The board of trustees of Vermont's Burlington College announced an emergency leadership team Tuesday, following the abrupt resignation of the school's president, Christine Plunkett. Plunkett resigned during an emotional student protest Friday, in which students claimed their voices were not being heard by college administrators.
Mike Smith, who held leadership posts in Vermont state government and for the utility Fairpoint Communications, will serve as the school's interim president. Jane Knodell, a University of Vermont economics professor and a city councilor in Burlington, will serve as interim provost. The third member of the interim team is financial advisor David Coates, a certified public accountant with a long resume of work for businesses and non-profits.
"We were going to be perceived as a ship without a rudder," Burlington College board chair Yves Bradley told students and reporters Tuesday, describing the situation after Plunkett’s sudden departure.
The liberal arts school has been struggling to balance revenues from its small enrollment, fewer than 200 students, with a recent massive investment. The purchase of 32 acres of lakefront property from the Burlington Catholic Diocese to grow a campus left the school more than $10-million in debt, Bradley said. At just 42 years old, without a large endowment or base of deep-pocketed donors, the financial pressures are significant, Smith acknowledged.
In July, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges put the college on a two-year probation because of concerns about finances, the Associated Press reported.
"It's an understatement to say that we've got major fiscal challenges," Smith said. "This is going to take some hard work and probably some difficult choices."
Bradley said Burlington College has never had large sums of money at its disposal. He said the resulting cash flow pressures were weighing heavily on the school's president of two years, Christine Plunkett. Students revolted against her Friday, swarming her car and demanding she get out of their community. "Ok. I resign. Happy? Goodbye," she told them before slamming her car door Friday.
Bradley said Plunkett confirmed to the board over the weekend that her verbal resignation to the students, which initially appeared to possibly have been a knee-jerk reaction to the tense situation, was in fact her true intention. Bradley praised Plunkett's commitment to and enthusiasm for Burlington College. He declined to say if she had a contract or had to be paid a severance package.
Bradley also said Tuesday the tense scene Friday, in which several students chanted their desire to see Plunkett leave, was not a moment to celebrate. Bradley said a protest that left Burlington College leaderless could have caused lenders to lose faith.
Bradley said the board believes in the school's mission of serving non-traditional students, and vowed to rebuild Burlington College's reputation, and boost enrollment.
"Burlington College, as interim president Smith has said, is an important part of the higher education ecosystem of Vermont," Knodell said. "We need to do everything we can to make sure Burlington College is a permanent part of the Vermont higher ed landscape."
Knodell said she will take on her duties without a paycheck. Bradley also said Coates, who was unable to attend a press conference, will work pro bono. Smith said he has committed to working for at least three months as interim president, at the rate of $8,000 a month.
After the interim leadership team was announced, a student group expressed its desire that the board and administrators improve communication with students. The group said it wanted a greater say in the future of their school. "A lot of us want to see the school restructured so it's not so hierarchical," student Molly Skerry said.
The interim team indicated it heard the students' views. "To the faculty and the staff and students: We need to come together," Knodell said.
Burlington College placed an ad for a new president on its website. That ad said, in part, that the school wants "an experienced leader who understands and embraces our mission and non-traditional educational philosophy." It also said fundraising skills, a commitment to excellence in academic standards, and strong financial literacy are job requirements.