The Confused Closing of Nonprofit Burlington College

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Burlington-College

By Burlington College (Burlington College) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

May 18, 2016; Vermont Public Radio

After 35 years, Burlington College in Vermont will be closing at the end of the month. The college’s line of credit has been pulled, and it has only 200 remaining students. Is its demise simply a part of a larger foregone conclusion? According to Moody’s last September, the small college closure rate will triple by 2017 from its average of five per year from 2004 to 2014. Sweet Briar College did not accept that conclusion as its fate, but these are two very different situations.

Some are focusing on Burlington College’s president from 2004 to 2011, who was Jane O’Meara Sanders, wife of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. During Dr. Sanders’s administration, a large lakeside real estate purchase was made in hopes that it would make the campus and the college a more attractive destination. It was, in fact, a big bet made by a leader who was expected to help save an already financially troubled institution, but that big bet would have had to be fully backed by an energetic united leadership dedicated to a common vision.

In an August 2015 interview with Vermont’s NPR station, VPR, Dr. Sanders stated she was hired as a “turnaround” president and that she did just that: The college was in “excellent financial condition” when she left. According to Dr. Sanders, there was a development plan in place as they moved from a commuter school to master’s programs, and the purchase of 32 lakefront acres from the Catholic Church was a significant piece of the plan.

In a different interview, the chair of the college’s board of trustees, Yves Bradley, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that while the financial crisis has been building gradually since the purchase of the large piece of land, the bank’s recent decision to pull the college’s line of credit was the signal to call it quits. But the reality is that the college had already sold most of the land on which the college sat, retaining only one building—ironically, an old orphanage.

There’s more: In “Okay, I Resign! Happy?NPQ covered the general divisions in the Burlington community and the concomitant turmoil that Christine Plunkett, Sanders’s successor, experienced in trying to lead the college, culminating in students chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Christine Plunkett’s got to go!” as they blocked her car following a board meeting. This differs significantly from the story of Sweet Briar, where a coalition of stakeholders, including students, alumni, and faculty was focused on trying to make a new way together, albeit with a common foe in the former board.

More recently, there have been, according to the Brattleboro Reformer, unconfirmed rumors of a federal investigation into “a land deal.” While no one is confirming or denying anything, Mike Smith, who was brought in as interim president with David Coates in 2014 and helped complete the sale of 27 acres of the North Avenue property to a developer, speculates that the controversy surrounding the loan taken on the purchase originally orchestrated by Sanders—a loan based on pledges that by some accounts did not fully materialize—gave People’s United Bank pause and may have been the reason for the withdrawal of the line of credit the college needed to bridge to the fall semester, when tuition dollars would become available. This would not, of course, be the first time that pledges were not entirely fulfilled in such an endeavor; we have covered this problem before. It is also worth noting that that first land deal was not the only one the college had been involved in recently.

So, this story is both complicated and still unfolding. Does it prove the trend of the death of the small liberal arts college? Doubtful.—Marian Conway and Ruth McCambridge