UVM is back

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(Host) After a rough few years, the University of Vermont seems to be hitting its stride again. Commentator Philip Baruth teaches at UVM and offers an insider’s view of the comeback.

(Baruth) I work at the University of Vermont, and there’s something that’s been whispered about for the last year or so all over campus, but for various reasons, no one’s wanted to come right out and say it publicly. But it’s past time it was said out loud:

The University of Vermont is back. Believe me, I was there for the downside and I know.

Since I got to UVM in the early 1990’s, I’ve heard a lot of sentimental stories about the University’s “public Ivy” period, in the 70’s and 80’s. But it’s hard for me to believe that the institution could have been any stronger, or more forward-looking, or better staffed and equipped than it is today.

And let’s be blunt about where we’ve come back from. UVM had some rough times there a few years back, in the 1990’s. We had a couple of high-profile, back-to-back scandals. We had our hockey season abruptly cancelled. We found ourselves in a no-win situation financially. Most tellingly, our University presidents during that period tended not to stick around for long, and while they were in office they seemed unable to rally the people that make up the institution.

But all of that has dramatically changed. It hasn’t happened overnight, and it hasn’t happened without long, intense and applied effort on the part of hundreds of individuals, but the results are undeniable. For the last several years our incoming freshmen classes have been both far more selective and far more diverse; SAT scores are up substantially. And we have a brand-new honors college, designed to challenge these freshmen as they come in the door.

Along with these talented students, I should mention the faculty I’ve seen come in over the last decade. In this very tight academic job market schools like UVM have been able to hire cutting-edge candidates they would certainly have lost to wealthier or more prestigious schools in decades past. The buyer’s market has been tough on individual Ph.D’s, but it’s been an undeniable windfall for UVM. And our new union has negotiated an excellent contract, greatly increasing the chances of retaining these people in the long term.

We have a University president now who seems inclined to stick around, always a good feeling. This president has very big ideas, huge ideas: new dorms, a stadium, a new student center, a massive new capitol campaign, world prominence in the sciences. Commencement this year, our 200th commencement, to be held right on the center of the green. And whatever anyone at UVM may think about any one of these big ideas individually, the truth is that it’s infectious to have them thought about you in the first place.

I’m not saying the University is perfect it never has been, and it never will be. But it’s electric these days. There’s an energy, and a pride, I’ve never seen before. I know some of the people I work with are going to ride me mercilessly for using a sentimental word like “pride,” but I don’t care if sentiment for the institution is a crime, then let me be guilty.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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