Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why Jane Sanders Left Burlington College

Audio Special: BC Then and Now
(Aired April 29, 2016 on WOMM-FM at the college)

Almost four years after Jane Sanders unexpectedly left Burlington College, the reasons for her departure remain a closely-held secret. According to Sanders, the decision to resign the presidency in September 2011 was the result of differences with the trustees over the college’s direction and future.

A press release issued by the school at the time revealed little, mainly that she would step down on Oct. 14, and gave no further explanation. It was later revealed that she received a $200,000 severance package. In the years since most Board members have declined to comment. A new article in the weekly Seven Days explores the issue and whether it could affect Bernie Sanders presidential ambitions. But there is more to the story.
Jane Sanders was Burlington College president for seven years. But the $10 million purchase of property owned by the Catholic Diocese in 2010, combined with rising tuition and difficulties expanding enrollment, intensified financial, management and academic pressures at the school.

A few months before her departure, when the school gathered to honor the 34 members of its 2011 graduating class at the new campus, Sanders revealed that the man who brokered the land deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese was real estate mogul Antonio Pomerleau. In fact, Sanders claimed that Pomerleau was the only person who could have done it. 

A prominent local Catholic, Pomerleau had been a prime target of Bernie Sanders’ political attacks when he first became Burlington mayor. But things changed over the years. Pomerleau and the Sanders family eventually became friends. “He understands relationships,” Sanders said of Pomerleau at the graduation ceremonies. “Not just ‘who you know,’ but an understanding that leads to a reputation, and to trust.”

As a result of more than two dozen lawsuits, the Catholic Diocese was on the hook for $17.65 million in settlements. Its property initially went on the market for $12.5 million. Pomerleau provided a $500,000 loan to the college to help close the deal. The final price was $10 million, an amount that some developers considered high. According to a source at the People's United Bank, Sanders persuaded bank officials that she could raise the money, but didn't provide the names of potential donors.

Sanders, wife of the famous senator who is currently running for president, had hoped to continue as college president until 2016. But negotiations over a new contract stalled as doubts emerged about her plans and fundraising. In August 2011, the board voted to negotiate an early exit package.

Details of the special meeting of the Board of Trustees at which the agreement was finally reached have never been revealed. But the agenda did indicate that the trustees had gathered at the Sheraton specifically to discuss the “removal of the president.” During the session lawyers for Sanders and the college evidently reached a settlement that included her resignation in three weeks, the title of President Emeritus and a year-long-paid sabbatical.

The offcial announcement of Sanders' departure claimed that the purchase of the college’s new campus created opportunities to “significantly grow the student body and fully realize the expansion of academic programs." But her plan to double enrollment before the end of the decade would be tough to achieve, and millions of dollars would be needed to complete the new campus renovations. Neither goal proved to be reachable.

Prior to becoming the school's president in 2004, Sanders had worked as campaign manager for her husband. Her credentials also included a stint running Goddard College and almost a decade as head of youth services for Burlington, mainly during the Sanders administration.

In 2005 she said that increasing student numbers was vital because tuition dollars would help pay for the overall plan she was developing. As it turned out, tuition dollars rose but the number of students didn’t. The college was also mindful of its mission to stay small, she claimed. In 2006, however, she announced a $6 million expansion plan. The initial idea was to build a three-story structure next to the school's building on North Avenue.

Hired at about the same salary as her predecessor, President Sanders received salary bumps for the next five years, ultimately topping $150,000 in 2009. During the same period tuition rose by more than $5,000 while enrollment dipped to 156 students.

By 2008, students and faculty were openly expressing frustration, especially after the dismissal of popular literature professor Genese Grill. Students, faculty and staff said that the environment at the school had become toxic and disruptive. In interviews, many blamed Sanders and decried what was described as a “crisis of leadership." More than two dozen faculty and staff left the school during her tenure, according to then-Student Government President Joshua Lambert.

The American Association of University Professors, which became aware of the problem, noted that Burlington College lacked a grievance policy for faculty, an omission considered “quite unusual.” At the time Robert Kreiser, program officer in AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, told Seven Days, “A faculty member should have the right to speak out about actions and policies at his or her own college.” He offered to help Sanders draft a new policy but she declined.

Once word circulated that Sanders would be leaving, bitterness and hope resurfaced in emails and website comments

The Board of Trustees consistently declined to comment, in part due to confidentiality rules. But its official announcement did claim that Sanders would “consult with the college” on fundraising and other issues as the board developed “an interim leadership plan” and searched for a new president. Sanders promised to remain “involved with the college forever.” Neither she nor the college followed through on that plan.
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