We could have seen this coming, but hope sprang eternal… until it died, poetically, in the snows of mid-May. Burlington College finally gave up the ghost after several years of trying to overcome one of the dumbest decisions ever made by a college president.
— Terri Hallenbeck (@terrivt) May 16, 2016
I have to agree with Ms. Hallenbeck. For those just joining us, Jane O’Meara Sanders was president of Burlington College from 2004 to 2011. In her antepenultimate year, she engineered a massive land deal that put the college deep into hock: the college agreed to buy 33 acres of land and some buildings for $10 million from the Diocese of Vermont, which was liquidating assets to help pay the consequences of its long-suppressed pedophilia scandal.
Burlington College, with a student body of 200, had to assume millions in debt to acquire the property. But Sanders had a Big Plan. She was going to greatly expand the campus, nearly quadruple the student population, and dramatically increase fundraising.
In the depth of the Great Recession.
When liberal-arts colleges were dropping like flies.
It was a terrible idea on its face.
A lot of folks talked themselves into unwarranted optimism because of O’Meara Sanders’ reputation and connections, but at best it was a Hail Mary pass. If it had worked, it would have been marvelous — but there was a vanishingly small chance of meeting her absurdly ambitious financial and enrollment goals.
Does this have anything to do with Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president? Well, I can answer that in two ways.
— Yes, it’s relevant because O’Meara Sanders is a close adviser to Bernie’s campaign, and she would play a major role in a Sanders presidency. The Burlington College deal raises real questions about her judgment.
— No, it doesn’t make a difference. But in that case, Bill Clinton is equally out of bounds.
Come to think of it, there’s a third way: It’s relevant but not probative. It’s worth considering, and the Sanderses should be prepared to answer questions, but by itself, it shouldn’t sway anyone’s vote.
Her decision had real consequences. A lot of good people worked very hard to try to save the college. A lot of students are having their college careers disrupted. And the bulk of the land has already been sold to a developer, much to the chagrin of preservation-minded Burlingtonians.
(And the rest of the BC property will undoubtedly be sold off, probably for redevelopment, as the college liquidates itself.) (Update: the remainder of the land has been sold to the developer who had earlier bought most of it.)
I’m sure there are plenty of preservationists who support Bernie Sanders for President. I’d like to hear how they rationalize Jane O’Meara Sanders’ pivotal role in the sad endgame of Burlington College.