Students at Burlington College voiced frustration and outrage last week over the recent dismissal of a popular literature professor, prompting an emergency meeting of the college’s Board of Trustees.
At Friday’s marathon, five-hour session, students demanded that the board implement significant policy reforms, including the adoption of a formal grievance policy for faculty and staff and more checks and balances on the college’s president. They also requested partial tuition reimbursement for students whose classes were disrupted by the dismissal of the professor, Genese Grill.
The meeting, most of which was conducted behind closed doors, brought to a boil a controversy that’s been simmering for months at the tiny liberal-arts college overlooking Lake Champlain. In September, representatives of the Student Government Association (SGA) began meeting with students, faculty and staff about what they described as a “toxic and disruptive environment” on campus, which they blame on Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders.
Seventy-four of the college’s 170 students and 11 faculty and staff signed a petition calling for the emergency meeting and expressing the view that there’s a “crisis in leadership” at the school.
“Over the past four years, there have been more than two dozen faculty and staff who have left [Burlington College],” said SGA President Joshua Lambert in an interview last week. “A lot of those, we’re concerned, have to do with the administrative practices of Jane Sanders and her administration.”
Relations between students and the administration worsened on November 7 when Grill, a writing and literature professor who’s been teaching at Burlington College since 2002, was dismissed just weeks before the end of the fall semester, disrupting coursework for dozens of students.
Grill contends that her dismissal had nothing to do with her academic performance as an instructor — in 2006, she was voted faculty member of the year — but instead was due to her public criticism of Sanders. In a June 3 letter to Academic Affairs Committee Chair Bill Kelly, Grill challenged Sanders’ leadership style and complained of an “atmosphere of fear and censorship” on campus.
“While I was once a favorite of President Sanders and one of her first hires,” Grill wrote, “over time I came to have serious concerns and questions about her processes and policies, and began specifically to ask questions about what I viewed as harassment and unethical treatment of other faculty and staff members, many of whom have since left the college disgruntled and angry.”
Sanders said neither she nor the college’s trustees are at liberty to discuss Grill’s case, describing it as a confidential personnel matter. But Sanders maintains that Grill’s criticisms are unwarranted and unfair, particularly because she cannot refute or debate them with students or the press.
Grill was not dismissed, Sanders said, but rather was told she would not be “reappointed.” Burlington College has no tenured faculty and all of its instructors work under a one-year contract. Grill is the first faculty member Sanders has not reappointed.
“I agree that it was difficult for my students, but that was not my choice,” Sanders explained. “Their demands are thoughtful ones. We agree with some of them and we’re moving towards them.”
Sanders explained that she offered Grill a “terminal contract” last spring that allowed her to finish out the fall semester. However, due to a clerical error, the contract ended a week earlier than it should have, which precipitated the current crisis.
“We require, according to our policies, 30 days’ notice,” Sanders added. “I gave Dr. Grill six months’ notice. That’s pretty unheard of, but it’s the way we do business at Burlington College.”
In August, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) expressed concerns about Burlington College’s lack of a formal grievance policy for faculty. In a letter to Sanders, Robert Kreiser, senior program officer in AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, called the omission “quite unusual” for an American college or university.
“If a faculty member is not retained at an institution because the administration is displeased by that person’s outspokenness, in our judgment, that implicates principles of academic freedom,” Kreiser told Seven Days. “A faculty member should have the right to speak out about actions and policies at his or her own college.”
Kreiser said Sanders responded to his letter by phone, describing the issue as an “internal personnel matter” and declining his offer to help draft a new policy that meets AAUP’s standards.
According to Sanders, Grill’s failure to be renewed is “not a grievable issue” under the school’s employment policies. As for AAUP’s concerns, she said the organization’s “standard is for tenured faculty, so it would be extremely difficult to do at such a small college. It’s the American Association of University Professors.”
Students, faculty and staff interviewed for this story expressed a deep love for Burlington College, and said they had mixed emotions about publicly criticizing the college. Plans are in the works to build a three-story, $10 million facility adjacent to the current building on North Avenue, and some faculty and staff acknowledged that bad publicity could harm the upcoming capital campaign.
But those same students and staff said that the board’s assurances about more open and honest engagement in the future aren’t enough. Some have considered organizing street protests and class boycotts, while others say they’ve considered not returning to Burlington College next year.
“Genese has been one of the best teachers I’ve ever had in my life,” said SGA Treasurer Mary Vittum, who’s taken several classes with Grill. “I wouldn’t be at school at all if it wasn’t for her. To all of a sudden lose her now, three weeks before classes are over, is horrendous.”
Renée Lauzon, who’s finishing her degree at Burlington College, said students feel slighted. “Basically, the students, faculty and staff are not being heard by the people who are making decisions at the school and, overall, our academic freedom is being stifled,” she said.
Similar discontent has been voiced by current and former faculty and staff. Pamela Formica, an adjunct professor who taught psychology at Burlington College for three years, resigned recently for unrelated reasons. However, she said she wouldn’t consider returning unless major policy changes were adopted. As she put it, “There are rights that instructors have at really mainstream colleges . . . that are more progressive than what’s going on at Burlington College.”
By late Friday night, the board had agreed to speed up a scheduled review of college policies and procedures, including adopting a formal grievance policy by early 2009. It also elected to conduct periodic “cultural audits” of students’ opinions of the college and its governance.
However, contrary to many students’ wishes, the board, including its students members, voted to reaffirm its support of Sanders, who’s been at the helm of the college for the last four-and-a-half years.
As Executive Committee Chair Patrick Gallivan put it later, “The board is quite confident in Jane’s leadership, and we stand by her.”
For her part, Sanders said this has been “the first difficult semester since I’ve been here,” but hopes to engage in “more open, honest dialogue and get rid of the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality.”