Alison Despathy: Rutland legislators stand up strong for physical libraries

This commentary is by Alison Despathy, of Danville. She has a clinical nutrition practice in St. Johnsbury.

Since the Feb. 7 announcement of the VSU “all-digital” library, responses from students, faculty, staff and community members have flooded Vermont. The message is clear — this decision does not serve the people and will bring collateral damage to the campuses, communities and the future of higher education in Vermont. Both faculty and staff unions across all three campuses issued a vote of “no confidence.”

Sen. Collamore, R-Rutland District, and Rep. Sammis, R-Rutland, have been activated and working closely with deeply concerned constituents. Castleton, one of the Universities involved in the VSU merger, is in their backyard. This highly controversial and shocking decision will have direct impacts on their communities. In response, both Collamore and Sammis have stepped up and sponsored companion bills in the Senate (S.134) and the House to try and turn this destructive “all-digital” library decision around.

Lou Varricchio/TNR

State Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland

Collamore shared that one of his reasons for sponsoring S.134 was, “Because of the widespread outrage from constituents in the Rutland District and all throughout the state.”  He believes that, “Colleges and universities are expected to have traditional, physical libraries and this “all-digital” library decision will negatively effect enrollment, our communities, incoming classes, and students in years to come.”

After hearing testimony from the VSCS leadership in Senate Institutions, Collamore felt there was an inability and unwillingness to listen and engage in conversation. He hopes that “S.134 with its tremendous tri-partisan support will provide a level of oversight and point out that the decision itself and the way in which it was made are not being accepted well and need to be reconsidered.”

Rep. Jarrod Sammis of Castleton — and a Castleton University graduate (2013) — provided responses to my questions. These shed light on his decision to take action, as well as the broader issues.

1. Why have you chosen to sponsor the S.134 House companion bill?

Rep. Sammis: “I have chosen to sponsor the House bill companion to the Collamore S.134 Senate bill to help bring further awareness to the importance of the issues currently facing our Vermont State College System (VSCS) and to help secure the bill’s passage. As an alumnus of Castleton University and Castleton’s representative, these issues would directly impact all areas of my community as well as other communities around the state.”

Jarrod E. Sammis

Rep. Jarrod Sammis, R-Rutland

2. What are the impacts of this “all-digital” library decision?

Rep. Sammis: “The move to an ‘all-digital’ library would reduce access to literature for community members of all ages in my town and other communities affected by this decision. It would also unfairly discriminate against individuals who may not have the ability or means to use this technology and it would create an additional barrier to information that otherwise could have been accessed simply by checking a book out.”

3. What is your hope for this bill and its impact and message?

Rep. Sammis: “The idea for this bill is to bring attention and awareness to this key and critical issue that Vermont is facing right now. It is also a kindly reminder to the Vermont State College Board and higher leadership that the government of Vermont created this system.  Taxpayers also fund this system and deserve to know that a system primarily funded with their hard-earned money is held accountable for how it is performing. It is also calling to attention the unacceptable behaviors of Vermont State College leadership as well as their inflexibility to find any meaningful solutions.”

In discussing this situation with legislators at the statehouse, a common theme surfacing is that due to the existing VSCS governance structure, some question whether they should get involved. When asked what would prompt action for oversight and accountability- what was their line that could not be crossed- answers varied but for many evisceration of libraries is that line- this move strikes at the heart of our schools and our communities.

The majority of states have higher education oversight, often in the form of a legislative committee. For example, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education must “analyze present and future goals, needs and requirements of public higher education and establish goals to achieve a well-coordinated quality system of public higher education in the Commonwealth.” This board also develops five year plans that must be approved by the Secretary of Education. In the past two decades, legislators in many states have requested and received increases in accountability and oversight of the state’s public colleges.

Vincent Illuzzi, Essex County State’s Attorney, and a former 32 year State Senator for Essex/Orleans currently works for the Vermont State Employees Association. Illuzzi collaborated with Senator Collamore on the language and intent for the S.134 bill to ‘save the libraries’. In conversation with Illuzzi at the statehouse, he conveyed, “A college is not a college without a library. As applicants decide what college to attend, I doubt they will seriously consider a college that cannot afford to keep its library open.” He further explained that “Out of a $71,000,000 appropriation, there are a number of areas where you could find $500,000 without calling into question the viability of all of our state colleges.”

In the Commerce and Economic Development Committee Meeting on Feb. 28 Sammis was able to directly question Katherine Levasseur, the Director of External and Governmental Affairs for the Office of the Chancellor for the VSCS. Sammis asked Levasseur five times about the funding needed and solutions to keep the library system open. She avoided the question every time and Sammis and the committee never received an answer.

On March 9, VSU President Parwinder Grewal shared his ‘Refined Plan for the Vermont State University Libraries.’ This did not entail any real change despite the outcry from the students, staff and communities. There would be no real conversation. This is evident in the following excerpt of his letter,

“I have heard from many of you over these past several weeks and appreciate the time and effort it took for you to make your voices heard. Based on your feedback, we have refined the library operations plan. Even as we transition to a hybrid university with a digital library, our library spaces will continue to be the heart of our campuses with credentialed librarians, special collections, archives and frequently used books and material to meet the needs of our students and communities.”

Sammis summed up the ask and the goal perfectly when he stated:

“It is my hope that the Governor will take notice of this issue and publicly address it, as this issue is beginning to get negative national media attention- not a good thing when you’re trying to rebrand an entire college system. As for my peers in the legislature, I hope that they come forward in support of these bills- as the state of Vermont can no longer afford to have publicly-funded institutions not be held accountable for their detrimental decisions that negatively impact our communities, our education systems and the future security of our state.”

Images courtesy of Jarrod E. Sammis and Lou Varricchio/TNR

One thought on “Alison Despathy: Rutland legislators stand up strong for physical libraries

  1. Re: “Taxpayers also fund this system and deserve to know that a system primarily funded with their hard-earned money is held accountable for how it is performing.”

    The debate over the digital library concept is reasonable. Having access to a book has its benefits. But only one person can read a book at a time.

    On the other hand, to say that the State College system is “… primarily funded with their [taxpayer’s] hard-earned money” is not true. The State Colleges charge tuition. And Governor Scott’s current “proposal to boost their state funding by $4 million with inflationary increases to follow…. would be the first increase in base funding in nearly a decade.”

    We should be proud of Vermont’s State Colleges. They charge less for tuition and room and board to provide an annual undergraduate program than we pay to educate a first grader in our public schools. And I suspect that all State College graduates meet grade-level requirements, while 60% of Vermont public school graduates don’t meet minimum standards.

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