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November 25, 2013

Burlington College Cuts Spark Fears and Student Protests

Christine Plunkett on the Burlington College campus. (file: Matthew Thorsen)

Budget cuts resulting in the loss of four faculty and staff members at financially shaky Burlington College are sparking protests by students who say they're worried about their school's viability.

Two department chairs at the 41-year-old college — Anna Blackmer (humanities) and Emily Schmidt (fine arts) — recently resigned after being offered contracts that would have made them half-time employees and terminated their health benefits. Blackmer, 63, has been working full-time at the college for 25 years.

Web administrator and veterans' liaison Erin Elliott, who is eight months pregnant, saw her position eliminated.

A third academic program head, Gordon Glover (film), was not offered a new contract. And Mary Arbuckle, a professor in the film department, had her hours cut in half and her benefits terminated. That scale-back sharply constricts the one department for which Burlington College has achieved a degree of recognition beyond its North Avenue campus.

Burlington College President Christine Plunkett confirmed the departures in an interview with Seven Days on Sunday. None of the departing faculty and staff members could be reached for comment for this report. Students, however, are speaking up.

Senior Ned McEleney says the film and media activism programs were what led him to transfer to Burlington College two years ago. "I feel like I've been sold a false bill of goods," McEleney said in an interview. He noted that the film department had two-and-a-half full-time faculty members instructing 40 majors prior to the recent reductions.

In response to the cuts and to what they say is a lack of transparency on the part of the college administration, students decided last week to dissolve the student government and replace it with a "more democratic" structure. They have also presented Plunkett with a statement of values and a list of grievances. Students had planned to stage a protest last week during the college's recruitment event for visiting high schoolers but Plunkett dissuaded them from taking that action, McEleney says.

In an interview with Seven Days, the president said that the faculty and staff "restructuring" was carried out to ease a budget squeeze and as part of an upward adjustment in teaching loads. Remaining full-time faculty are now being required to teach four courses a semester; a few years ago, full-timers did not have to teach more than two courses, Plunkett said.

Department chairs will also be required to take part in student-recruitment efforts by visiting high schools — a move, Plunkett acknowledged, that makes faculty members "uncomfortable."

The cuts will save the school about $210,000 a year, she noted. Federal tax documents indicate that Burlington College was operating with a $553,000 deficit in 2011 (the most recent year available online), with revenues, which are derived almost entirely from student tuition, totaling about $4.5 million. "We've been running on an extremely tight budget for quite some time," Plunkett said.

She insisted that the reductions among the college's 35 full-time employees had nothing to do with its obligations to cover a $10 million mortgage for the purchase two years ago of the Burlington Roman Catholic diocese property. The college has not missed any payments due on the debt held by People's United Bank, Plunkett said. "I don't feel we're at risk of missing any," she added.

"We've been working closely with the bank, and they've been very helpful," Plunkett continued, noting that the college has hired a consultant to focus on financial issues.

The cost of buying 32 acres of lakefront real estate and an 85,000-square-foot building will be met entirely through sale of a portion of the property to real-estate developers, along with a revved-up fundraising effort, Plunkett said.

The college has virtually no endowment and in 2011 it reported investment income of $6092.

Private builder Eric Farrell, along with two nonprofit housing groups, recently announced plans to develop half of the college's campus. The proposal involves construction of student dorms, 75 units of elder housing, 40 units of subsidized rental apartments for families, 120 market-rate rental units and 30 upscale single-family homes.

Asked about student complaints that the administration is operating in an opaque fashion, Plunkett said she had recently met twice with concerned students for a total of five hours to explain the school's recent actions and long-term plans. They include tripling enrollment from 250 at present to 750 a decade from now.

Students asked Plunkett whether she and other administrators would cut their own pay as part of the "restructuring" moves. They will not, the president said on Sunday.

She noted that the three top officers at the school are together now carrying out responsibilities that used to be assigned to nine staff positions. Plunkett herself has been acting as the college's chief financial officer, as well as its president, for the past four months, she added.

She declined to reveal her salary but noted it could be found in the college's federal tax filings. They show that Plunkett made $80,813 in 2011 while her predecessor, Jane O'Meara Sanders, was being paid $152,762 that year as part of a deal that eased her out of the presidency.

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