Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Campus Lost: Burlington College & the Church

Anatomy of an Untimely Sale

UPDATE: Exclusive Radio Interview with the new BC President

Outside BC's main building
In spring 2011, when Burlington College gathered to honor the 34 members of its graduating class at a new campus, then-President Jane Sanders acknowledged that the only man who could have brokered such a land deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese was real estate mogul Antonio Pomerleau.

A prominent local Catholic, Pomerleau had been a prime target of Bernie Sanders’ attacks when he first became Burlington mayor. But at the graduation ceremonies decades later, Jane Sanders revised that assessment. "He understands relationships," she said, "not just ‘who you know,’ but an understanding that leads to a reputation, and to trust.”

Due to more than two dozen lawsuits, the Catholic Diocese was in a spot, on the hook for $17.65 million in settlements. The property initially went on the market for $12.5 million. Although the $10 million asking price was presented as a bargain, not everyone was impressed. According to Erick Hoekstra, a local developer, the city may have overvalued the property. Even if 200 housing units were someday built on the land -- not far from the Farrell plan -- a more realistic price was probably $5 million to $7 million.

The school's leaders evidently hoped that better facilities, more majors and a larger land base would make BC dramatically more attractive to students -- and their parents. But the solution was also a marked departure from the school’s original intent – academic freedom, self-designed studies and community involvement rather than a traditional "bricks and mortar" emphasis.

Almost immediately, the $10 million purchase, along with a commitment to more than $3 million in renovations, put the college under serious financial, management and academic pressure.

Four years and three presidents later, serious questions remain.  For example, why did the board believe that Sanders' enrollment goal -- 500 students within five years -- was reasonable? It was double the highest figure in the school’s history. For decades, enrollment fluctuated between 100 and 250. To double enrollment in five years, it would have to increase by 12 percent or more every year, way beyond the national average or the school’s track record.

Prior to the purchase enrollment was actually on the decline. Between 2001 and 2008, it dropped by about 40 percent, down to 156. It has risen since, again reaching somewhere around 200 students. But there is dispute about the figures --for example, how many are full-time. -- and no sign of a surge ahead. With the loss of all but about 7 acres out of 33, building enrollment becomes more challenging.

Yet, with new leadership and a concerted effort by local stakeholders, this valuable institution may yet continue to serve as an affordable education alternative -- a community-based college, and incorporate its original mission in a vision for the future -- a college that is more than its walls, for free-spirited, engaged, sometimes "non-traditional" students.

For more on BC's past and present:
Radiator Interview
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