A Look At Jane Sanders' Role In The Closure Of Burlington College

May 18, 2016

The imminent closure of Burlington College next week is getting national attention thanks to the school’s former president and the presidential campaign.

Some critics have blamed Jane Sanders, wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, for a land deal that set the stage for the school's current financial troubles.

The Sanders campaign has been silent on the issue thus far. VPR spoke with Jane Sanders in August 2015 about her tenure at the college. 

Jane Sanders said she was brought on in 2004 as a "turnaround" president as the college faced financial and accreditation problems. But she said those problems were solved under her seven-year tenure.

"We moved from a commuter school to a master's institution, we moved from one acre to 32 acres and beautiful buildings," Jane Sanders said. "We had a development plan in place when I left — it was in excellent financial condition. And one only needs to look at the data to see that. The final audit was quite good."

Ultimately that development plan fell through and put the college in a lot of debt.

Back in August, Sanders said she was disappointed the school didn't follow through on her plans for the college. Asked why she left, Sanders pointed to "differences" on the board:

"Unfortunately, there was a kind of a quick change in leadership and we just didn't — we had different visions for the future of the college," said Jane Sanders. "I mean, I envisioned it to be a very community-based college, a college that became ‘home’ to Burlington ... [and] when you don't see things in the same way you should part ways. It’s the board of trustees who run the college, as it should be."

"We had a development plan in place when I left — it was in excellent financial condition. And one only needs to look at the data to see that. The final audit was quite good." — Jane Sanders, August 2015

Meanwhile, Brady Toensing, the vice chairman of the Vermont Republican party, has called for a federal bank fraud investigation into Jane Sanders' role in securing financing for the school. Toensing alleges that, on a loan application, Sanders overstated the amount of money the school was expecting to get through donations.

"I don't know why she hasn't come forward and said a word about the collapse of her school," Toensing said. "Or answered questions about why she misrepresented the donations — the confirmed donations — on a federal loan application."

Toensing maintains that Sanders pushed through a land deal that the college couldn't afford. Federal officials would not comment on whether any investigation is underway.

Alicia Freese, a reporter for Seven Days, has been covering the college's financial problems for the last couple of years. She spoke with VPR about Jane Sanders' impact on the college and how it fits into the school's closure. 

On the announcement the school would be closing:

Nearly two years ago, Freese wrote that the college was facing some serious financial problems and that it was in danger of losing its accreditation. Freese says the announcement does not come as a surprise. 

"For a lot of people I've spoken with, it doesn't at all. The school has been hanging on [by] a thread," Freese explained. "It's never had a lot of money, so there are definitely signs." 

"But at the same time, the current administration has remained insistently optimistic that they were on the upswing, things were looking better," she added. "Enrollment was trending upward."

On the school's purchase of land from the Catholic Church: 

Jane Sanders was the Burlington College president until 2011 and oversaw the land purchase from the Catholic Church. Freese said the hope was the purchase would give the school a better "financial footing." 

"The thinking was that they needed to do something big and dramatic to increase enrollment and get on stable financial footing. The school has never really had an endowment," Freese explained.  

"So Jane Sanders came up with this plan to buy probably the most desirable piece of property in Burlington at the time — 32 acres of lakefront land," said Freese. "The idea was to move the campus there. She wanted to double enrollment over the next decade [and] dramatically expand the school."  

So what went wrong? 

"What we do know is Jane Sanders was essentially forced to resign by the board not too long afterward in 2011," Freese said. "And the board has never really disclosed why they made the decision that they did.

"Some former board members have said it had to do with fundraising — that she was not delivering on those fundraising goals. Other board members have contradicted that statement," Freese added. 

"We do know that enrollment never increased really at all, and a lot of the donations that they were expecting don't seem to have materialized, which has been the source of significant controversy."

On allegations Jane Sanders misrepresented the college's financials during the land deal: 

"The college in total took out a $10 million loan: $3.5 million from the catholic diocese and $6.5 million from People's United Bank," said Freese. "The People's [United] Bank asked [the college] to show that they had $2.2 million in committed donations and the college sent an application confirming that they did.

"Some of the people whose pledges were listed in that application told VTDigger that those amounts were overstated," said Freese. "And then there have also been questions about whether a bequest was actually represented as a pledge. Money, in other words, that was going to come to the school after someone died rather than come in the next few years. A couple of Republicans have requested a federal investigation into that." 

So how much of the college's closure can be attributed to the failure of this plan to expand the school? 

"Well if you ask the current board members, they will quite definitively say it was taking on this $10 million in debt that basically set us on a downward spiral," Freese said.

But when it comes to placing blame, none of those individuals are blaming Jane Sanders by name.

"I have not spoken to a single person in the administration or the board who is naming names, but they are attributing it to the debt that was taken on under her tenure," Freese said.

On how students and alumni are handling news of the school's closure: 

"The students I've talked to have been basically too frazzled to talk. And I mean, they're trying to figure out how they're going to continue their education," Freese explained. "I've talked to some alumni who are really eager for answers to the questions that you're asking, 'Who really is at fault?'

"The line coming from the administration is kind of that that's water under the bridge, it doesn't make sense to point fingers. But you've got alumni who've made significant investments of money to get their degrees from this school, and for them it's really important to get a full accounting."

Disclosure: People's United Bank is a VPR underwriter.