How Did a 'Public Ivy' Take Root in Vermont?

By John Tierney.

By John Tierney

There are lots of familiar American “college towns” – places where a single university dominates the social and economic life of the city. Think Boulder, Ann Arbor, Madison, Berkeley, Princeton, Charlottesville.

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None of those college towns has quite the feel of Burlington, Vermont. 

Part of the difference is that, somewhat unusually for a small town, there’s not just one dominant institution here. The immediate Burlington area has several colleges (the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College, and Champlain College), each of them significant in the character of the city, and each offering glimpses into the disparate challenges facing American colleges and universities. I’ll save Champlain for a future post and focus here on UVM and St. Mike’s.

Why not just UV? Or UVT? UVM is an abbreviation of the university’s Latin name, Universitas Veridis Montis, University of the Green Mountains. And if you’ve ever seen the Green Mountains – or watched the sun set over Lake Champlain with the Adirondack Mountains beyond – you know why Vermonters want to keep that homage to their verdant hills.

Founded in 1791 as a private institution, UVM became the state land grant university in 1865. To graduating high-school students and their families, searching the collegiate landscape for the right landing spot, UVM (roughly 13,000 students total) has been known as one of the “public Ivies,” public universities that are said to provide an Ivy League collegiate experience at a public-school price.  Other public Ivies include: the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and the University of Texas at Austin.

[Photo at top: Old Mill, UVM's oldest building, from the 1800s. Below, Waterman building at UVM. All photos by John Tierney.]

As Jim Fallows has noted earlier, Burlington is unusual in supporting a profitable print newspaper, a non-harassing airport, and a software-company culture you might expect to find in Palo Alto or Seattle rather than Vermont. UVM’s presence among the public Ivies raises a similar question. How can a state with a population of some 600,000, and with no natural-resources revenue base, support an institution that competes with schools in much bigger, richer states?

Much of the answer seems to lie in differential pricing. Back in 1955 the state legislature revised the university’s charter and passed a measure requiring that the university always charge out-of-state students at least 250 percent of the in-state fee. In other words, from a relatively early time, Vermont has been following a practice that other state universities latched onto only much later – putting the lion’s share of the financing for the university on the shoulders of out-of-state students. Only about 6.5 percent of the University’s roughly $617-million budget in 2013 comes from state appropriations. But the $35,000 tuition (and estimated $50,000 total annual expenses) for out-of-state students seems not to be a deterrent: approximately 65 percent of the university’s students come from other states or countries.

UVM also attracts students from around the country who want to compete at the top level in various sports. Not surprisingly, given its locale, the university is especially appealing to world-class skiers: UVM has won the national championship in skiing six times since 1980, most recently in 2012. [Below, UVM's Morrill Hall, home to the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.]

To many who know the university, it’s not the competitive athletes who come to mind when they think of UVM, but another segment of the student population, one that gives rise to lots of jokes about the university – granola-crunching, tree huggers. There’s an intensely outdoorsy, locavore culture that pervades this small city and finds expression at the university.

For example, UVM is one of only a small handful of American colleges and universities to sign onto the Real Food Challenge, a nationwide effort to shift university food budgets away from industrial farms and junk food and toward what food activists call “real food” – “local/community-based, fair, ecologically sound and humane food sources.” The pledge commits UVM to make sure its food budget is at least 20 percent real food by 2020. An ambitious goal that will be harder to reach than one might think – and that fewer than twenty colleges and universities (a real “Who’s Who” of ecologically-minded institutions) have signed onto.

Only a couple miles from UVM, over in nearby Colchester, is St. Michael’s College, which doesn’t have the national profile of UVM, but is very successful in its own niche: it’s a fine Catholic liberal-arts college with about 2000 undergraduates. Founded by Edmundite priests in 1904, St. Michael’s has a welcoming, ecumenical tone that harmonizes to the humanist tenor of the Burlington metropolitan area. If you walk around this campus and talk to its students and faculty, as I did, you get the sense that this attractive, congenial community is serious about trying to offer its students what it calls a “transformational experience.” [Below, campus green at St. Michael's College.]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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