University of Vermont

University Communications

Then and Now: Symposium Takes Stock of Kunin's Vermont

Release Date: 03-03-2010

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203


Madeleine Kunin, the state's first female governor, listens to former members of her administration and experts in education and the environment. They gathered at UVM to talk about the impact of her three terms in office and the role of government in helping solve some of Vermont's toughest current issues. (Photo: Sally McCay)

In some ways, the March 2 symposium celebrating the 25th anniversary of the inauguration of Madeleine Kunin, the state's first female governor, felt like a time warp. There was Kunin, talking policy with members of her administration about the same issues they worked on when she ran the state for six years. Much has changed since then -- thanks in part to some of Kunin's initiatives -- yet many of the same challenges remain.

Sponsored by the Center for Research on Vermont, the symposium, titled "What is the Role of Government? Then and Now," was a mix of nostalgia, current analysis and forecasting. Panel discussions at the Dudley H. Davis Center focused on education, the environment and women's issues -- hallmarks of Kunin's three-term tenure -- and the positive impact government can have when people work collaboratively under strong leadership.

"At the symposium, I realized what has changed and what remains the same," said Kunin, who, in 1985, was the the fourth woman in the nation to be elected governor. "I was struck by how dedicated and talented the people who served in my administration were, many of whom have continued to work in the same fields. It was an exciting time to serve in state government, and we tackled a lot of issues...but some of the issues keep coming back, like school funding, keeping farms productive, protecting existing jobs and creating new ones. The biggest challenge facing us -- then and now -- is how to build a fair tax base that enables government to serve the public, particularly the most vulnerable of our citizens."

Faculty, students, staff and members of the community filled the Silver Maple Ballroom for the morning session titled, "The Environment and Jobs -- Can we have Both?" to hear Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. Lash, who served under Kunin as commissioner of environmental conservation and as head of the Agency of Natural Resources, set the stage for a lively debate by emphasizing the importance of using market forces and incorporating cap and trade programs that reward innovation and efficiency and provide strict environmental accountability without inhibiting economic growth.

Panelist Patrick Parenteau, senior counsel to the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, offered a sobering update on the state of the environment in Vermont, despite Kunin's initiatives begun 25 years ago, including the signing of a pact with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to clean up Lake Champlain, Act 200 and some of the toughest upland stream laws in the nation.

"Kunin had some great ideas on water quality issues," said Parenteau, who served as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation under Kunin. "Where are we 20 years later? At best, maybe we're holding our own in the main bodies (of the lake), but the northern bays are cesspools. The truth is we're not cleaning up the lake."

Still closing the education gap

Gretchen Morse, executive director of the United Way of Chittenden County, and Richard Mills, former commissioner of education for the State of New York, kicked off the "Meeting Human Needs and Improving Education" panel by recalling Kunin's contributions to education and social services, including the creation of Dr. Dynasaur, a program to provide health insurance for Vermont children, and making kindergarten available for all children.

Mills, commissioner of education under Kunin, stressed the importance of closing the education gap between socioeconomic groups and the importance of measuring outcomes to create curriculum that prepares students for the 21st century. Panelist Charlie Smith, who served under Gov. James Douglas as secretary of the Agency of Human Services and secretary of administration, put into perspective the economic realities of running an agency that accounts for two-thirds of all state-collected funds. "It's growing at two to three times the rate of growth of the state economy. That's unsustainable," said Smith, who said he viewed government as a force for good under Kunin and still does today.

Leading women

Kunin, who served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland (1996-99) and as deputy secretary of education (1993-97) under President Bill Clinton, started her keynote address before the start of the "What Difference Do Women in Leadership Make?" panel by citing a number of statistics showing the progress of women over the past 25 years. "I'm happy to report that Vermont is second in the nation for the number of women in the legislature at 37.2 percent," she said.

The rest of the nation isn't fairing as well, she said, pointing to South Carolina where the state legislature has no women, and to the U.S. Congress, comprising just 17 percent women. "We assume the battle has been won and that there are no more gender lines -- and in many ways that's true," she said. "But there's a long way to go."

Kunin gave a number of reasons for why women don't run for office as often as men, including her observation that women need to be asked to run. They also don't think they're qualified while men with similar credentials often do. Each of the women on the panel talked about Kunin's willingness to give them a chance to prove themselves in key positions in her administration, which changed the trajectory of their careers and enabled women after them opportunities previously reserved for men.

"This sounds so basic, but what has enabled women to make a difference is that more of us are in leadership positions," said Ellen Mercer Fallon, who served as counsel to Kunin and became the first female associate at Langrock, Sperry & Wool in 1977 and first female partner in 1980. "Madeleine demanded that good women be found."

The symposium will be shown on RETN Channel 16 on Comcast in Greater Burlington as well as on Burlington Telecom. The program will also be available online (on demand) at