Commentary

Bill Schubart: Burlington College — politics or governance failure?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bill Schubart, a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio and a former board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the umbrella organization for VTDigger.org. This piece was first aired on VPR.

I’ve been watching the national effort to politicize Burlington College’s demise and am saddened by the venality of our politics and our dangerous ignorance of nonprofit governance. It’s endemic in Vermont, where too many of our major nonprofits have limped through a decade or two of unreviewed leadership performance, mission decay, and disconnection from constituents because their boards have no idea what the obligations and liabilities of board members are or even what board service means.

I won’t dwell on the details of Burlington College except to say that the entire fault lies with the board. It can be said that Jane Sanders has a checkered history leading colleges, but all presidents serve at the will of their boards. It’s also been alleged that she tried to deceive the board. But this doesn’t happen with a properly functioning board that verifies the bases for all major financial and academic decisions.

A president or executive director’s performance is meant to be reviewed annually by the board with input from constituents, administration, trustees and community. Boards that don’t commit fully to this basic process own the errors of their chief executives.

Any board members taken by surprise at the sudden financial collapse of their institution have no one to blame but themselves.

 

Delivery on mission, ethical integrity, financial integrity and leadership performance are the key responsibilities of a board. If a president threatens any of those objectives substantively, they must be adequately warned, then terminated.

Legally, excuses don’t cut it. Boards are responsible. Any board members taken by surprise at the sudden financial collapse of their institution have no one to blame but themselves. A board financial committee monitors financial viability ratios in real time, challenges significant changes in financial position, and must verify and approve every financial decision by the president that significantly alters the balance sheet.

​The oversight college-accrediting organization that does financial and academic monitoring, NEASC, would have known and warned the board well in advance of the college’s trajectory. Then it was up to the board to either choose new leadership or arrange for an orderly shutdown. Either would have been preferable to sitting by and watching it collapse.

Sadly, politicians are trying to make this a political issue rather than what it is – a complete failure of governance. Our vigorous nonprofits harness the commitment and energy of Vermonters to improve our lives. Their boards must rise to the challenge of good governance and preserve and protect this vital community energy.

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  • Christopher Daniels

    The effort begins locally, with much of the coverage here bordering on the sensational. Headlines like “lawyering up”. Insinuating that Jane Sander’s refusal to talk to the media means she is hiding something. Uncritically reporting the allegations from a known gadfly with a history of filing complaints that not once have resulted in the filing of charges. Not exploring why the donations failed to materialize.

    • Jane Smith

      Glad to hear that the headlines about “lawyering up” annoyed you, too. I was very surprised to see that wording in Digger. Very inflammatory. Of course, she hired lawyers. It would have been a story in itself if she had chosen not to.

  • carolyn bates

    Thank you Bill Schubart for properly addressing this issue.

  • Edward Letourneau

    No. I’m speaking from experience on a board. The writer needs to speak with each board member before blaming them.

    • Christopher Daniels

      I served on a Board, too, but that does not make me knowledgeable as to the actual events of any other board, including yours and the board at Burlington College. Unless you were physically in the room and privy to the regular meetings at Burlington College, your experience as a board member is meaningless and allows you to draw no firm conclusions. You can guess all you want, but a guess is all it will be.

      • Edward Letourneau

        Well then you should no better then to assume that board had all the information and made an informed decision.

  • bob Zeliff

    Any such deal would have to be UNDERSTOOD and APPROVED by the board.

    More than likely they would have been involved to some extent well before the deal was made.

    Both the leadership and the Board clearly did a shoddy job, with the clarity of retrospect.

    What is clear, portions of our Republican party leadership, is doing their best to make this a political issue. Vermont replicates DC politics in that now.

    I don’t think that is progress.

  • bob Zeliff

    That may have been the roll you took on a board. Not mine!

  • Jane Smith

    In the best of all worlds, I think you are correct, Bill. I suspect after this, Board members for many non-profits will be more aggressive. Is it typical for a past president to be made ‘president emeritus’ if they leave under a cloud?

  • Robert Wood

    What is the real purpose of any competent Board of Directors? Surely not to rubber-stamp any pie-in-the-sky scheme that comes across the desk, but to “direct”..