Burlington College has new campus and big plans
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | March 10,2013
Students walk the campus of Burlington College last fall.
It wasn’t that long ago, Burlington College President Christine Plunkett recalled, that prospective students would drive past the “campus” and come away with the impression that it resembled more of an office building than a four-year college.
No one would confuse today’s Burlington College campus with the one it occupied for nearly 40 years on North Street. Today, the college’s 35-acre campus overlooks Lake Champlain. The centerpiece is a 77,000-square-foot, four-story, 1884 brick building that was the former headquarters of the Archdiocese of Burlington.
“Our plan now is we have room to grow and we have this amazing building,” said Plunkett, who took over last year as the school’s fifth president since its founding in 1972.
The small liberal arts college (www.burlington.edu) will take a path to be laid out in a five-year strategic plan. The plan is taking shape with input from the college community.
Plunkett said higher education nationally is shifting direction in ways she called “frightening.” She cited estimates that as many as 50 percent of small liberal arts colleges may be gone in 10 years.
“We’re being careful to move forward in a way that we think we’ll meet the characteristics of the colleges that will survive,” said Plunkett, who will be installed next month as president.
Setting itself apart
The school’s strong suit remains its fine arts curriculum.
Plunkett said other “really unique programs” will also set the school apart so that it not only survives but thrives.
For example, she said the school is one of only a few in the country that offers a semester abroad in Cuba. There is also a craftsmanship and design program at the Vermont Woodworking School and, in a state heavily dependent on the tourism industry, Plunkett said the college offers a degree program in hospitality and event management.
The college is already collaborating with Jay Peak Resort to enhance its hospitality program.
“We’re collaborating on curriculum, job type, job programming, work-study types of things, and I think it will be a very good relationship,” said Jay Peak President Bill Stenger.
“And it’s not something that will be just confined to Jay Peak and our Northeast Kingdom projects,” he added, “but rather would apply throughout the state with other ski resorts and hotel properties and then of course in the restaurant field as well.”
Plunkett, a Middlebury resident, is no outsider. A native Vermonter, Plunkett served as the school’s vice president of administration and finance before being named president, succeeding Jane Sanders.
Chatting over breakfast at Rosie’s Diner in Middlebury, Plunkett said the school’s success not only depends on offering those niche programs but finding the right students.
For Burlington College, she said that means increasingly being able to attract first-generation students.
“We’re in the middle of a refugee resettlement population,” Plunkett said.
Next to the campus is Burlington High School where Plunkett said 43 languages are spoken. To help ease the transition for students who have English as a second language, Plunkett said the college is partnering with the high school to offer students a three-credit, dual-enrollment course in writing. Other local schools are also interested in the program, she said.
Plunkett said exposing first-generation students to college before they graduate increases the likelihood that they’ll continue their education.
“This for me has become really a passion in the way Burlington College can really help,” she said. “We serve these populations very well.”
Plunkett said a third component to the college’s future is community engagement.
“It means you’re looking beyond yourself as just an academic institution for turning out degrees,” she said. “You’re making yourself indispensable to your neighborhood and the people who live in your city.”
The final element is generating auxiliary income, which in the future fits nicely with the college’s hospitality program.
“We get calls every two weeks, someone wants to do a wedding,” Plunkett said.
Small is better
One appeal of the college is its small class size, which is capped at 20 students with the average size of eight to 10 students. The classes are also dialogue-based, not the traditional lecture-based classes found at most colleges.
Grades are also a thing of the past.
“We do not do grades unless the students ask for them,” Plunkett said. “So it’s all based on merit and evaluations and goal-setting with your faculty.”
She said the college also appeals to other niche populations, including veterans, transfer students from community colleges and students who are the first in their family to attend college.
Plunkett said giving those groups an opportunity to further their education is important for the state’s economic future.
She said, “If I look at our future with a tanking student-age population and rising (senior citizens), where is our workforce?”
While Vermont ranks near the top nationally when it comes to high school graduation rates, it ranks second from the bottom in the percentage of graduates who go on to post-secondary education.
What would become Burlington College’s new campus became available three years ago when the Archdiocese of Burlington, faced with settling priest misconduct lawsuits, sold its prime 35-acre property overlooking Lake Champlain to the college for $10 million.
The college in turn sold its former academic building to the Committee on Temporary Shelter.
Since moving into its new home at 351 North Ave. in August 2011, the college occupies less than half of the 77,000-square-foot building.
The college expects to have the rest of the building ready to occupy within a year.
“What we need to do right now is about $300,000 worth of safety and code work,” she said.
Once the renovations are complete, she said, the college will continue its practice of making space available for public gatherings, but on a larger scale.
The Burlington architectural firm of TruexCullins is working on the campus master plan, which includes building a residence hall to accommodate up to 125 students.
With five colleges in town there is a housing shortage, Plunkett said, so the city has been urging college officials to move students on campus whenever possible.
Currently, there are about 25 students housed in several college-owned apartment buildings in the immediate area, with another 17 students housed in one building on campus.
Plunkett said the campus building could become an international residence hall as early as the fall.
The college has signed recruiting arrangements with three high schools in China. “Probably by the fall we could have as many as 10 Chinese students,” she said.
With plenty of room to grow, the goal is for enrollment to hit 300 students within three years and, if all the pieces fall into place, an ultimate population of 500 to 750 students.
But Plunkett also knows getting there won’t be without its challenges.
“I just see it as a very unique little place that has all the ingredients to succeed,” she said. “But it’s a huge financial challenge right now and that’s not going to stop anytime soon.”