University of Vermont

"Action" Is Watchword at Board Meeting as President Details New Strategic Plan

Includes recommendation for less than three percent tuition increase next year

trustees meeting
The UVM Board of Trustees convenes in Memorial Lounge for its November 2012 meeting. (Photo: Sally McCay)

“The time for action has arrived; let us embrace it,” board chair Robert F. Cioffi declared at the opening of the Committee of the Whole meeting of the UVM Board of Trustees last Wednesday.

Cioffi could have been referring to the uncertain state of higher education in 2012, with every week bringing a new magazine or newspaper cover story on the challenges facing colleges and universities, or to a series of forward-looking planning initiatives UVM has undertaken over the past few years.

But much of the vigor behind the statement had to do with the new employee seated to Cioffi’s right, UVM president Tom Sullivan, who was presiding over his first board meeting.

Sullivan has been on a self-described listening tour since arriving at UVM in mid-July, meeting with hundreds of academic and administrative leaders on campus  and hundreds more constituents in and out of the state.

On Wednesday he was ready to deliver a plan of action distilled from all that listening and attendant reading, informed by 34 years in the academy and the analysis of an attorney-president, one of whose legal specialties is “complex litigation,” the sifting through and sorting out of prodigious amounts of data.

The action-oriented results took a number of forms throughout the two-day meeting but crystalized most dramatically in a Strategic Action Plan Sullivan spent much of the Committee of the Whole taking the board through.

Its high points included:

  • A firm resolve to rein in tuition increases and ramp up financial aid. Sullivan said he will recommend a tuition increase of less than 3 percent next year and will make scholarships and financial aid a priority in the upcoming comprehensive campaign.
  • Finding the right balance between tuition prices and scholarships/financial aid that works both for students – attracting them to UVM, encouraging them to persist through graduation and minimizing the debt they accrue – and for the financial sustainability of the university.  
  • Implementing a Strategic Enrollment Plan that will reduce undergraduate enrollment to 9,800 from a high of 10,300 in 2011, boost international enrollment from 1.5 percent to 5 to 7 percent, continue to enhance domestic diversity and give closer attention to the recruitment and success of transfer students.
  • Enhancing the student experience across a range of fronts, from the cultural to the academic, with the goal of increasing first year retention from 85 to 90 percent and four year graduation from 65 to 70 percent.
  • Increasing the number of tenure-track faculty in high quality programs aligned with UVM’s strategic priorities where there have been substantial enrollment increases over targets.
  • Developing graduate programs that ensure the optimal size, scale and scope of the Graduate College, consistent with the university’s vision. 
  • Identifying strategic investments, in facilities, infrastructure and information technologies, essential to the university’s continued advance. In the facilities area, Sullivan described his top four priorities: the Billings Library restoration; restoration of existing laboratories and/or the construction of new ones for engineering, chemistry, physics, and health-related sciences; completion of the privately funded Alumni House restoration; and the design and construction of a privately funded multi-purpose center.

“I think the plan is realistic,” Sullivan said. “But it will require careful balancing between competing and often worthy resource demands.  It won’t be easy.”

Provost Jane Knodell and Vice President for Enrollment Management Chris Lucier revealed more details of the Strategic Enrollment Plan in a presentation to the Committee of the Whole on Thursday. 

The university plans to reduce the percentage of applicants who are offered admission from 77 percent for the class that just entered UVM to 65 percent in three years, a development that will not negatively impact the selectivity rate for Vermont students, which will remain at the 70-72 percent level, where it has been for several years, administrators stressed. In addition, UVM will continue to boost domestic diversity and use a variety of strategies to increase international enrollment.

To accomplish its goals in the domestic market, the admissions office will add staff and expand its recruitment effort in new markets outside UVM’s traditional cachement area of the Northeast, Lucier said. To fund the new enrollment management initiatives, the board passed a resolution allocating $2 million from the fiscal year 2012 general fund operating budget to be used for financial aid and $500,000 to pay for additional recruitment staff and costs in the admissions office for fiscal year 2013. The funds are a one-time allocation with ongoing needs to be built into the base of future operating budgets.

Educational Policy and Institutional Resources Committee

During the EPIR meeting, administrators elaborated on UVM’s proposed international enrollment strategy. The university will identify a strong external company to help support both direct international student recruitment and recruitment through a pathway program. The former includes students who can both meet the academic requirements for acceptance to the university and have the necessary written and verbal English language skills to perform well in a university classroom. The latter is targeted to students who are strong academically and have reasonable competency in English, but who enroll in a two-semester “pathway” before matriculating to boost their academic English skills and acculturate to life at an American university. Enrollment goals are on a fast track, with a plan to start 50 pathway program students in January 2014 and another 70 the following summer.

Widely supported among EPIR members was a proposal to enhance UVM’s career development program, which UVM administrators view as a key strategy for recruiting successful students and preparing them to be accountable leaders after they graduate. Knodell has charged Abu Rizvi, dean of the Honors College, with developing a proposal for a distinctive and exemplary program, which he said could have an immediate effect on recruitment and retention even as improved career outcomes would serve as a powerful marketing tool in the future.

Wanda Heading-Grant, chief diversity officer and special assistant to the president for multicultural initiatives, reported to EPIR on the progress of recommendations following the results of the Spring 2011 Campus Climate Survey. Follow-up focus groups have been conducted with faculty, staff and students to better understand survey results. Heading-Grant is developing a plan to continue assessing campus climate in the future and is working on a proposal for a comprehensive professional development program for the entire campus community. Read a PDF of the full Campus Climate Survey Update.

The committee engaged in a wide-ranging discussion on the assessment of learning outcomes and student success, with broad agreement about their importance. Reports on the assessment of learning outcomes at course, program and university levels will be included in future EPIR agendas. 

Budget,  Finance and Investment Committee

BFI committee members approved three deferred maintenance capital projects totaling $7.3 million: improvements to Living Learning Building C using unrestricted plant funds budgeted by University Relations and Campus Life ($3.5 million); renovations to the Stafford Research Lab using a combination of general funds from the College of Medicine and University Medical Education Association ($2.8 million); and improvements to the Given Atrium Dining Complex using funds budgeted by University Relations and Campus Life ($1 million).       

As part of a broader plan to increase the use of university courses and facilities during the summer, committee members limited the summer 2013 tuition increase to 3.5 percent per credit. The increase will allow the university to keep summer rates 15 percent lower than per-credit-hour costs during the fall and spring semesters. The increase translates to $16 more per credit hour for in-state students bringing the total per-credit-hour cost to $472; and $40 more for out-of-state students for a total per-credit cost of $1,191.

Trustee Sam Bain informed committee members that the university’s endowment had grown at a rate of 10.4 percent for the year and had reached a total of $347.6 million. Committee members passed a resolution to dissolve the Socially Responsible Investing Work Group started in 2008 and replace it with the Socially Responsible Investing Advisory Council. The new council will serve as an advisory body to the vice president for finance and administration and no longer include trustees as sitting members. The charge to consider specific investment policy proposals based on “moral, ethical social criteria” remains the same. 

The first task of the new advisory council will come in late November, when a student-led group advocating that UVM divest from fossil fuel companies will present its case before the body. Sophomore Daniel Cmejla, a spokesman for the Student Climate Culture group, gave a preview of the argument to the full board on Thursday during the public comment period.

Read a PDF of the consent agenda, itemizing all action items approved by the board.