Vermonters Say …

Polls Show: Castleton Making a Difference

During the past 11 years as president at Castleton, I have suggested to all our incoming classes and current students what they need to remember: Their mission is to make a difference in their college and our wider community before they go out to make a difference in the world.

We have another new initiative at Castleton, a dream in the making over the past decade that will help students and their college do just that. The Castleton Polling Institute is already making a difference on campus, in our state and beyond.

Several years ago, we gathered Vermont leaders in the media, government and the corporate world to ascertain interest in a college-run public opinion research and polling center. I wanted to serve Vermont, offer a new forum for enhanced civic engagement, provide talented students and faculty with additional education and employment opportunities with compensation, and provide accurate and timely information regarding public policy issues, electoral campaign polling, private marketing research and other data that would contribute to the enhancement of our quality of life.

We then conducted thorough and comprehensive research related to public and private research centers across the country, hired an experienced consultant, and decided to embark upon a plan that included hiring and training personnel, establishing a new calling center, purchasing state-of-the-art software and technology equipment and cultivating partnerships.

Last year, we completed the most important first task, a national search for an experienced director who would also hold faculty status as a professor. We were fortunate to hire Rich Clark, who had recently run a similar institute at the University of Georgia, as the new director and political science professor. Clark says that “the institute’s vision is simply to be the most authoritative resource for understanding public opinion in Vermont. We want to bring public opinion to the discussion around policy issues.”

This year, we inaugurated the new polling center with careful planning and an eye toward student engagement, faculty involvement, community connections and expanded public consciousness of Castleton as an outstanding, dynamic and thriving college serving students from all over the country.

It should be noted that although Castleton is a Vermont public college with a public mission, it is not a college that is blessed by overflowing financial support from the state. This year approximately 9% of our budget comes from our state appropriation, the lowest of any public college in the country. Nevertheless, we embrace our public mission.

In late February, Clark, along with dozens of well-trained undergraduates, polled 800 Vermonters prior to the presidential preference primary on Super Tuesday with questions related to state and national issues along with the normal “horse race” questions regarding the presidential candidates. The new Castleton Poll caught fire, with reports that week and thereafter citing the results on ABC News, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The New Republic and MSNBC, the website Real Clear Politics, among others, including Vermont media.

During a broadcast of MSNBC’s Hardball show, Chris Matthews reported the results of our poll on national television and looked into the camera and said: “Don’t you just love it when these colleges get all this free publicity for their polling?”

Yes, Chris, we do.

There are other, perhaps more important, aspects as well. We cherish civic engagement. We foster professional educational experiences for students and faculty. We teach issue-identification strategies, instrument design, sample selection, data collection, research methodology, data analysis and media relations. We cultivate and engage public and private partners to research ways they can be more effective and successful. We conduct mail, telephone, Internet and email surveys, as well as in-person interviews and focus group facilitation and analysis.

We also know that we need to balance our budget, and we will accomplish that, growing the Polling Institute as our business increases over time. We are on our way. We are already negotiating contracts with two major broadcast media companies as well as agencies of state government, in and out of Vermont.

Our journey is predicated upon several core beliefs that guide us.

We believe in collaborating with others, including those who have also joined the Association of Academic Survey Research Organizations (AASRO), with more than 70 members. We are connected to other institutions that also produce unbiased, high-quality data and analysis employing, as Clark would say, the most rigorous methods possible within limited budgets.

We believe in learning through more traditional methods, but also through learning-by-doing. Students working in our Polling Institute engage in well-organized and well-planned data collection, developing an understanding of how survey data originates and how it is analyzed. Students are paid for their work in a professional environment that enhances their resumes and their graduate school applications.

We believe in serving the public. We are a resource for the Vermont community and beyond. We work with print and broadcast media, nonprofits, corporate interests, communities and public policy leaders who expect to benefit from objective research recognized in academia as well as the world outside the Ivory Tower.

We believe in making a difference, for our students, our community, our state and our country.

This new venture is doing just that, allowing learning to come alive.

It is a dream come true.

For more information as well as poll results, please check out our website: http://www.castleton.edu/polling/index.htm

Dave Wolk is president of Castleton State College.

Photo: Castleton Polling Institute director Rich Clark supervising students in the calling center. (Courtesy of Castleton State College.)

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