Burlington College grapples with growing pains

Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders. Photo courtesy of Burlington College.

Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders. Photo courtesy of Burlington College.

Just before classes began at Burlington College last week, its 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 as a “school without walls” for non-traditional students, Burlington College will turn 40 next year. In addition to a large new campus, it has added academic majors, and has ambitious plans to more than double its enrollment by the end of the decade.

Sanders presented a range of enrollment goals, sometimes reaching as high as 500 students within five years. That’s double the highest figure in the school’s history.

Even with a 34-acre campus that offers views of Lake Champlain plus five times as much space for classes and offices, Burlington College remains one of the five smallest colleges in the country. In Vermont only two schools have fewer students. For decades, annual enrollment at Burlington College has fluctuated between 100 and 250.

To double the current number of students by 2020, enrollment must 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 purchase of the former headquarters of the Vermont Catholic Diocese for $10 million, as well as committing to more than $3 million in renovations, has put Burlington College under serious financial, management and academic pressure.

During the last decade Burlington College’s annual income grew by more than a 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 has been on the decline. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of students dropped by about 40 percent, from 250 to 156. Enrollment has risen since, this semester reaching somewhere between 180 and 200 students attending part or full-time.

While the number of students has decreased during the last decade, income from tuition has increased from $1.998 to $2.912 million. The school has 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 this year.

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.

Today, 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 is about $6,000 a year less. Despite its attractive new campus, Burlington College is at a competitive disadvantage, especially for in-state students, and lacks sufficient discretionary funds to embark on the kind of sustained marketing it needs, especially with increased overhead.

Sanders takes charge

Prior to becoming Burlington College’s president in 2004, 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 had left the school since Sanders’ arrival, 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. She did not return calls for comment for this story.

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 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

In November 2008, despite faculty resignations and student objections, the trustees backed their CEO. “The board is quite confident in Jane’s leadership, and we stand by her,” said Patrick Gallivan, who was board chair at the time.

The current Board of Trustees is chaired by Adam Dantzscher, a credit and debt consultant, and Gallivan, a vice president at St. Michael’s College, is vice chair. Members include 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 is represented through 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 is rounded out by peace activist Robin Lloyd, student representative Brendan Donaghey, and Jonathan Leopold, former Chief Financial Officer for Burlington.

Leopold, who was originally appointed as city treasurer by Bernie Sanders 30 years ago, is treasurer of the Burlington College board, and he chairs the crucial Finance and Facilities Committee. He left city employment at the end of June but has continued consulting under a short-term contract. His wife Roxanne is part of Burlington College’s core staff; she heads the school’s psychology and human services programs.

Buying a campus

Last spring, when the school gathered to honor the 34 members of its 2011 graduating class at the new campus, Sanders acknowledged that the only man who could have brokered a deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese was real estate mogul Antonio Pomerleau.

Burlington College. VTD/Anne Galloway

Burlington College. VTD/Anne Galloway

A prominent local Catholic, Pomerleau had been a prime target of Bernie Sanders’ political attacks when he first became Burlington mayor.

“He understands relationships,” 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 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, the city may have overvalued the property. Even if 200 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 is ambitious but expensive. The main building is being renovated for classrooms, administration offices and labs. Eventually, the former bishop’s residence, with a view of Lake Champlain will provide space for public events, study rooms and visiting faculty. This year, $1.2 million has been budgeted for renovations. But it will cost $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 last February. “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 ago has basically been achieved. “Now we can decide and dictate our own destiny,” he said recently.

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

Evolving academics

Currently, the most popular academic programs at the school are film, photography, fine arts and integral psychology. As part of the expansion plan, the school recently added new majors in media activism and hospitality/event management, as well as four new Bachelor of Fine Arts degree programs. It also offers study abroad opportunities, including one in Cuba with the University of Havana, and an Institute for Civic Engagement to promote an informed, active citizenry.

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

Another nagging question is whether the academic experience is working for everyone. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, while 100 percent of women in bachelors programs graduate within six years, only about 25 percent of men do so.

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

At a brainstorming meet in July, several faculty members outlined areas for academic development: a stronger internship program, more courses that focus on economics, sustainability and social justice, mentors for students and a summer program. After listening to the ideas, Dantzscher said, “My challenge to you is, if you want to change something, bring it! I’m well aware that we need to make changes.”

The recent Newsweek-Daily Beast poll cited by Sanders is also instructive. It ranks colleges and universities in 15 categories, everything from cost and weather to academic rigor, health and “return on investment.” The schools listed as “happiest,” for example, are Yale and Harvard, which also top the list for future politicians. The “healthiest” are Harvard and Louisiana State.

The “greenest” schools, according to the survey, are Oberlin College, Stanford University, Yale University and Middlebury College, which also made the list of “Horniest” schools. The top schools for activists are Swarthmore College and the University of Chicago. Dartmouth College and Middlebury are also on that particular list.

Free-spirited, the category in which Burlington College ranked No. 1, is defined as “for students who want the freedom to design their own majors and prefer written evaluations to letter grades.” In this category, Burlington College is followed by Sarah Lawrence, Bennington and Hampshire, with Marlboro in 12th place. In other words, what makes Burlington College uniquely attractive, according to the survey at least, is not its campus, activist community or green sensibility, but rather its original mission – an individualized, qualitative approach to grades and academic planning.

Dynamics of growth

If there is a precedent for the school’s expansion hopes, it is 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 Hill Section of Burlington. That year, it offered only associate’s degree programs, had about 60 students and no dorms. It has grown enormously in the decades since, 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 2,800 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 in the last three decades, has not seen significant enrollment growth. In fact, while Champlain’s student body was exploding Burlington College’s declined.

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

A larger campus has created both opportunities and challenges. In the former category is 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 also makes rapid growth essential.

If student enrollment doesn’t rise consistently over the next several years, the new campus could become a burden, one that requires either dramatically increased fundraising, even higher tuition costs, or somehow leveraging the school’s land base to compensate.

If the plan championed by Sanders fails the school could be forced to sell some of its property for housing development. For the City of Burlington, that would represent tax revenue. Like the Catholic Diocese the college is tax exempt, but any housing built on the land would bring in property taxes. For Burlington College, however, it would be another departure from the founding vision of a small, sustainable college that doesn’t depend on elaborate facilities and makes the community its true campus.

Greg Guma

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  • walter carpenter

    Having had much experience in this style of education, I’d love to do go to this college, but to pay $20,000 grand a year is ridiculous, so I stay away. It’s too bad.

  • Edward Pais

    The article lists that only seven colleges in Vermont cost more. Middlebury College, New England Culinary Institute, Sterling College, and Southern Vermont College also cost more. The out of state tuition for UVM is also more expensive than Burlington College. In fact, the only two private colleges in Vermont that appear to have a lower tuition than Burlington College are Goddard College and College of St. Joseph. According to the Consortium of Vermont Colleges there are 14 private colleges and 6 public colleges in Vermont. While the tuition is still expensive and out of the reach of many, it still only ranks 12th out of 14 for private college tuition in Vermont.

  • Erica O’Brian

    As a Burlington College alumna (Writing & Literature, 2007), I am disappointed that BC’s values are being sacrificed for this kind of expansion. I was initially impressed by the article about the Catholic Diocese property and planned expansion. Until reading this, I was not aware of the decline in faculty morale and free expression, which is too great a price to pay for this “fabulous” lakefront property.

    I chose Burlington College because of its non-traditional values and affordability in comparison to other VT colleges. I am shocked to see how much tuition has increased in such a short period of time.

    I’d also like to add that Genese Grill was my favorite professor at Burlington College, and without her and teachers like her, BC has lost its most valuable resource.

  • D Abrltoni

    All the positive press in recent months belies the fact that morale is extremely low among faculty and staff. The media have bought into the positive spin put on BC and its recent expansion by the administration without looking beneath the surface. This article is a good start at looking deeper, into what is a very troubling environment at BC.

  • ronee groff

    Having read your article on the growth pains of the college I was absolutely
    amazed at such honesty with regard to the personality issues and the financial problems.
    Burlington College stands as a beacon for the learner who respects and loves learning, but often walks to the beat of another drummer. I am reminded of the need for schools which attract the student who seeks skills for the work place in the world of the arts. The expansion of a school like Full Sail comes to mind or the Savini Special Effects degree program. Attracting students with a passion for the arts and seeking work in the world of entertainment or hospitality could expand an offering for enrollment. These are courses in preparation for huge industries needing an expanded skilled workforce. Media requires these folks and they are often talented serious learners seeking a degree program.
    I wish I could hit the lottery as Burlington College would be on my list of giving. However, that has not happened to date and all my good wishes or
    intent can’t help. I believe in the college and the often unseen good that
    comes from the students it has educated and how they have influenced others. Unfortunately, good does not always translate in dollars and cents.
    Yours is a purist learning environment and should be commended and supported as a valued option for the whole life learning seeker.

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