Moulton Seeks Stability

VTC Pat Moulton-2468.jpg

Front Page / Jun. 15, 2017 8:41am EDT

VTC Anticipates Growth in Enrollment
By Dylan Kelley

Vermont Technical College President Patricia Moulton. (Herald File / Tim Calabro)Vermont Technical College President Patricia Moulton. (Herald File / Tim Calabro)Now that the 151st graduating class of Vermont Technical College has flown the coop, one would think that freshly minted VTC President Patricia Moulton would finally have some time to relax and settle into her still-new position. But as her schedule will attest, the lazy days of summer are a long way off for Moulton as she takes the helm of a once-imperiled gem of the Vermont State College system and guides it toward financial and institution stability.

For starters, summertime at the Randolph Center campus is hardly peaceful and bucolic. Within days of 2017’s commencement ceremony, the calendar was packed with a litany of renovations, conferences, courses, and summer camps of all kinds.

“I do notice that the schedule hasn’t seemed to let up a whole lot,” said Moulton from her new office in the college’s administration building, ticking off a number of soon-to-be-underway capital projects to improve dorms, classrooms, and other facilities across the 544-acre campus.

“It’s going to be a kind of busy construction season.”

Summertime scheduling and construction aside, Moulton has plenty of work ahead as the school is already gearing up for the fall, where a five percent enrollment increase is expected for the incoming class based on projections from Moulton’s administration.

“Applications are way up,” she said with a smile. “So, we’re feeling pretty bullish about the fall, both here and in Williston,” she said, describing high enrollment in programs both with and without enrollment caps. “Overall we’re feeling pretty optimistic.”

Finding Terra Firma

“Optimism” hasn’t always been on the lips of VTC leadership in recent years. VTC inherited a $3.3M operating deficit following the short-lived but nearly-catastrophic tenure of Phil Conroy that witnessed plummeting enrollment and rising operating costs.

Under the leadership of Dan Smith, who departed last year to become president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation, VTC was able to trim that deficit by nearly 80% in two-and-a-half years while also increasing enrollment.

“We are well out of our hole,” said Moulton with characteristic enthusiasm. “We will end 2017 with approximately a $100,000 operating loss,” she said, a significant reduction from the already impressive $670,000 figure reached under Smith’s leadership. “We’re doing much better in that regard and we have submitted a completely balanced budget for fiscal year 2018.”

As icing on the financial cake, Moulton is expecting Vermont Technical College see a balanced budget for the first time in a decade.

“For this college in particular, in three years, to have dug out of that hole is amazing,” she said. “I credit the work of Dan Smith and Lit Tyler, and frankly the entire team here at Vermont Tech and all our campuses for keeping the belt tightened and watching expenses,” she said, attributing the school’s rebound to the plan laid out by her predecessors.

“I can honestly say that I’ve just had to stay the course between what Dan and Lit have put together in the face of a lot of pent-up demand for expenditures here … I think overall, the college is in a very stable place at the moment, where we weren’t stable three years ago.” said Moulton.

Reckoning with constricted budgets and lean operations could almost be a Pat Moulton specialty. Recounting her lengthy career in public service with multiple Vermont governors, she looks back on years of operational deficits with pragmatism and good humor.

“It’s not my first rodeo in dealing with financially strapped organizations,” she said, noting that she couldn’t recall the last time she wasn’t facing a budget decrease or level-funding scenario as part of her work as Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and the Commissioner of Department of Labor.

“That’s no different here,” she said before rolling through a mental list of questions and priorities ahead of her. First among those is how create efficient systems so that VTC faculty and staff can lighten their increasing workloads.

“We’ve cut ourselves pretty lean. We’re down to the bone in many cases,” she said. “We’re pretty well maxed out now but I’m sure there are things that we can do differently and better and try to gain back some capacity.”

Moulton was also careful to say that creating new efficiencies did not necessarily mean cutting positions at the college.

“I want to make sure people understand that it’s efficiency gains to gain back capacity, not to look at ‘how can we cut,’” she said.

Looking Ahead

Now that the school has managed to deal with the majority of its financial woes, the question facing Moulton is, inexorably, where to go from here?

For Moulton and others at VTC, this means dealing with changing perceptions of higher education as well as meeting the demands of a job market that is rapidly evolving.

“We’re bucking the tide of perception, when in fact the real world is screaming for more graduates with those capabilities,” she said, describing continually changing technical skills used in civil engineering and advanced manufacturing that are occasionally spurned by parents due to outdated perceptions of the work and its educational requirements.

In addition to winning over high school grads, Moulton is also setting her sights on non-traditional students, including adults who may be looking to obtain a certificate or associates degree with the hope of spring-boarding their way to a more rewarding career path.

But wooing non-traditional students inevitably requires non-traditional approaches to higher education, a notion Moulton is keeping at top the of her mind as she looks to expand and upgrade VTC locations and “telepresence” options around the state, particularly at the school’s Williston location, which Moulton described as “bursting at the seams.”

“The future I see is really maintaining the niche that Vermont Tech is so good at … but doing it in more creative delivery methods,” she said.

Building Relationships

Despite her zeal for expanding and upgrading VTC’s facilities at the far corners of the state, Moulton also recognized another essential upgrade: improving the “town-gown” relationship between VTC’s neighbors, the first step of which necessitates another transition.

“I’m moving into the President’s House,” she said, raising her eyebrows excitedly. “I will be a resident of Randolph and that will make life a lot easier, but I’m in the midst of packing now.”

In addition to cutting down on her commute from Montpelier, Moulton hopes that relocating on Saturday to the Randolph Center campus will also help improve community relationships by personally hosting meetings and sponsoring local events.

“I want to do a better job collaborating with the town of Randolph,” she said. “I hope that we can get at that soon.”

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