Students, alumni and faculty struggle for answers after Burlington College closure

Burlington College

Former Burlington College faculty Karen Lapan (left) and alumni Dylan Kelly, Catlyn Aviles and Aron Meinhardt address reporters outside Burlington College. Photo by Morgan True / VTDigger.

BURLINGTON — A skeletal staff was still manning the phones and working to wind down the affairs of Burlington College on Thursday, but for how much longer is unclear.

The college announced last week that it would close Friday because of the “crushing weight of the debt” incurred in 2010 with the more than $10 million purchase of a lakefront property on North Avenue.

In April People’s United Bank decided not to renew a line of credit that was critical to the school’s continued operation. People’s helped finance the original purchase with a $6.7 million loan.

Burlington College Trustees voted unanimously May 13, a day before the 2016 commencement ceremony, to close the college, but chose not to inform students until May 16, so as not to mar graduation.

“We didn’t ruin the day for them,” said trustee Jane Knodell, a UVM professor and city councilor.

In a video of the commencement ceremony posted to YouTube, Knodell can be seen sitting on the stage with other trustees and school administrators. She described her experience knowing the school would close while commencement took place as “heartbreaking.”

Knodell said she thought speakers at commencement were careful in their remarks to avoid casting the college’s future as bright.

Real estate developer Eric Farrell, is expected to purchase the entire Burlington College property — minus 12 acres he sold for $2 million to the city for a public park — was awarded an honorary degree at commencement.

Farrell bought most of the 32-acre property in 2014 for $7 million, at a time when the school was desperate for cash to reduce its debt and cover operating costs. He later purchased the former St. Joseph’s orphanage building a year later for $2 million, but that sale was never finalized.

An agreement between the college, People’s United Bank and Farrell will allow him to purchase the remaining Burlington College property. The $3 million Farrell is expected to pay should cover the school’s remaining bank debt, according to board chair Yves Bradley.

Money from the land deals helped keep the college afloat, but when People’s refused to renew the line of credit, the trustees decided to shut Burlington College down.

Farrell plans to build more than 600 units of housing on the Burlington College land.

In his remarks at graduation, Farrell praised the commitment of Burlington College’s faculty and staff, saying their legacy would be the impact of “graduates and future graduates in the communities that they choose to live and serve in.”

Farrell ended his address with the following: “I look forward to seeing each and every one of you in the trenches, and I promise I will negotiate with you fairly.”

Unanswered questions proliferate for students, faculty and alumni

The abrupt closure has left current students, alumni and faculty scrambling to clear their offices, belongings or degree projects out of the building, which is locked, but accessible to the handful of remaining administrative staff.

Those groups say they’re also having difficulty getting questions about transcripts, retirement accounts, unpaid bills and the fate of graduate projects that remain inside the 351 North Ave.  building answered by the administration.

Three alumni and a former faculty member gathered for an impromptu news conference outside Burlington College Thursday, planning to post a set of questions for the administration on the glass doors of the main entrance.

Dylan Kelly, who graduated in 2013 and served as a student trustee while at Burlington College, said members of the Burlington College community he’s spoken with are frustrated at the lack of answers. Calls to the college generally go voicemail, he said, and the mailbox is often full.

That was evident when a representative from Vitality Vending, who was there to get a vending machine out of the defunct college, called the school on speaker several times reaching the voicemail.

The congregation of people outside eventually attracted the attention of staff, and moments later Coralee Holm, dean of operations and advancement, came to the door.

Holm spent roughly 20 minutes speaking with those gathered outside, but was largely unable to answer their questions. Holm said she and the fewer than eight staff who continue to work on a part- and full-time basis are doing their best to get answers to the people who need them.

The college will post information as it becomes available on its website, and they will continue to answer the phones, but she said she did not know how much longer that would be the case. Holm said she was also unsure how much longer administrative staff would have access to the property.

There are close to 70 students who are partway through their academic programs. Several other institutions — including the Vermont State Colleges system, Marlboro College and Champlain College — have agreed to accept those students, according to Burlington College.

Their advisers are supposed to have reached out to help them find new placements. Holm said Thursday that 80 percent of those students have chosen a new school, and Burlington College is working to make sure they’ll be accepted.

“The rest are just a matter of them making a decision, or we haven’t been able to reach them or whatnot,” Holm said.

Several faculty have said students with unpaid bills can’t get their transcripts to send to their new schools. Holm said she did not know whether students would pay Burlington College or their new college in order to get those transcripts.

“If there is a balance that would be something — I’m not sure. It depends on the institution how that’s being worked out with the agreement,” Holm said.

Alumni who still owe the college money will not receive their transcripts until they’ve paid up, she said. Holm was not able to say how long Burlington College will be able to accept payments or for how long transcripts would be available.

She said it’s possible the school’s records would be transferred into state custody, but Holm was unsure whether that would actually happen.

“The best way (for alumni) to know that you’re definitely going to get (transcripts) is to take care of it the next week or so,” Holm said, “Beyond that, it’ll be a decision — I don’t know who’s going to take care of that.”

Holm was unable to say whether faculty and staff would be compensated for unused time off, or what will happen to their retirement accounts. She said she had just begun working with TIAA-CREF, and said faculty with retirement accounts should expect to deal directly with the retirement fund giant.

Thirty faculty and staff will ultimately be out of jobs due to Burlington College shutting down, including Holm. The state Department of Labor is helping them apply for unemployment benefits and search for new jobs.

Speaking after Holm ended the conversation and re-entered the building, Kelly, the alumnus and former student trustee, said the exchange and dearth of information shows how little planning went into the decision to close the school.

“The level of like the ‘I don’t know’ … and all those uncertainties is kind of indicative of how poorly prepared they were,” Kelly said.

Morgan True

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