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An Expanding Vision, Not Just a Pretty View
Burlington College President Jane Sanders:
An Expanding Vision, Not Just a Pretty View
College is a formative experience for most students, bridging their present lives to a positive future and opening broad new horizons of possibility.Every now and again, a college gets to go through the same phenomenon.
“It’s transformational for Burlington College,” college president Jane Sanders says of the institution’s recent move from their old 95 North Avenue campus to their new digs at the former offices of the Burlington Catholic Diocese at 351 North Avenue.
“It’s fabulous. We are leaving a 16,000 square foot building on two acres to a 77,000 square foot building on 34 acres. Instead of a lake view, we have lakefront.”
The move makes Burlington College the only Vermont college with a beach – an enormous marketing attraction, since beaches and college students go together like Ben and Jerry. “We brought the students over here to see it, and when we were first talking about the move, they were a bit worried, because they want to stay a small community,” Sanders says. “But within an hour they were playing Frisbee and juggling on the beach and saying, ‘We can live with this.’”
A sandy strand, important though it may be, is the least of the move’s benefits. With its expanded footprint, Burlington College stands poised to make its mark in the panoply of Vermont’s higher-education institutions.
Burlington College was founded in 1972 as the Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, an alternative institution of higher educationwhose 14 students met in the living room of founder Dr. Steward LaCasce.
Sanders says Burlington College is little-known outside Burlington because many people still think of it as a place for “returning Viet Nam war veterans and social advocates who wanted to go back to school but didn’t want to be with traditional undergraduates.”
When the Community College of Vermont, founded in 1970, received accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 1975, the mission of the nascent Vermont Institute of Community Involvement began to change. It won accreditation as Burlington College in 1982 and moved to 95 North Avenue, shifting from offbeat to merely off-the-beaten-track.
When Jane Sanders became president in 2004, the college, she says, “was still an adult, older-student-oriented school, still seeing students for distance learning or a class or two while they worked. That was impossible to continue financially. I was brought in to look at that and turn the college around. The academics have always been very, very good and many people are not aware of that because we’ve always been so counterculture.”
Today the student body of 200 is “a healthy mix of freshmen and transfer students,” Sanders says. The transfer students, she adds, have a clear message:“‘We were not known at our previous institution; we felt like a number, like we didn’t matter, and now everybody knows us.’ When you look at the scope of how a student impacts a small college, it’s much greater than at a large one. When you don’t do the work in a [small] class, that impacts the learning of the other students in the class.”
Though Burlington College’s small scale is one of its chief assets, the crammed quarters at 95 North Avenue had already inspired plans for expansion. The college had considered building a three-story, small-footprint building on its tiny grounds, and even renting space in the Moran Plant. “We were committed to the Old North End of Burlington, and Burlington central, and having a lake view,” Sanders says
.“We were planning on somehow using more of the Burlington waterfront community, but this is much better. I’m looking out the window and I can tell you, it’s amazing.”
Pursuing the Inevitable
Jane Sanders has looked out some very impressive windows in her professional life. Following her future husband Bernie Sanders’ mayoral victory in Burlington in 1981, she directed the Mayor’s Youth Office for 10 years. After gaining experience with political campaigns and media consulting, she served as chief of staff for then-Congressman Sanders in Washington, D.C. She then consulted for a number of educational institutions, including Goddard College.
Sanders was alerted to a new window of opportunity when she spotted a newspaper article last spring announcing the Burlington Diocese was going to sell its North Avenue property.
“I immediately called the diocese,” she recalls. “I said, ‘We’d like to meet with you – we’re very interested.’ And I immediately started working with my VP for finance [on] how much could we afford. We called a special meeting of the board of trustees two weeks later and gave them all the reams of information. They approved beginning negotiations and I started negotiating in earnest, with the strategy being, ‘We are the inevitable buyer.’”
In May 2010, Burlington College purchased the property for $10 million. Says Sanders, “They showed it to several other people at a higher asking price [$12.5 million]. There weren’t deed restrictions, so a developer could have put 600 condos on the waterfront or something. Part of the reason the diocese was happy offering the property to us at the lower price is that we have an educational mission that serves the community.”
Subsequent permitting processes and the tax-exempt bond financing fell into place. “People thought it would take longer,” Sanders notes, “but the fact that the college could use the building as it is with very little changes made it quite a bit easier than it would have been for someone looking to develop the property immediately.”
The process moved two steps forward and one step back, until it came down to the wire. Burlington College got its Vermont State education facilities tax-exempt bond financing at 4:00 on December 31st, 2010 – the last day that the program offering such financing was in effect. And Burlington College closed on the building.
Ten million dollars sounds like an impressively large figure, but not in the context of moving an entire college. “One building at Champlain College was recently renovated for $16 or $18 million dollars,” Sanders points out, referring to the Perry Hall restoration on Willard Street. And instead of a single welcome center, Burlington College’s dime is welcoming a new world of higher education.
Growing a Campus
Burlington College now plans to double its student body to 400. “We’ll grow slowly,” Sanders says. “We’ve increased our selectivity. We’re going after the creative, innovative students, so it’s not necessarily the same type of selectivity other schools have.”
Unlike the old building, whose largest classroom could seat only 75 people, the new one has a gym large enough to hold events onsite. Previously the college had to rent Contois Auditorium and other venues for large gatherings and hold orientations at the Hilton Hotel. Sanders says that “eventually we will be renovating the fourth floor of the old part of the building into another large meeting space.”
The additional space, she adds, also means that “we can host conferences, weddings, events, outdoor music festivals, craft fairs. Our mission is integral to the community. We’ve always gone out into the community, and now we can bring them in to our community.”
And, for the first time, the college will have food service. “To have a place we actually gather as a community around food is a big step forward,” Sanders declares. Curriculum is also slated for steady growth, though the college will maintain a maximum class size of 20. Laboratory space for film and photography is doubling in size, so the college’s nationally-recognized film program can continue to thrive and develop. There are new majors in psychology, graphic design, and fine arts, as well as a newly-launched individualized Master’s program. In keeping with its historic 1881 facility, the school is considering courses of study in historic preservation and landscape design. A degree in international relations and diplomacy will include development of a peacebuilding certificate.
“We envision bringing diplomats and various folks to campus, and now we’ll be able to put them up to stay and be integrated in with the curriculum,” Sanders enthuses. The college has an articulation agreement with a college in Havana, Cuba – ensuring a smooth transfer of credit between the two – and is considering similar agreements with schools in Ghana and Morocco. Closer to home, Burlington College has articulation agreements with the Community College of Vermont and the Vermont Law School as well as a second campus in Fairfax – a three-story barn and woodworking facility which houses the school’s fine craftsmanship degree program.
The Path Forward
Burlington College still tends to go against trends, according to Sanders. “When I came in, it was all adjuncts with a few department chairs. So I’ve gone the opposite direction from most schools: we’ve doubled the full-time faculty. Student support is such a focus of ours [that] for every 30 additional students we will add a fulltime faculty person.” Currently, the college employs 12 faculty, about 60 adjuncts, and 24 staff members.
And students can design their own major, a fact that illustrates the college’s basic teaching approach. “I believe very much in the traditional Socratic method, but with the student leading what the topics are,” explains Sanders. “The students says, this is what I need to learn and the professor is then able to shape that into an academic program with academic integrity. I want creative, innovative curriculum, but the bond is between the faculty member and the student. Everything is student-centered: how do we help you succeed at school, in life, in career, from beginning to end?”
The move to the new building is a team effort of faculty, staff and administrators, Sanders explains. “We’ve expanded our faculty and staff, and now they will actually have offices, they’ve been doubled up. This has been a real wonderful period of time for Burlington College. Each person takes on a great deal of responsibility, every person is important, every person counts, everyone has stepped up to the plate. We are very lucky.”
The college’s overall mission, however, is still community-centered. Says Sanders, “[We] prepare students for responsible citizenship in a way that will enable them to be fully engaged in their communities and foster a just, humane society. That guides everything we do.”
Higher education is “a wonderful, wonderful business to be in,” Sanders continues, looking out the window at the view of Burlington College that she has shaped. “We just happen to have the opportunity to really impact people’s lives and help people become their own best selves.”
Cindy Hill is a freelance writer and attorney in Middlebury.
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