Burlington College and its ex-president

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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “Burlington College and its ex-president

  1. Brooke Paige

    I’m sure that Bernie will be able to do more for our country what his wife was able to do to Burlington College – however Big Ideas always have Big Consequences !

    Reply
  2. David Ellenbogen

    Don’t forget to mention her golden parachute — I believe in the vicinity of 200K. A strange type of socialism at work here. Makes you wonder where that money went. My guess is that it is in their joint bank account.

    Reply
  3. sarrants

    Let’s not forget that Jane O’Meara Sanders didn’t operate alone or in a vacuum. The Board of the College approved the actions. And without their approval, it wouldn’t have happened. Plenty of blame to go around.
    Who knows where Burlington College would be today if the loans/purchases hadn’t happened? With so few students, would it still be a viable institution? Or would something else have happened?
    What did the current BC administration try in the final months? Did they try affiliation with Champlain College, UVM, or another entity? We won’t know. Seven Days could investigate it, or maybe Vermont Digger. There’s a story there.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      She didn’t operate in a vacuum, but the plan was hers and she pushed it through. And it’s quite possible that BC would have gone under in any case. We’ll never know. What we do know is that Sanders’ plan was reckless, and the college failed because of the resultant debt.

      Reply

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