Friday, May 20, 2016

Campus Paradise Lost: The Fall of Burlington College

Just before classes began at Burlington College in September 2011, President Jane O’Meara Sanders offered local media a tour of the school’s new campus and her vision of the future. A few days later, she followed up with the Board of Trustees, cheerily pleased with the press coverage and the school’s mention in a Newsweek-Daily Beast poll as the number one college for “free-spirited students.” 

Finally, she wrote, “we are getting the creative message through nationally.”

One of the country’s smallest post-secondary institutions, originally launched in 1972 as a “school without walls” for non-traditional students, Burlington College was about to turn 40. In addition to a large new campus, it was adding academic majors and had ambitious plans to more than double its enrollment by the end of the decade.

Sanders, wife of Vermont's famous junior US Senator, presented a range of optimistic enrollment goals, sometimes reaching as high as 500 students within five years, double the highest figure in the school’s history.

Two weeks later, however, she unexpectedly resigned after reaching a private settlement with the Board of Trustees. A press release from the college, which had purchased buildings and property previously owned by the Catholic Diocese for $10 million less than a year before at her urging, said that Sanders would step down on Oct. 14 but gave no reason for the change.

So began a four year slide that ultimately led to the sudden announcement that Burlington College would close by the end of May 2016. 

In January, Catholic parishioners in Vermont asked the US attorney in Vermont and the inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to investigate if Ms. Sanders committed federal bank fraud by misrepresenting the college’s fundraising commitments to secure loans for the land purchase. As faculty and staff emptied the school building prior to a May 27 takeover by the People's United Bank, locks were changed, students held a public funeral, and one witness close to the administration claimed that computer hard drives had been seized by unnamed officials.

Staying Small

Had it survived, even with a 34-acre campus offering views of Lake Champlain and five times as much space for classes and offices, Burlington College would have remained one of the five smallest colleges in the country. In Vermont only two schools had fewer students. For four decades, BC's annual enrollment had fluctuated between 100 and 250.

To double that number by 2020, enrollment would have to increase by at least 12 percent a year, a goal well beyond the national average and a radical departure from the school’s track record. The $10 million purchase of the Catholic Diocese property, as well as committing to more than $3 million in renovations, had put the school under serious financial, management and academic pressure. 

During the previous decade Burlington College’s annual income had grown by about half a million, from $2.744 million in 2001 to $3.372 as of 2008, based on federal 990 tax filings. But until recently enrollment had been on the decline. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of students dropped by about 40 percent, from 250 to 156. Enrollment had risen since, reaching somewhere between 180 and 200 students attending part or full-time at the time Sanders resigned.

While the number of students had decreased during the last decade, income from tuition had increased from $1.998 to $2.912 million. The school kept pace financially through a series of tuition increases that accelerated after Sanders became president. Tuition rose over 60 percent from $13,120 in 2003, the year before she arrived, to $22,407 in 2011.

During the same period the school’s assets also increased, from under a million in 2004 to $1.454 million by 2008, or around 50 percent. Sanders’ salary went from $103,500 to more than $150,000.

Of Vermont’s 30 colleges and universities, only seven cost more – Green Mountain, Landmark, Bennington, St. Mike’s, Marlboro, Norwich and Champlain. The University of Vermont’s in-state tuition was about $6,000 a year less. Despite its attractive new campus, Burlington College was at a competitive disadvantage, especially for in-state students, and lacked sufficient discretionary funds to embark on the kind of sustained marketing it needed, especially with increased overhead.

Sanders Takes Charge 

Prior to becoming Burlington College president in 2004, Jane Sanders worked as campaign manager for her husband Bernie Sanders, then a US congressman. Her credentials also included a stint running Goddard College and almost a decade as head of youth services for Burlington, mainly during the Sanders administration.

In 2005 she said that increasing student numbers was vital because tuition dollars would help pay for the overall plan she was developing. As it turned out, tuition dollars rose but the number of students didn’t. The college was also mindful of its mission to stay small, she added. In 2006, however, she announced a $6 million expansion plan. The initial idea was to build a three-story structure next to the current building on North Avenue.

Hired at about the same salary as her predecessor, President Sanders received salary bumps for the next five years, ultimately topping $150,000 in 2009. During the same period tuition rose by more than $5,000 while enrollment dipped to 156 students.

By 2008, students and faculty were expressing frustration, especially after the dismissal of popular literature professor Genese Grill. Students, faculty and staff said that the environment at the school had become toxic and disruptive. In interviews, many blamed Sanders and decried what was described as a “crisis of leadership.”

More than two dozen faculty and staff left the school during Sanders’ tenure, according to then-Student Government President Joshua Lambert. Grill claimed she was fired for criticizing Sanders, particularly for a letter to Academic Affairs Committee Chair Bill Kelly blaming Sanders for an “atmosphere of fear and censorship” on campus. Sanders called Grill’s critique unfair but declined to discuss the details. 

The American Association of University Professors, which became aware of the dispute, noted that Burlington College lacked a grievance policy for faculty, an omission considered “quite unusual.” Robert Kreiser, program officer in AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, told the weekly, Seven Days, “A faculty member should have the right to speak out about actions and policies at his or her own college.” He offered to help Sanders draft a new policy but she declined.

We are leaving a 16,000 square foot building on 2 acres to a 77,000 square foot building on 34 acres. Instead of a lake view, we have lakefront.”
                                                                               – Jane O’Meara Sanders

Despite faculty resignations and student objections, the trustees continued to  back their CEO. “The board is quite confident in Jane’s leadership, and we stand by her,” said Patrick Gallivan, who was board chair In 2008.

By 2011, the Board was being chaired by Adam Dantzscher, a credit and debt consultant, and Gallivan, a vice president at St. Michael’s College, had become vice chair. Members included two local orthopedic surgeons, a psychologist and a workplace consultant, the development director of Fletcher Allen Hospital and an emeritus faculty member from UVM.

The business community was represented by David Dunn, an advisor at the Vermont Small Business Development Center; Rob Michalak, Director of Social Mission for Ben & Jerry’s; and David Grunvald, vice president of Preci Manufacturing, a leading Vermont military contractor. The Board was rounded out by peace activist Robin Lloyd, student representative Brendan Donaghey, and Jonathan Leopold, former Chief Financial Officer for the City of Burlington.

Originally appointed as city treasurer by Bernie Sanders decades earlier, Leopold had become treasurer of the Burlington College board, and chaired the crucial Finance an d Facilities Committee. He'd left city employment the previous June, as controversy erupted over his handling of Burlington Telecom financing, but continued consulting for the city under a short-term contract. His wife Roxanne was part of Burlington College’s core staff; she headed the school’s psychology and human services programs.

Buying a Campus 

When the school community gathered to honor the 34 members of its 2011 graduating class at its new campus, Sanders acknowledged that the only man who could have brokered such a deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese was real estate mogul Antonio Pomerleau. A prominent local Catholic, Pomerleau had been a prime target of Bernie Sanders’ political attacks when he first became Burlington mayor. But since then they had become family friends. 

“He understands relationships,” Jane Sanders explained at 2011 graduation ceremonies. “Not just ‘who you know,’ but an understanding that leads to a reputation, and to trust.”

As a result of more than two dozen sexual abuse lawsuits, the Catholic Diocese was on the hook for $17.65 million in settlements. The property initially went on the market for $12.5 million. Although $10 million looked like a bargain, not everyone was impressed. According to Erick Hoekstra, a developer for a local commercial development firm, City officials may have overvalued the property. Even if hundreds of housing units were eventually built on the land, a more realistic price was $5 million to $7 million, he claimed.

The college’s vision for its new land base was ambitious but expensive. The main building was already being renovated for classrooms, administration offices and labs. Eventually, the former bishop’s residence, with a view of Lake Champlain,  would provide space for public events, study rooms and visiting faculty.  For the first year $1.2 million was budgeted for renovations. But it would cost at least $2 million more to complete the transformation, including work on an enormous building previously rented by the Howard Center to provide housing for about 16 students.

“It’s fabulous,” said Sanders. “We are leaving a 16,000 square foot building on 2 acres to a 77,000 square foot building on 34 acres. Instead of a lake view, we have lakefront.”

According to Dantzscher, the strategic plan developed five years before had basically been achieved. “Now we can decide and dictate our own destiny,” he predicted.

To make this dramatic expansion work financially, the college tried to lower some of its expenses by refinancing debt and improving energy efficiency. However, Sanders acknowledged that completing the move would require still more borrowing. In addition, a $6 million capital campaign (increased from an initial $4 million) had been launched. But progress was slower than hoped.

Subsequent investigations have suggested that Sanders overstated donation amounts in a bank application for the $6.7 million loan used by the college to purchase the land. She apparently told People’s United Bank that the college had $2.6 million in pledged donations to support the purchase. But the college received only $676,000 in actual donations from 2010 through 2014, according to figures provided by the college. That’s far less than the $5 million Sanders listed as likely pledges in the loan agreement, and less than a third of the $2.14 million she told People’s Bank the college would collect in cash during the four-year period.

Two people whose pledges are listed as confirmed in the loan agreement told VTDigger that their personal financial records show their pledges were overstated. Neither were aware that the pledges were used to secure the loan. Burlington College also cited a $1 million bequest as a pledged donation that would be paid out over six years, even though the money would only be available after the donor’s death.

Evolving Academics

In its final years, the most popular academic programs at the school included film, photography, fine arts and integral psychology. As part of an expansion plan, new majors were proposed in media activism and hospitality/event management, as well as four new Bachelor of Fine Arts degree programs. It already offered study abroad opportunities, including one in Cuba with the University of Havana, and an Institute for Civic Engagement to promote an informed, active citizenry.

Most Burlington College students were under 25, a contrast with both the school’s early history and recent educational trends. Nationally, the number of older students was rising faster than enrollment for those under 25, a pattern expected to continue. The question confronting the Board of Trustees was whether a small school, even with a lovely new campus, could succeed in doubling its student body in the current academic and economic environment. 

Sanders' critics said the underlying problem was that she was more concerned with image and marketing than academic quality. As one former faculty member who asked to be kept anonymous put it, she preferred hiring “young inexperienced, but ‘hip’ people whom she hopes she can push around.”

Dynamics of Growth 

If there was a precedent for the school’s expansion hopes, it was less than a mile away at Champlain College. Founded as Burlington Collegiate Institute by G.W. Thompson in 1878, it was renamed Burlington Business College in 1884, moved to Bank Street in 1905, and relocated to Main Street in 1910.

The College took its current name in 1958 and moved to the Hill Section of Burlington. That year, it offered only associate’s degree programs, had about 60 students and no dorms. But it had grown enormously in the decades since then, launching new programs in the social services, adding a campus center in 1989, bachelor’s degree programs in 1991 and online education as early as 1993.  Today it has around 3,000 students and a sprawling campus.

In contrast, Burlington College, while expanding its core and adjunct faculty from 15 to almost 100 over the years, its staff from less than 10 to 61, and its budget from $200,000 to almost $4 million, never saw significant enrollment growth. In fact, while Champlain’s student body was exploding Burlington College’s declined.

One of the differences was that Champlain expanded its campus based on increased demand for business and technology education, while Burlington College hoped that better facilities, more majors and a larger land base would attract students. In other words, if you build them – programs and facilities, that is – they will come. However, this approach was at odds with the school’s original intent – academic freedom and self-designed studies in diverse community settings rather than on a traditional "bricks and mortar" campus. 

A larger campus created opportunities but also challenges. In the former category was space to create dorms for up to 100 students, an attractive campus for mid-career professionals in master’s programs, plus labs and a student lounge. But it made rapid growth essential. If student enrollment didn't rise consistently, it was clear that the new campus would become a burden, one that required either dramatically increased fundraising, even higher tuition costs, or somehow leveraging the school’s land base to compensate.

About four years after the purchase, faced with bankruptcy, Burlington College was forced to sell most of the property to developer Eric Farrell. At first the idea was that the school might remain, retaining some programs in a small portion of the former Catholic Diocese headquarters, with Farrell building 600 housing units on the rest of the land. For the City of Burlington, this would represent tax revenue. Like the Catholic Diocese the College was tax exempt. 

Now Burlington College is completely out of the picture, and any housing built on the land will bring in property taxes. Some of the units will even be affordable. But the questions surrounding the untimely demise of Burlington's most progressive college will haunt the community for years to come.

Much of this material was first published in 2011 by VTDigger.

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