Nepotism at Burlington College:
How did Jane Sanders funnel more than 500k to her daughter’s for-profit woodworking business during her tenure as President of Burlington College and get away with it?
Much has been written about Jane Sanders tenure as President of Burlington College (2004 to 2011). Criticism has been especially pointed regarding the $10 million land purchase for a campus expansion she spearheaded in 2010 that ultimately lead to Sanders removal a year later (albeit with a $200k golden parachute) and the College’s bankruptcy and ultimate closure last spring. In a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled,“What Really Happened at Burlington College,” President Carol Moore wrote that an investigation should be conducted into how a loan of such magnitude was ever approved for a college with such limited operating funds. But what hasn’t been discussed in all the noise about Burlington College’s closure is how Jane Sanders (supported by the same Board of Trustees who approved the land sale) openly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Burlington College’s operating funds to VT Woodworking School — a for-profit business started by her daughter Carina Driscoll in 2007.
More than $500k from 2009 to 2012
Last year, Politico described Burlington College as catering to “nontraditional students, such as veterans and adults. It grew from its original 14 students to about 200 in recent years, finding appeal with its small student-to-faculty ratio and degrees in unusual fields including woodworking.” Yet, when Jane Sanders first arrived at Burlington College in 2004 no degree program in woodworking existed. It isn’t until 2009 that public tax records show Burlington College paying Vermont Woodworking School $56,474 for materials, charges and lease of bench space based on student enrollment reflecting what appears to be the beginning of the College’s woodworking program. The college was forced to report this expenditure as it related to a relationship between an interested party (Jane Sander’s daughter, Carina Driscoll) and Burlington College. Over the next four years, funds to VT Woodworking School increased considerably from this original amount to $133,134 in 2010; $138,571 in 2011; and, $182,741 in 2012 (the last year program expenses are reported in the tax filings).
Was there an RFP?
Despite scattered reporting on this story, Jane Sanders has never been asked to explain why Burlington College suddenly needed to start a woodworking program in 2009 - the very same year the VT Woodworking School expanded to its current site in Fairfax, VT taking on considerable expense of a new building and needing to find students to fill its cavernous 15,000 square-foot space. Nor has anyone asked if the College did what would normally be required in this process by creating a Request For Proposal (RFP) to solicit bids in order to guarantee that the process was fair and open to other entities competing for this business. This appears not to be the case given that the College was also funding another program at the same time (as reported in the College’s tax returns) that directly benefited the children of Jonathan Leopold, a board member.
How to Succeed in Business (with Mom’s help, of course)
Carina Driscoll’s dream of starting a Woodworking School began in 2007 but it wasn’t until 2009 that the business really took off. Carina Driscoll’s husband Dave once stated that he was “most proud of her perseverance in staying with the mission of the business, her consistent practice of seeing the best in people, and her resilience in the face of business challenges.” Of course, not every new business gets the kind of monetary and programatic support Carina Driscoll received from Burlington College thru her mother, Jane Sanders. In addition to financial support, Burlington College’s social media pages also show years of advertising for programs at VT Woodworking School.
So, the question must be asked: why would Burlington College, an institution barely able to operate within its annual budget of $4.1 million in 2009, begin a program that diverted monies and students from its campus to a for-profit entity? Not only that, but it appears that after Sanders’ abrupt departure in 2011, VT Woodworking became formally associated with Burlington College, no longer requiring separate reporting of its financial arrangement with a program operated by the daughter of its former President.
According to the College’s now defunct website, Carina Driscoll was listed as Director of the Woodworking Program at Burlington College on the Faculty and Staff Directory in 2016. It is unclear how the College was able to hire her on staff while she remained the owner of VT Woodworking — directly benefitting from the College’s funding of her for-profit business. In fact, according to VT Woodworking School’s notice at the time of Burlington College closure in 2016 it had grown into be one of the two largest programs at the College. Students housed at VT Woodworking School also appear to have been paying housing fees there and not to Burlington College itself — which, it could be argued, was a huge loss of income for the College at a time when it needed it most.
Nepotism Doesn’t Belong in Higher Education. Period.
The blatant nepotism shown by Jane Sanders actions in support of her daughter’s for-profit business should never have been allowed. Furthermore, her blatant disregard to safeguard and protect the students and faculty of Burlington College in her capacity as President shows a stunning lack of leadership and moral integrity rarely seen in higher education. Given this, one must ask how the money diverted from Burlington College to VT Woodworking School over nearly a decade could have been used instead to build onsite College programming, increase residency, and finance scholarship funding. Sadly, it appears that the level of misconduct displayed here, along with the land purchase which resulted in the College’s demise, will never be fully investigated.
Last month Goddard College invited Jane Sanders to give their commencement address as a reflection of their “commitment to social justice and inclusion.” If that’s the case, then perhaps they should reconsider whether or not Jane Sanders, a woman who diverted over $500k from the operating funds of the college she ran to her daughter’s for-profit business, is truly deserving of such an honor.