What Really Happened at Burlington College

To the Editor:

Will Wooton’s analysis of Burlington College’s recent “slide to oblivion,” (“The Real Reasons Small Colleges Fail,The Chronicle, June 8) offers a solid profile of the factors that lead many small private colleges, which make up 40 percent of colleges in the United States, to shut their doors, and lays the ultimate responsibility at the feet of the Board of Trustees.  However, in the case of Burlington College an additional layer of complications and questions exist.

So, what really happened?

BC’s fate was set when its former board members hired an inexperienced president and, six years later, approved the imprudent purchase of a $10 million piece of property for campus expansion. Enrollment that year was about 195 and the budget just over $4 million, less than half of this ill-advised investment. What were they thinking? Where was the Finance Committee when these decisions were being made?

More interestingly, what bank lends a small, private, unendowed college of that size and financial status an amount that so obviously outweighs its ability to repay?  People’s United Bank of Vermont.  And  the collateral?  One planned gift of a revocable trust, payable upon the death of the donor, and the “promise” of another million-dollar gift. But, alas, no written record of such a “promise” could be found, anywhere in Burlington College’s records.

Who is to blame for this appallingly inappropriate business deal? Perhaps a board that steered clear of the tough questions which needed to be asked. Or a bank in the state of an influential senator — a senator, as it turned out, with bigger ambitions?

The smoldering ashes of Burlington College will eventually extinguish, despite the lingering questions that continue to breath an occasional puff of oxygen on the dying embers.  Perhaps the network of those whose interconnectedness laid the groundwork for this small college’s demise will ultimately be exposed, providing lessons for the future.

In the meantime, wake up trustees.  Wake up accreditors.  Small colleges are the backbone of American higher education.  Each time one closes its doors, we eliminate educational opportunities for students who do not fit elsewhere and take aim at our greatest asset — diverse education.  It is time to take a stand and use our powerful intellect to figure out how to save the remaining 40 percent of our higher educational system.

Carol A. Moore
President
Burlington College
Burlington, Vt.

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