Alison Despathy: Vermont State University at crossroads over ‘all-digital’ libraries

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

“A library without books is an oxymoron” proclaimed a wise elder at the Northern Vermont University Lyndonville campus this past Friday. NVU hosted an open forum after the overwhelmingly negative community response to the Vermont State University’s controversial decision to shift libraries to “all-digital.” NVU Provost Nolan Atkins, Vermont State University’s (VSU) President Parwinder Grewal, and Vice President of Admissions Maurice Ouimet were present to listen to the concerns of the attendees who came to stand up, push back and ensure their voices were heard regarding this shocking announcement. The consensus was unanimous: this was unacceptable. Both faculty and staff unions issued a vote of “no confidence.”

Speeches at NVU on Friday covered many legitimate concerns: censorship, students’ needs for guidance from librarians and human interaction with material, engaged staff and a dedicated space. With strong emotions, students voiced their need for hands-on books, valid information and librarians. Issues related to the health detriments of excessive screen time and students’ documented disabilities due to this were also part of the conversation. ‘What is a university without a library’ was the burning question.

The themes conveyed by faculty, staff, students and community members centered around broken trust, lack of communication, compassion and integrity. Many have been working tirelessly in committees to ensure a smooth transition towards an end-product that serves all involved. It has been a bumpy road and this announcement to move to an “all-digital” library shattered any hope and trust that had been built through this VSU transformation process.

This unprecedented move has stirred up valid conflict of interest questions regarding the role of Megan Cluver, Vermont State College System’s (VSCS) current vice chair and chair of the Education, Personnel and Student Life Committee. Megan Cluver is also a senior manager at Deloitte. She has worked with the Deloitte Higher Education Team for over 15 years assisting universities with their transformation efforts. This fact has been rumbling and whispered in the background. With the recent announcement of an all-digital library, Cluver’s Deloitte connection has surfaced and questions regarding her influence and intentions on this decision now demand full attention.

Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited’s main headquarters are in London, England. They are the largest professional services provider and are one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms. As of 2022, Deloitte employs 415,000 people and grossed 59.3 billion US dollars.

On its website, Deloitte shares its purpose:

Making an impact that matters, together. All our successes, the differences we make for our clients, our people, and in our communities around the globe, come down to our purpose: to make an impact that matters. It is this simple statement that defines each decision, each connection, and drives us — always. To uphold integrity and promote a culture of inclusion. To build better futures.

Deloitte’s offered services include Audit and Assurance, Consulting, Financial Advisory, Risk Advisory, Legal, Tax and Deloitte Private. Deloitte serves a wide variety of industries across all sectors including consumer based, energy resources and industrial, financial services, government and public services, life science and health care as well as technology, media and telecommunications.

On its technology web page, the company states: “Fueled by emerging technologies and trends such as AI, anything-as-a-service (XaaS), cloud, and edge computing, the technology industry continues to define our ever-dynamic future. We provide a network of industry specialists and innovative solutions to help you thrive.”

Deloitte lists its strategic alliances and partnerships with Google, Oracle, SAP (an “intelligent, cloud-enabled enterprise), ServiceNow (digitized platform to enable re-imagined workflows), and Workday (data analytics to promote progress and efficiency).

Specifically, the Deloitte Digital “Bring your business to its next level of digital maturity” website states:

Digital technology has changed the face of business as we know it. Deloitte Digital is here to help you use it to your advantage. Our services help you advance customer-and design-centric thinking throughout your organization, from strategy through execution.

Deloitte Digital combines Deloitte’s globally recognized strength in business transformation and technology implementation with the capabilities of a world class digital agency. We can support your organization across the digital life cycle — from working to define a bold digital strategy to designing and building your online and mobile presences, using agile methods that move quickly from digital concept to digital reality. Use our innovative mobile, web, and social solutions to increase the impact of digital for your customers, employees and partners.

Megan Cluver is a high ranking Deloitte consultant with access to a wide variety of Deloitte’s digital services. This coupled with the fact that Cluver is also working in an influential position on the VSCS board has raised red flags for many. Questions related to the intention behind the hybrid university and “all-digital” library decisions, who will host the platforms, and if it will actually serve the students and community are at the forefront. Based on the high level of petition signatures, rallies and push back across the state, many agree it will not serve the students and comunity.

Another question relating to integrity involves a  YouTube video entitled, “The Future of Hybrid U- Meeting the Needs of NKUs Students in a Hybrid Environment.” This video was moderated by Dr. Ashish Vaidya, president of Northern Kentucky University and recorded on Nov. 18, 2021. Cluver took part in this panel discussion as a Deloitte representative, national leader in higher education and a VSCS board member.

The concept of the hybrid university was brewing at Deloitte in the summer of 2020. Conversations about “how we could take advantage of some of these emergency measures for long term good?” surfaced in this video, which was utilized to promote the hybrid university model to colleges and organizations. What has many concerned was the fact that, at the time of this video, the hybrid model for VSU had not yet emerged. Faculty and staff were informed that the hybrid university model was developed from surveys and conversations with Vermont stakeholders.

Was there an existing plan in place, and to what degree is Megan Cluver or her work with Deloitte influencing the VSCS decision regarding the development of the hybrid model and the future of education in Vermont? At this time, these are the questions needing scrutiny as many seek to ensure that sound policy, serving students, and a well-rounded and sustainable educational model are the priorities of the decision making process for the future of VSU.

In this video, Cluver emphasizes the significance of students, specifically stating:

I think what is most important to think about here is really to come back to the student at the center. … how does the student perceive and want to experience a hybrid student campus.  And that’s different than how faculty may want to perceive it or what parents may have as a perspective. So those different stakeholders are all important in the conversation, but you need to identify who the most important stakeholder is, and I would posit that that truly is the student.”

Based on this statement and after witnessing the reaction from students regarding the all-digital library, many hold hope that their needs and opinions will be taken into account as the decision is revisited. On Friday, President Grewal stated a regroup would happen after input was gathered from the open forums.

At the 2022 Educause conference in Denver, Colorado, Megan Cluver took part in the “Tech Roles and the Future of Work” session. As reported in EdTech Magazine:

Cluver suggested thinking about the future of work in three parts: work, workplace and workforce.  When considering the work itself, determine what tasks will be performed by machines versus humans. How can technology help in fulfilling the overall mission? Are their instances where tasks can be automated to lessen the burden on workers? Cluver said this could be seen as a shift from a “build” culture” to a “buy” culture where software applications are outsourced to vendors.

This could easily equate to a loss of human interaction, human connection and jobs. This thought process also raises the question of workforce development versus education. There is clearly a role for both, but they are significantly different. It is apparent that the VSU community is demanding education — that is actually why many attend a university.

Cluver also stated, “We’re thinking about the requirements for skills versus the requirements for degrees, and whether those skill requirements are evolving as the role of IT teams is evolving over time.” Options within these realms would be ideal. There is an international trend towards unpacking education and gaining skills and badges for lifelong learning instead of a well-rounded, traditional education. Training a corporate workforce is not education. Ensuring options and classical education for students will be an essential task for educators and administration moving forward.

Ultimately, Cluver’s association with Deloitte and its digital services and hybrid university model have led to questions relating to integrity and trust and the resulting need to ensure that all are acting in good faith and for the benefit of the VSCS community. Many acknowledge that technology and digital services are tools that can serve, but they are limited in their capacity to offer a well-rounded education. Situations exist in which educational experiences are compromised with digital technologies. The VSU team is at a crossroads and faces pivotal decisions about what types of technology and to what extent technology should play a role in their new model. The VSU community is clearly demanding conversation and active participation in this decision.

Deloitte is a leader in Blockchain and Digital AssetsSocial Impact InvestingDigital TwinsWeb3Facial RecognitionArtificial Intelligence and Analytics , and the Spatial Web. It holds partnerships with companies such as Ultimate Software, a leader in human capital markets. Urgent questions and concerns exist regarding these ethically controversial tech services. The predatory possibilities of these highly unregulated, financially profitable technologies have many on high alert. As the hybrid model university based on digitalization evolves and brings with it a need for tools and services, awareness that these may compromise education, human rights, jobs and experiences versus enhancing them is paramount.

Digital services require data — the most sought after commodity at this time. Human data is an infinite, extractive resource and with a growing data economy comes a Wild West type charge for companies and institutions to gain access to data and control over user platforms and dashboards which manage and gather this highly valuable data “commodity.” The technological and financial possibilities related to data are exponentially growing and the demand has forced many to seek the supply in all ways possible — including ethically questionable means.

Hybrid universities require significant digital services and technologies in order to function and operate effectively. These are often sourced out, and whether Deloitte or its strategic partners will provide these services is a key question on the table. Many are examining the integrity around the all-digital library decision and demanding a thorough assessment of repercussions, which many claim did not include their input. Trends should not be the defining factor in such a far reaching and impactful decision. Trends come and go, but a good education is forever. A comprehensive analysis, honest conversations and transparency for all involved is necessary.

People are passionately and fiercely communicating their human rights and needs to interact with each other with real books in real places. They are seeking real education in the real world. Digital technology in its many forms is a tool that can augment the learning experience and access, but it is very apparently not the world that students want to fully immerse themselves in for their educational and life experiences. Human connection, real books and real education are at the forefront of the message here; people are choosing reality, humanity and wisdom.

Vermont State University would be wise to listen to the students, staff, faculty and community members. As the transient technology trends push out the human aspect of education, VSU would attract more students who seek human connection, balance and books.

Image courtesy of Pubilc domain

12 thoughts on “Alison Despathy: Vermont State University at crossroads over ‘all-digital’ libraries

  1. If climate change is going to as bad as they say it’s going to get one would think that these geniuses would be doing everything possible to energy. The last time I checked books did not have a cord that had to be plugged in to read it.

  2. Seems like the misguided president of the Vermont State University, Parwinder Grewal, and his cohorts, are following in the path of certain publishers who are now editing (read censoring) children’s books in the name of “wokeness.” The language of the wonderful books of Roald Dahl, the books we read our children and grand children, is being censored by the progressive left. Time to buy the vintage copies of “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and of course, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” before they disappear. President Grewal et al is simply removing all the physical books, and I’ll bet the electronic equivalents of those books, and countless others, will be highly censored–all in the name of social justice. Offering only electronic versions of books, as the left would like them viewed, isn’t nearly as messy or noticeable as literally burning the the hard copies…

  3. Re: “Have you noticed that as we’ve transitioned into more and more learning and reading online our test scores in schools have dropped?”

    Perhaps you’re right Laura. Our intellectual capabilities are clearly going downhill… as witnessed on this forum where everything cited, written, and read is digital.

  4. Gary,

    You got it right. The Johnson (and Lydonville I believe) should be closed. This is what a past administrator recommended however, he had to resign after making the recommendation (if I remember correctly). The only campus that has enrollment is Castleton (the Flagship) and actually attracts students. Full disclosure, I am a Castleton Alum. It’s a shame.

    • I’m also a Castleton alum. Johnson and Lyndon have their own value. Some majors at Lyndon are not taught at Castleton. I graduated from Castleton, moved to the Boston area, worked, raised my kids, moved back to be with siblings in VT. I moved back just before covid hit. My goal was to work at Lyndon, it’s just down the street. I had to work somewhere else but drive by on my way to/fro work. It’s busy there and summer camps, out door concerts and theatre pleasantly were loud.

  5. Gary,

    You got it right. The Johnson (and Lydonville I believe) should be closed. This is what a past administrator recommended however, he had to resign after making the recommendation (if I remember correctly). The only campus that has enrollment is Castleton (the Flagship) and actually attracts students. Full disclosure, I am a Castleton Alum. It’s a shame. The more I read about my home state, the better I feel about relocating down south.

    • Chris, we agree sort of…
      I do not understand why Castleton is the “flagship” college of the system. Lyndon has a gorgeous campus and is the easiest to get to due to being on i91 and 8 miles from the end of i93 both of which give easy access from all of southern New England. It also has close access to activities in surrounding communities for its students including the new “Mecca” for 20-30 something’s, Littleton, NH.
      Of course, it would help if the liberal Progs In Montpelier that want to bleed the body politic for every conceivable giveaway agenda could be shamed into diverting more funds for higher Ed in VT,
      Again, I would shut Johnson down and then see if the remainder schools can figure out ways to survive.

  6. Horrible idea. Typical too, and predictable.
    There are a few good books predicting this kind of future:
    1984, by George Orwell
    Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
    Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

    Sadly, today’s technocrats don’t see them as warnings of a bad future, but as a blueprint for their plans.
    Totalitarianism is their goal.

    I don’t like reading a lot on the computer, either. Print on paper is much easier on the eyes.
    But mainly, printed material can’t be retroactively edited, as online texts surely will.
    This is technocratic tyranny. It’s good to see lots of people don’t want it, but you can bet they will push this anyway. Why wouldn’t they? A disiniformed public is easily manipulated, and the reasons to do that have always existed.
    Eliminating books and printed material is tyranny. That’s its real purpose!

  7. Wake up. Smell the coffee…VT cannot solve all problems in the world…from Climate Change to State Colleges…and ALL in between…with a mere 345,000 people working here and VT already spends close to $8.2 billion this year? It’s just a fact. VT cannot afford to keep/fund all the handful of State Colleges, rolled into one “VSU”. There’s no money for them. Closing a Library or halting some sports is a bandaid – on what is a mortal wound anyway.

    Solution? VT should keep just one Campus…likely Johnson State….and then sell all others. Harvard could buy one and create satellite campus….or a consortium of Big Tech firms buy a campus and create an intense, immersive IT program. ALL BIG TECH complains huge that they can find good IT, programmers or coders. Solution? Buy Castleton State, Lyndon State etc….and offer intense IT degree…2, 3 ,4 year programs. All is in place…dorms, food service, class rooms, parking, lecture halls etc. if VT does not WAKE UP…and do something like this…they will just drag it out to the end …a forced shut down of ALL the campuses. No money to fund and fewer & fewer paying students coming in…equals….financial disaster. The 345,000 working, tax paying, VT’ers cannot afford to bail them out. Game over, soon enough.

    • This is a long commentary that makes a number of great observations specific to the issue. However, this genesis of this action is this;
      Anyone paying attention understands, the newly congregated “Vermont State University” colleges are in nearly bankrupt fiscal condition. The reasons are many and systemic. The college system cannot be resuscitated by nibbling around the edges as this initiative does.
      If Chancellor Sophie Zdatny and newly minted President Parwinder Grewal had any chutzpah at all they would shut down the Johnson facility. While certainly picturesque, it is sparsely attended, hard to get to especially during winter months, nothing for students in the community – essentially a million miles from nowhere. It is simply a place today that doesn’t attract enough students to be viable.
      The administration knows that and still will not act.
      While doing away with library books has made teachers and students apoplectic because they weren’t included in the decision is absurd. To ask the teachers and students to come up with ideas to fix the system is ridiculous as none of them would or could recommend the drastic measures needed to right the ship. The Chancellor, President and administration continue to abrogate their responsibilities by kicking the can down the road over and over.
      The only one that raised the red flag vigorously was Chancellor Jeb Spaulding in 2020. And, when he did, there was such a firestorm, he was forced (or chose) to quit realizing that no one in governance has the chutzpah to do something meaningful about it because it hasn’t for years.
      For all the largess VT pols have showered on the state, the VT college system is inextricably not one of them. Check out this article from 7 Days focusing on the fact it is nearly last for state funding in this country.

  8. My aunt that has two masters degrees in a related field is far more equipped to explain this than I am. It’s a lot of brain science.

    But much of this is common sense.
    Have you noticed that as we’ve transitioned into more and more learning and reading online our test scores in schools have dropped?
    There is a problem with retention. The brain simply does not retain information as well from reading online vs in books.
    It’s an entirely different experience and one that many people are not wired to fully maximize.
    When you look at the drops in our IQ, the test scores, it would seem to make no sense at all to put our eggs entirely in the digital basket. Because the more we are going there, the worse the mental state of the flock is becoming.

    Further, it’s unrealistic and this is really what discrimination looks like.
    There are many places without good internet- if any at all.
    There are many poor people than cannot afford internet.
    There are many people simply choosing to not live this way.
    My own local librarian has told me there is a growing number of people deciding to unplug/disconnect and cut cords for a variety of reasons.
    So what about them?
    It’s not right at all to push people entirely in a direction that they either cannot fully participate in or don’t choose too.

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