Burlington College: Politics or Governance?

I’ve been watching the national effort to politicize Burlington College’s demise and am saddened by the venality of our politics and our dangerous ignorance of non-profit governance. It’s endemic in Vermont. Where too many of our major non-profits have limped through a decade or two of un-reviewed leadership performance, mission decay, and disconnection from constituents because their boards have no idea what the obligations and liabilities of board members are or even what board service means.

I won’t dwell on the details of Burlington College except to say that the entire fault lies with the Board. It can be said that Jane Sanders has a checkered history leading colleges, but all presidents serve at the will of their boards. It’s also been alleged that she tried to deceive the Board. But this doesn’t happen with a properly functioning board that verifies the bases for all major financial and academic decisions.

A president or executive director’s performance is meant to be reviewed annually by the board with input from constituents, administration, trustees, and community. Boards that don’t commit fully to this basic process own the errors of their chief executives.

Delivery on mission, ethical integrity, financial integrity, and leadership performance are the key responsibilities of a board. If a president threatens any of those objectives substantively, they must be adequately warned, then terminated.

Legally, excuses don’t cut it. Boards are responsible. Any board members taken by surprise at the sudden financial collapse of their institution have no one to blame but themselves. A board financial committee monitors financial viability ratios in real time, challenges significant changes in financial position, and must verify and approve every financial decision by the president that significantly alters the balance sheet.

​The oversight college-accrediting organization that does financial and academic monitoring, NEASC, would have known and warned the board well in advance of the college’s trajectory. Then it was up to the Board to either choose new leadership or arrange for an orderly shutdown. Either would have been preferable to sitting by and watching it collapse.

Sadly, politicians are trying to make this a political issue rather than what it is – a complete failure of governance. Our vigorous non-profits harness the commitment and energy of Vermonters to improve our lives. Their boards must rise to the challenge of good governance and preserve and protect this vital community energy.

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