BURLINGTON, Vt. — Burlington College, once a thriving school for artists, now looks abandoned and bereft. The huge red-and-white sign congratulating graduates remains, but faculty name placards have been pulled from the walls. Empty nails line the corridors, and the front doors are locked.
After 44 years of operation, the college closed for good on Friday. And the timing couldn’t be worse: As they salvage artwork and pack up classrooms, former students and faculty are under an unwanted national spotlight because of their former leader.
Jane Sanders, the college’s president for seven years, is campaigning across the country for her husband, Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for president. She was the head of the college during a massive land deal blamed by many as the catalyst for closure of the school.
These last two weeks, students have been scrambling to transfer to other colleges and graduates have been rushing to save thesis projects promised to be archived in perpetuity as faculty members apply for unemployment while pulling together resumes for new jobs — all under the glare of a presidential campaign.
“It just has been a distraction,” Carol Moore, the college’s president, who was hired last year, said in an interview on campus earlier this week. “We’ve all been trying to focus all of our energies moving the college forward and to no particular end.”
But people want to talk about the “political race,” said Coralee Holm, the school’s dean of operations and advancement.
“We’re not really concerned about the political scene,” she said, sitting across from Moore in the president’s conference room. “So that’s been a real bummer. Neither one of us was here when Jane Sanders was here, and there’s no real connection, since we’ve been here as far as what’s going on at the institution.”
Jane Sanders served as president from 2004 to 2011, and during her tenure the school purchased 32 acres of nearby lakefront property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington for $10 million. School officials said the goal was to expand the small, liberal arts school from about 150 students to 700 — or so was the thought. Administrators planned for tuition from the expanding student population to cover the cost of the new campus.
It didn’t. Burlington College never came close to the necessary number of students. Jane Sanders resigned as president in 2011 — about two years before her contract ended, according to the Associated Press.
The school sold about 80 percent of the new property to a developer last year, but Burlington College remained on probation from its accrediting agency because of its financial situation.
Even after the school sold the property, the debt from the land purchase and the property taxes were “crippling,” Holm said on Tuesday. Yves Bradley, chair of the school’s board of trustees, called the debt “crushing.”
The school came close to bridging the financial gap but ended about $350,000 short, said Moore, the college president. The bank pulled the plug in April.
“We were three months financially short of making it successful. We had a strong incoming class,” she said. “We would’ve had a surplus next year.”
Bernie Sanders’ campaign defended his wife’s tenure at the school, saying she helped it climb out of debt and become accredited as a “masters-level institution.”
“. . . She left the college with a detailed plan for the future, none of which was implemented,” said Michael Briggs, spokesman for Sanders’ campaign, in the statement, which did not specifically address the land deal. “Mrs. Sanders has tremendous respect for both the current and past Burlington College faculty, staff and students and . . . is terribly disappointed with its closure.”
Burlington College started as a group of nontraditional students — returning Vietnam veterans, single parents, and those seeking alternatives to higher education — meeting in Steward LaCasce’s living room in 1972.
And much of the school’s philosophy was the same when it closed. Faculty didn’t lecture, and students were practitioners of their studies — everything from film production to transpersonal psychology. Much of the study was self-guided, with professors acting as mentors.
Seventy students were registered to begin classes this coming fall — 30 of them new to the college.
But students were told May 16 that Burlington College would close. It was two days after graduation, where LaCasce gave the commencement address and Eric Farrell, the developer who bought part of the property, received an honorary degree.
Next semester would have been senior Jon Chamis’s last at Burlington College. The 23-year-old was wrapping up his bachelor’s degree in film production with a focus on screen writing.
Now, the Connecticut native will be completing his degree at Goddard College, a low-residency school that requires students to be on campus only eight days a semester. He had five days to find this alternative.
Chamis was part of a mock funeral students staged to mourn the death of their school. “I held the casket,” he said. “How do you process all this in five days?”
Recent graduate August Cyr resents that administrators sat through the graduation ceremony knowing it would be the last and students did not, saying it “ruined” her memory of graduation.
Cyr said she had become used to fielding questions about the health of her school given its negative publicity. Despite her love for her alma mater — and Cyr loves it — being a student there became stressful given the turmoil wrought by the land deal. That deal has also become ammunition for Vermont Republicans to use against Sanders.
The vice chair of the state GOP is asking for a federal investigation into the purchase of the land.
“I had a five-second conversation with myself: ‘Yeah, Jane and Bernie Sanders are connected and how do I feel about Bernie?’ ” Cyr said. Ultimately, she said, she’s still supporting his candidacy.
Dylan Kelley, a 2012 graduate of the school, wants to hear two words — “I’m sorry” — in response to what he described as a “real fracturing of the community.”
“We deserve an apology and some level of accountability,” he said.
But Sanders, for one, is not likely to apologize.
“Mrs. Sanders has not commented on Burlington College since she left in 2011, and she will continue in this vein,” said the statement from Sanders’ campaign.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.