to a 29–0 record, the only major undefeated Division I team in the country. They suffered a heartbreaking 70–69 loss to George Washington University in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association national tournament, but the next year they continued their home winning streak until it reached a record fifty-two straight games.

True to his word, Salmon organized and chaired a new broadly based Presidential Commission on Critical Choices (PCCC), which consisted of a wide variety of faculty members, students, and administrative staff. The commission, which was organized into seven major subcommittees, issued its initial draft report in January 1993, slightly more than a year after Salmon’s appointment as interim president. The report focused on a vision of UVM’s future, setting forth thirteen basic strategic principles to guide the university. It discussed the urgent need to bring expenses into line with revenues and indicated that UVM could face a deficit as high as $23 to $30 million by 1996 if current trends continued.

After the PCCC draft report was released, the trustees changed Salmon’s status from interim to permanent president. On February 4, 1993, he was officially named as UVM’s twenty-third president. In announcing this appointment, Luther F. Hackett, the trustee chair, said that President Salmon’s experience, determination, commitment, and enthusiasm “will set us on a solid course as we move into the challenges of our third century. . . . We have the right person in the right place for these challenging times.”

During his term in office, President Salmon did not attempt to initiate sweeping changes. His major priorities involved balancing the university’s budget, establishing a closer working rapport with the state, and providing a measured response to key campus concerns. On the issue of diversity, for example, he announced from the outset, “Our pace will be at all deliberate speed. We will not reach for any mythical goals. There will be no quotas, absolutely no quotas. We will seek to achieve quantifiable, measured progress.” Although there was some later criticism that UVM was not moving quickly enough on this issue, Salmon continued to pursue the policy he had outlined at the very beginning of his tenure.

A major celebration occurred on October 1, 1993, when the university marked the successful completion of its capital campaign, which had begun under Lattie Coor, with a record-breaking $108.65 million received from 37,828 donors. The campaign enriched UVM by $20.8 million for scholarships and research, $10.3 million for faculty (including seven new endowed professorships), with additional funds for student services and support, unrestricted needs, and facilities. New buildings included Kalkin Hall to house the School of Business Administration and Stafford Hall, housing the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and the McClure Musculoskeletal Research Center. Improvements were made in Gutterson Field House, the Proctor Maple Research Center, the Perkins Museum of Geology, and the Women’s Studies Center. In addition, a new Arts and Sciences Center has been constructed by renovating and joining the historic Old Mill with neighboring Lafayette Hall.

During his tenure in office, President Salmon presided over a number of other celebratory occasions. In the spring of 1996, UVM’s Historic Preservation Program celebrated its twentieth anniversary, and during the fall semester, the Fleming Museum held a special sixty-fifth birthday party. New academic ventures were also launched, including more multicultural course offerings, a master’s program in public administration (where President Salmon taught his own seminar each year), and a wide variety of courses and conferences offered on a statewide educational network known as Vermont Interactive Television.

Not all of the news during President Salmon’s tenure was favorable. The entire UVM community suffered a major loss on June 22, 1995, with the death of George Kidder, who served the university for over seventy years as a faculty member, a dean, and an outstanding leader in alumni affairs. A difficult area involved state funding, which has not even been able to keep up with inflation. To the contrary, the fiscal year 1996 state appropriation of $26.3 million was $2.3 million less than the fiscal year 1990 appropriation of $28.6 million. Despite this fact, UVM ended its fiscal year firmly in the black by meeting the goals President Salmon set out four years earlier, which cut $9.7 million from the university’s budget. While the realization of a balanced budget in FY 1996 was a major achievement of the Salmon administration, it was only accomplished with considerable pain through minimal salary increases and difficult budgetary cuts. In addition, a drop in total student enrollment during the fall semester of 1996 may well lead to continuing budgetary problems in the future.

In the final analysis, however, President Thomas Salmon achieved what he set out to do when he first accepted The University of Vermont presidency as “equal parts honor and challenge.” He provided the leadership necessary to stabilize the university and to move it back on course. It is now the responsibility of UVM’s twenty-fourth president to provide the qualities of leadership that will continue to foster the university’s growth and development as it enters the twenty-first century.