After weeks of speculation about her future, Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders resigned Monday after reaching a settlement with the Board of Trustees. A press release from the small college, which purchased buildings and property previously owned by the Catholic Diocese for $10 million less than a year ago, said Sanders will step down on Oct. 14 but gave no reason for the change.
According to Sanders, her decision to leave is the result of differences with the trustees over the college’s direction and future. During her seven years as president, new academic majors and an institutional aid fund for students have been developed. However, the recent property purchase, combined with rising tuition and difficulties expanding enrollment, has intensified financial, management and academic pressures.
Until recently, Sanders, wife of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, hoped to continue as president for another four years. But negotiations over a new contract stalled as doubts emerged about her plans and fundraising. In August, the board voted to negotiate an early exit package.
Last week, after a VTDigger.org story described the challenges facing the school, the agenda for a special Board of Trustees meeting, held at the Sheraton Hotel on Monday, was leaked. The agenda revealed that the trustees would be discussing the “removal of the president.” Lawyers for Sanders and the college have since reached a settlement that includes her resignation effective in three weeks, the title of President Emeritus and a year-long-paid sabbatical.
Purchase of the 200-student college’s new campus has created opportunities to “significantly grow the student body and fully realize the expansion of academic programs,” according to the announcement of Sanders’ departure. But her goal of doubling enrollment before the end of the decade could be tough to achieve, and millions of dollars more need to be raised to complete the new campus renovations.
After Sanders became college president in 2004, Burlington College initially experienced a decline in enrollment and, after a few years, faculty discontent. In an open letter to the trustees released on Sept. 21, former faculty member Genese Grill described the atmosphere in harsh terms. Staff, faculty and students “have been reduced to silence and fear of retribution by what can only be described as a pattern of intimidation, spying, and targeting of critical voices,” she wrote.
Grill described a closed and hostile environment, claiming that Sanders frequently yelled at staff and managed to eliminate anyone who voiced criticism. In the letter, Grill claims that “many concerned voices were forced out by continual abuse and by eventually being offered humiliating and unfair contracts in which they were demoted below people who were, in many cases, less qualified for their positions.”
In the last six years, about 40 people have left the school, Grill estimates, “most (if not all) deeply disillusioned with the institution and its processes, most harboring bitterness and deep regret.”
Since word began to circulate that Sanders might be leaving, both bitterness and hope have resurfaced in emails and website comments about the school. Grill believes that it will be “a good deal easier for the devoted and well-qualified instructors and staff at Burlington College to do their good work without Jane Sanders’ obstructions.”
The Board of Trustees has consistently declined to comment, in part due to confidentiality rules. But its official announcement says that Sanders will “consult with the college” on fundraising and other issues as the board develops “an interim leadership plan” and looks for a new president.
Despite her abrupt departure as president, Sanders promises to remain “involved with the college forever.”