Jane Sanders and the messy demise of a Vermont college

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders salute the crowd as they arrive at a campaign event in Pasadena, Calif., Friday, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders with his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, salute the crowd as they arrive at a campaign event in Pasadena, California, Friday, May 31, 2019. –Damian Dovarganes / AP

BURLINGTON, Vt. — If Jane O’Meara Sanders had had her way, a stretch of prime real estate in Burlington along Lake Champlain would have become a college campus. Instead, it became a cloud lingering over her reputation and her husband’s presidential campaign.

In 2010, as president and would-be savior of Burlington College — a tiny alternative school without a campus in this small offbeat city — Sanders championed a deal to buy a waterfront spread from the local Roman Catholic diocese. Within a year, she was ousted, and the college limped toward obsolescence, buried under debt.

Then the story of the failing college turned into a political storm.

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A local Republican grandee financed a commercial in 2014 attacking Sanders’ $200,000 severance as a “golden parachute.” As her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders, ran for president in 2016, the Clinton campaign included the episode in the opposition research it circulated, with the heading “O’Meara Sanders beleaguered tenure.”

Finally, the top Trump campaign official in Vermont filed a complaint, leading to a federal inquiry that examined whether Jane Sanders had inflated donor commitments to secure a bank loan for the property, and whether her husband had pressured the bank to make the loan.

Today, Sen. Sanders is among the front-runners challenging President Donald Trump, and Jane Sanders is — as she long has been — his closest political adviser and confidante. A sprawling housing development is now rising on the lakeside land. But questions about the Burlington College deal live on.

Federal prosecutors have not spoken publicly about their investigation, though late last year, Sanders’ lead lawyer said he had been told it had been closed. And while doubts remain about the contribution pledges claimed by the college, the lawyer has said that neither Sanders nor her husband was even questioned by investigators, indicating a lack of significant evidence of a crime.

After Sanders’s ouster, the college’s troubles worsened. It abandoned a promising effort she had undertaken to sell some of its new land to improve its finances, interviews show. A few years later, when it did begin selling, it was to a consortium that secretly included at least one member of its board, raising conflict-of-interest questions.

Burlington College closed in 2016. Six years prior, it made a $10 million land purchase to create a campus and attract more students. —John Tully / The New York Times
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There is little question that the college’s 2016 demise can be traced to Sanders’ decision to champion an aggressive — critics say reckless — plan to buy the land. But with potential students put off by the lack of a campus, and with many such colleges struggling at the time, her move was the academic equivalent of a Hail Mary. Her allies said she never had a chance to fulfill her vision.

“Jane made an audacious gambit to save the college,” said Genevieve Jacobs, a former faculty member. “It seemed to be a moment of ‘change or die.’”

In interviews and emails, Sanders expressed frustration at her dismissal and the college’s failure to continue her rescue plan.

“They went a completely different direction in every way than what we had proposed and decided upon as a board — with the bank, with the diocese, the bonding agency,” she said. “They didn’t carry out any of the plan. It was very confusing and upsetting at the time.”

Others remain dubious. At the time of the deal, the college had a student body of only about 200 and scant financial resources.

“I was nowhere near being convinced this was a ready-for-primetime deal,” said Tom Pelham, who was a dissenting voice at a state agency that provided financial support. “For me, it wasn’t a close call.”

A bold plan

Jane and Bernie Sanders were long on parallel tracks. They grew up 15 blocks apart in Brooklyn and separately made their way to Vermont. Jane Sanders, 69, moved north in 1975 after her first husband, David Driscoll, was transferred by IBM. The couple, who had three children, separated not long after.

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She and Bernie Sanders shared an activist sensibility. She camped out at Woodstock and protested the Vietnam War. She has said she gave up politics after Nixon’s reelection and was moved to re-engage only when she saw her future husband speak while running for mayor of Burlington in 1981.

Burlington fit their personalities. If you came on the right night last month and stopped in at Nectar’s, a long-standing watering hole, you could catch an Allman Brothers tribute band. Burlington gave birth to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the jam band Phish, of which Sanders counts herself a fan (and a supporter of the Phish drummer Jon Fishman’s recent campaign for office in his Maine hometown).

For her husband — they married in 1988 — she became an indispensable intellectual partner. She volunteered on his campaigns, ran his youth office when he was mayor and served as his congressional chief of staff, writing dozens of bills and amendments. She also encouraged her husband to soften his position on marijuana legalization and helped prepare him for debates in the 2016 election. After that campaign, she founded the Sanders Institute with her son, David Driscoll, to advance left-wing ideas and capitalize on what she has called “our movement.” (The institute recently suspended operations ahead of the 2020 election.)

She also had her own priorities. She dropped out of the University of Tennessee in 1970, but earned a degree from Goddard College, another experimental Vermont institution that has faced financial woes. She served as Goddard’s interim president in 1996 and 1997, and in 2000 received a doctorate from Union Institute & University, which specializes in distance learning.

When Burlington College hired Jane Sanders in 2004, it needed a turnaround artist. Initially run out of a professor’s house, the college was among a group of free-spirited institutions started in the 1960s and ’70s that let students design their own curricula.

It was “very funky, very Vermont, very alternative,” said Lori Lustberg, a local financial adviser and alumna.

It had also raised less than $40,000 the previous year. Sanders was seen as having the connections to boost the college’s profile. Fundraising increased modestly, and her 2007-2008 personnel review, obtained by The New York Times, said her leadership had helped “put Burlington College on solid ground” and led to a $300,000 surplus.

But there were controversies, as when the college embarked on a partnership to provide students for a fledgling woodworking school founded in part by Sanders’ daughter Carina Driscoll. Driscoll noted in an email that most of the $500,000 the college directed to her school came after Sanders’ departure, and that the school now has a similar partnership with Northern Vermont University.

After a few years on the job, Sanders pounced on an opportunity to buy a 33-acre property owned by the local diocese, which was struggling amid the clergy sex abuse scandal. The college was then cramped in a small building tantalizingly close to the diocese’s land.

Sanders did not make the decision alone. The 2010 purchase for $10 million was backed by the college’s board. A local bank, People’s United, approved a loan. And a state board, the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Financing Agency, provided financial support, based on the recommendation of the consulting firm PFM.

Charly Dickerson, a member of the finance agency at the time, voted against the deal.

“It was too massive a piece of property for a small school to undertake,” he said.

The former site of the college. The deal attracted scrutiny by political opponents and federal investigators.

The bank and the consultant declined to comment.

Some, however, said the college needed a bold plan. Nationwide, small colleges have been under financial strain as enrollment lags climbing costs. Applicants would grow significantly, Sanders believed, if Burlington College acquired a showplace campus.

She courted donors whose pledges could help secure the loan. David Dunn, a college trustee at the time, said the board had concerns by 2011 that contributions were not materializing. He said trustees began a review after learning that a major donor, Corrine Bove Maietta, who was supposed to donate $1 million over time, actually committed to give the funds when she died.

“That was the catalyst that started a more thorough analysis,” said Dunn, who later learned that his own initials were listed among trustees having pledged donations, which he said he had not done.

Maietta did not respond to requests for comment, but her longtime accountant, Richard Moss, said that “as I remember it, she didn’t commit to give anything before death.”

Dunn said additional factors also led to Sanders’ dismissal, including concerns that she had lost faculty support, and a heated argument she had with a student. (The student played down the argument in a letter to the board that was reviewed by The Times.)

Sanders said she had made no misrepresentations about donations: “I gave the most complete and accurate information I knew to all the people that required it.” In a final letter to the board, she laid out a number of strategic suggestions.

“While some of you have clearly perceived my entrepreneurial approach and community perspective to be too expansive for our small college, I think it is extremely important that the next president have those broad skills,” she wrote, adding that she thought she was “leaving the school far stronger than it has ever been.”

An ending, and a funeral

Three years after her departure, in 2014, a local Republican donor and gas station operator named Rodolphe M. Vallee, who goes by “Skip,” financed a commercial attacking Sanders’ $200,000 severance, mocking the Wall Street-flogging couple for taking “a golden parachute of their own.” (Sanders said she took only “my earned sabbatical and deferred bonus.”) Vallee and Bernie Sanders were already engaged in a long-running dispute over fuel pricing that continues to this day.

In January 2016, Brady Toensing, who ran the Trump campaign’s operations in Vermont, wrote a letter to the Justice Department seeking an investigation of the land deal. Toensing works at a Washington law firm founded by his mother, Victoria Toensing, and stepfather, Joseph diGenova, outspoken defenders of Trump, and has long talked up the Burlington College controversy.

“It was hoped that she would be held accountable and have to pay restitution, despite her political connections,” he said in an email.

When the topic came up in a 2017 television interview, Bernie Sanders bristled.

“My wife is about the most honest person I know,” he said, adding, “I think it’s fairly pathetic that when people are involved in public life, it’s not only that they get attacked, but it’s their wives and their families that get attacked, and that’s what this is about.”

Though the investigation concluded under the Trump administration, it began under President Barack Obama’s. Investigators subpoenaed records, interviewed donors, trustees, bankers and faculty members, according to several people who were questioned.

“They did a very thorough job,” said Larry Robbins, one of Jane Sanders’ lawyers. Before closing the case, “they talked to a bunch of people — they talked to us a couple times, the lawyers — we had two in-person meetings that I can think of, a number of follow-up phone calls.”

At the time of her dismissal, Sanders was in talks with Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., who was wooing a company interested in moving to town. Selling a parcel of the new campus could have altered the college’s financial outlook.

“Hindsight is 20/20, but I think she could’ve pulled it off,” Cioffi said, adding, “I know Jane and have worked with her, and I personally have confidence in her ability to follow through and get things done.” The college, however, did not pursue the deal, he said.

When the college did sell off some of the land in 2015, students and faculty members were concerned that real estate developers had too much sway with the board. Indeed, one of the trustees, Joel Miller, was quietly part of the consortium that bought the land.

“There were other board members that were investing,” Miller said, but added that he was “not at liberty to say” which ones.

The news surprised Yves Bradley, a commercial realtor who was the last board chairman. “I didn’t know that Joel had a piece of this deal,” he said.

After the college announced its closing in 2016, students staged a mock funeral, carrying a coffin through the city.

Mourners at a mock funeral for Burlington College in 2016. —James Buck via The New York Times

Today, opinions vary on Jane Sanders among alumni.

“I don’t blame her for what happened, and in the conversations I had with students and faculty and staff, I don’t feel too many people involved with the school do blame her,” said Andrew Tarwerdi, a former student body president.

Others had a dimmer view. Only a few months after the college closed in the summer of 2016, she and her husband bought their third residence, a $600,000 beach house on the shores of Lake Champlain, to go with homes in Burlington and Washington.

“I don’t think it went over very well,” said Jon Chamis, a pallbearer at the mock funeral. He was one semester from graduating when Burlington College closed, and is still paying off $900 a month in student debt. (Sanders said the money for the lake house came from her sale of a share of her deceased parents’ home, and from her husband’s book royalties.)

For her part, the college’s death remains an opportunity lost. She had envisioned the new campus as a cultural and educational center for the city, and as an extension of her activism.

“We anticipated having concerts on the lawn, with some of the magnificent musicians in our state, an art gallery where artists would present their work,” Sanders said.

“At the same time those musicians and artists would be teaching at the school. We would have lectures, all open, and conferences, all open to the community at large, as well as our students, because that was what we were preparing them for — the world at large.”