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Q&A: Jane Sanders, President of Burlington College Robert Smith, editor and freelance writer for The Message for The Week, interviewed Jane Sanders at Burlington College

by Robert Smith on Oct 17th, 2007

Dr Jane O'Meara Sanders is the fourth President of Burlington College in Burlington, VT, a position she took in 2004. She is also the wife of Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders, whom she has been with since 1981 and married in 1988.

Sanders is a political scientist, wife, mother, grandmother, and former elected official. She was recruited to serve as Interim President/Provost of her alma-mater, Goddard College, in 1996. As a senior partner in Leadership Strategies, a Burlington based consulting firm, she provided educational and political consulting and worked on federal, state and local political campaigns. Jane served in her husband's Congressional office as Chief of Staff and Policy and Press Advisor.

Sanders has three children in their 30s: Dave Driscoll, the team manager for Burton Snowboards, Carina Driscoll, the communications coordinator at Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and city councilor, and who, with her husband Blake Ewoldsen, just bought the Community Woodworking Shop in Colchester where they will start a woodworking school. Daughter Heather Driscoll is an artist and photographer and is studying architecture and energy efficient design. All of the children are living in Burlington. Stepson Levi Sanders is a senior legal advocate at Greater Boston Legal Services and is married to Dr Raine Riggs, a neuro-psychologist at Brown. Jane says her late ex-husband's daughter Nicole is also considered a daughter by her and Bernie. She also has three grandchildren.

Robert Smith interviewed President Sanders at Burlington College.

VBM: I'd like to start with the history of Burlington College, and what particular niche it serves.

Sanders: Burlington College began 35 years ago in the living room of Steward LaCasce as the Vermont Institute of Community Involvement. It was serving the non-traditional aged student before they became the majority of college students today. They started with a dozen students in his living room. He worked a lot with returned Vietnam War veterans, low income advocates, people who really wanted to further their education and who wanted to really study the issues of the day, but who didn't feel that they wanted to go to class with the 18-year-olds. It wasn't accredited until the 1980s.

One of the people that was part of this is now the CEO of Associates in Rural Development, which is a very, very big business here in Burlington that has international contracts around the globe having to do with sustainability, democracy. I looked at that when I was looking for people for the board, and I thought, this is so similar to what we are. So, we had lunch, and he explained that he was the first academic dean here.

We moved to an apartment, and then finally purchased this building in 1989. Over the course of the last few years we've purchased this entire city block. We have two houses overlooking Lake Champlain, and the other two houses on this block, as well as owning the parking lot. It's a small college, but the location is really great.

VBM: What do you have for enrollment?

Sanders: We have, on campus, about 204 students. We have 130 full-time equivalents, and another 30 or so in the off-campus program, an independent study program. Our main program is the film school, which is attracting a lot of younger students, and we have transpersonal psychology, human services, and writing and literature, which attracts some of our older students.

VBM: Faculty?

Sanders: We relied in the beginning, until 2005, primarily on community faculty. We believe very strongly that people teach best if they practice what they teach. So we get some of the best practitioners. We have wonderful film makers, wonderful psychologists, wonderful people in the services area coming in and teaching. But we also have a very strong individualized program and a student centered approach. So we wanted to have a standing faculty here that was available to students on a regular basis. So we now have 12 people on campus as faculty.

VBM: What kind of degrees do you offer?

Sanders: The film school has the largest number of students. We have cinema studies and film production as a BA degree but we also have certificate programs in screenwriting, which appeals to older students and even people with Master's often, documentary film making and film production. We find that we get a lot of the younger students coming to take the certificate, and they take the film production certificate and they take some of the more theoretical film study courses and realize that in order to be a film maker, as opposed to a technician, you really need to have a broader liberal arts education. So they stay for the BA.

We also have legal and justice studies, which is pretty much a pre-law program. It was with that para-legal certificate which enables people to move on. One of our para-legal graduates started her own para-legal firm and has a number of people working for her. They work in area law offices. We also have a free legal clinic that we offer to the community every Saturday so that people can learn how to represent themselves, per se.

VBM: Expense-wise, how is this college? Is it relatively inexpensive to attend?

Sanders: By national standards, absolutely. By state standards, as an independent school, we're one of the lowest priced. The state schools, of course, are always less expensive because they have subsidies from the government. We don't have that, but it's a very reasonable tuition.

However, in all honesty, we've had to look at the cost of providing the kind of student centered and very independent education that we offer and we realized this last year that we had to raise prices a bit.

VBM: Do you have students independently studying in another part of the state, but who come here to campus from time to time?

Sanders: Yes, as part of our independent degree program. We have students that come twice a year to a residency. They come for four days and study and work. Before they come they've been working with our faculty here on either six credit or nine credit modules, designing their own program.

We're an alternative education, and we don't have grades, but that's not to mean that we're easy. Some people have thought that, but they don't work out so well. What we do is that we rely on a narrative evaluation. At the beginning of the class the faculty and the student sit down and say, what do we want out of this class? What are we going to cover? What are we going to commit to do? At the end of the class, instead of waiting for grades to be handed down, the student has to sit down and write a narrative evaluation about how well has this enriched their education. How have I actually done what we said, or have I done something different? Did I not do enough? Did I exceed? Then they sit down with the professor to work out, to agree on the narrative evaluation. The professor will have done their own of the student. Then they come up with something they both sign, and that's part of their program and part of their transfer. Students that go on to law school request grades early on, and we give them that.

In the middle of a student's time here, they have a mid-point assessment. You are accepted into the BA program, but after your sophomore year, you have to give a portfolio of your work, and it goes to the faculty here to determine whether or not you will be accepted to continue in the BA program. At the end you have a capstone project which is a creative work or a research paper that is presented to the public and evaluated with your professor. So we have our film makers make films, and our writers write poetry or stories. So, it's a very rigorous education done in a very different way. It's not dogmatic, it's not ,"the professor knows what you need to learn," but the student has to take responsibility as well.

VBM: So that's why it appeals to non-traditional and older students?

Sanders: Yeah. We have great success with transfer students. Students who have gone the regular route, who say, "I know what I want to study, and I don't want to go through this 101 or 200 level thing, I want to design my own courses." Within reason, our faculty will work with them to do that.

VBM: So how did you get here?

Sanders: I had been an interim president at Goddard College. In 1996 and 1997 I was asked to come in there because I had been on the board of trustees and I had graduated from there. They were going through a very difficult time with finances, with morale, and the folks on both sides of the aisle knew me and trusted me, so they asked if I could come in for a year. I ended up staying a year and a half. We got them through an accreditation review, built up morale and took care of the finances. It was a very exciting time. I'd never thought about getting into education.

Since then a number of colleges have asked if I was interested in working with them. But because of my husband's position - we talked about it a lot - it's really not easy to figure out how I would have a job outside of Burlington. But this came up. I had just helped my daughter Carina in her Ward 3 city council campaign, and I realized how much I missed being here. I'd been in Washington as Bernie's Chief of Staff on a voluntary basis for about six years. When this position came up, I thought, "That's very interesting."

I pass the school all the time. I didn't know much about it, but I remember when it was VICI. I hadn't been in it since it became Burlington College and moved here. So I checked with a few people. When I looked into it I realized that the college's educational philosophy strongly matched what my commitment is - supporting the community and participating fully in the community. Our mission is to guide students to become active citizens and to participate fully in their local, national and global communities in whatever ways they choose. That could be politically, artistically, in a helping fashion, but let your voice be heard. I've certainly always believed in civic engagement and in progressive education, so I'm very excited to be here.

VBM: Are you from Vermont?

Sanders: No. Now I live three miles down the road, but I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. I was not an alternative student, I went to a girl's Catholic high school and grew up in Flatbush. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Tennessee, then I moved to Virginia for a short time, had two children, my daughters, but decided that wasn't a place to raise children. We came to Vermont, and I fell in love with it as soon as I stepped off the plane. My then husband came up with IBM. The first winter I said, "I'm leaving!" But the wonderful thing about Vermont is that spring follows winter, and you just forget it, and after four years, I don't know, I guess your blood thickens or something.

VBM: When was that, when you came here?

Sanders: That was 1975. It was the year I had my son.

VBM: When did you go to Goddard?

Sanders: I went back to finish college after I had my three kids. I went to an alternative program similar to the independent degree program here from 1978 to 1980.

VBM: What did you do for work during the 1980s?

Sanders: In the 80s I worked in the Burlington Police Department in the Juvenile Division, working with the detectives and the juvenile officers for a time. Then I went to the King Street Area Youth Center. There I worked as a community organizer, working to develop neighborhood organizations throughout the state. I was a VISTA volunteer, part of paying off my student loans.

At that time the mayor's race was happening here in Burlington that Bernie was in. I went with the Neighborhood Organization folks to a meeting with the then Mayor and they asked questions. I didn't feel we were getting direct answers, so I started asking questions. They said, "You sound like Bernie Sanders now!" I sat down and said, "Who's Bernie Sanders?" They said, "He's running for mayor." I said, "Let's organize a debate."

So we did. He came, and everyone was swarming around him and the other candidates, because they weren't supportive of the mayor, so, being the good Catholic girl, of course I was very nice to the mayor and barely even said hell-o to Bernie. But when I heard him speak, well, that was it. The police department I was working with supported him after that, and he won 10 days later. We met at the victory party, and that was the beginning of forever.

Before he was elected he called together a task force on youth. He asked 12 organizations to send somebody to talk about what to do with children and families. King Street sent me. Then the group asked me to chair it, so I was working for him actually before I'd even talked with him. Then after he won, we worked together.

VBM: This was one of his later races when he was getting a little bit better known?

Sanders: Right. It was 1981 and he won by 10 votes.

VBM: Did you get married soon after that?

Sanders: No. It was much later. I became the director of the Youth Office. I didn't report to him. I had to report to the city council and the then city treasurer, who is now on my board. In my capacity I started the Queen City Special, a newspaper. When I say "I," it was with many, many volunteers. We started a teen center which still exists - 242 Main. We started the Burlington Children's Space, a daycare center which still exists, and after school programs which are still going. We started Kid's Day, which is still a festival in the city, and a number of other things. It was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful job to be of service to the community. I guess that's what brought me back here. I did that for a number of years until 1989. We started the sister city idea with Yaroslovl, along with Bernie and eight other people.

VBM: In Russia?

Sanders: Yes. We got married in 1988. The day after we got married, we marched in a Memorial Day Parade, and then we took off in a plane to start the sister city project with Yaroslovl with 10 other people on my honeymoon.

VBM: So you and Bernie have been together since when?

Sanders: I think we've been together since 1981. A long time.

VBM: He was elected to the House of Representatives when?

Sanders: In 1990. He decided not to run for mayor in 1989, and the next mayor, Peter Clavelle also appointed me to lead the Youth Office. So I worked with Peter for a couple of years, and then when Bernie went to Washington. Everybody just assumed that I would go also, but I hated to leave this good job. So I waited six months or so and then I did go back and forth to Washington. We still had kids in high school. During that period I went back to school for my PhD.

VBM: And you got that from?

Sanders: Union Institute and University. That's in Cincinnati and around the globe, and there is a place here at Vermont College now. I started that, and then Goddard asked me to step in as interim president, and as thanks they supported my Ph.D.

VBM: And you came here to Burlington College?

Sanders: In 2004. Three years ago. In the interim I was finishing my Ph.D. and then working with Bernie.

VBM: What do you see five and 10 years down the road for Burlington College?

Sanders: We have a vision that includes doubling the student body in the next five years. Right now we house 17 students on campus, and we're just finishing the paper work purchasing the last house on the block overlooking the lake, and with that we'll be able to house a few more. We are planning to build a new building.

We're in the Old North End. Our location is kind of eclectic, like the neighborhood. We have a beautiful view if you turn and look west across the lake. The views are magnificent. Depot Street brings us right down to the lake, and Waterfront Park is the college Green. If you look to the east, it's the Old North End, a wonderfully diverse neighborhood, rich in history and in people. It changes over time, but we always have immigrant populations coming in here. That's exciting, and they participate in the school. Some of the poorest neighborhoods and some of the richest neighborhoods surround us, and all of them are involved in Burlington College. We've worked hard to reach that.

But, there is no gathering place in the Old North End. You have the schools, but they're used for the schools. What we find is that our library is small, our student lounge is small. W have begun to do things that the college has never done before in terms of having annual events. We had a cruise on July 3rd for the fireworks to celebrate our 35th anniversary. We have an annual President's Gala, and we have to rent out space at the Hilton or somewhere else for that. What we'd like to do is to have a zero energy building overlooking the lake that is a better gathering place for the community and for our events.

VBM: You'd need a place that could hold at least a few hundred people?

Sanders: Yes. Perhaps 250 seated at tables is what we're looking. Yet it would have to be multi-purpose, because we don't want to be like the big colleges that are spending $60 million on a facility. We're talking maybe a $6 million project that would be able to be turned into classrooms, a cafeteria and such on a regular basis. And we will need more offices for faculty as we double our enrollment, and we'll need more classrooms and library space.

VBM: What do you see as the most important issues facing education today? Vermont has some very expensive colleges, and there is limited state tuition help. What do you see that the state does well, and what needs to improve?

Sanders: The cost of education is very high, and we are one of the only industrialized nations in the world that doesn't give some kind of strong support to higher education, that considers that that is a necessity. It used to be that higher education wasn't a necessity; it is now. You don't get anywhere now without at least a BA. So all of the presidents in the state struggle with trying to keep costs down. But energy costs and health care costs are driving the cost of our tuition. Our main expense is our personnel, and we want to treat our personnel well so we have benefit packages that approach 30 percent to 40 percent of the salaries that we pay. Our salaries are lower because of that. The constantly emerging technology is really very difficult to keep up with, as are rising energy costs. We don't have vehicles, so that helps. But as a small college we don't enjoy economies of scale, but we can look at every area and see how we can make it run more cost effectively.

So we've done energy audits on every building, on all the student housing. The energy issues that have been raised, we've addressed. We're trying to find ways to be responsible with the money that comes from the students because we're a tuition driven institution. At the same time we've made a commitment which we've never been able to do before, to provide institutional aid to students so that nobody says I can't come here. We have not turned away people because they couldn't afford to come here. We try to figure it out and meet their needs. We're doing it a little bit differently. Most colleges across the nation use it for recruitment and say, "These are the students we want." We use it more as a retention tool because we have so many students that work and have families and they have an up and down time. We have students that have to drop down in credits because they have to work. Or they have to drop out because of issues.

VBM: So you're trying to use your resources to keep those students here?

Sanders: Right. We're trying to make it a better, supportive community.

VBM: What kind of a budget do you work with?

Sanders: We only have a $3 million budget. It's small. But considering the educational opportunities we give, they are huge for that amount of money. I was stunned when I came here about how much the college does.

VBM: Are there things that the State of Vermont could be doing that you'd like to see start happening?

Sanders: Yes. Yes. I would like to see the State of Vermont open up a little bit more the workforce training possibilities. I'd like to see them recognize that the job training that employers need for their workers to be able to be successful over time is not just a technical skill but is a broader liberal arts background, with technical skills included. I don't think you can do either/or anymore. I think you really do need to have an understanding of the world as we live in it now and the ability to think critically, to learn and adapt as you go through life. You learn that through a broad liberal arts education.

You have to learn to write clearly, communicate effectively and think critically. Our employers need that. At the same time they need people who can do things, who have particular skills, whether it's running a computer or dealing with energy efficiency matters or to deal with doing a film. We can teach both, and I would like our state to recognize that it's not a quick hit. You don't put money into workforce training and say, "Learn this skill. Okay, you're all set." Then, when the skill is no longer needed, they're out of a job again.

I would like to see our state and federal government, our industry and our worker's unions work together as they have in Ireland and in Sweden and in a number of other places to recognize that we could, by working together, project where the economy is going in this state and prepare people for it before their job is fazed out. So, you lose all that trauma. You're preparing them as we go instead of having to lay people off, have them get new training and then have them find new jobs.

I have a lot of ideas for the state!

Health care. Health care is an enormous issue and we should be dealing with the issue from a statewide perspective and not cherry picking, not just with people with lower incomes on it, or dealing with it through Medicare and waivers. We need a universal health care system for the State of Vermont. It would help employers, especially small employers, enormously, and it would help the economy. It's not a give away, it's something you invest in.

One other thing is broadband. We are in the process of trying to get our licenses renewed to be able to have wireless licenses to be able to communicate more effectively. I think that the state should be playing a role in that. Investing in education, investing in health care and then investing in energy and infrastructure.

Every college in this state has aging buildings. This building is an old supermarket. We've invested $90,000 since I've been here retrofitting it. Short term or low interest loans or grants from the state to the non-profit sector or to the businesses that are creating these products that are passive solar or wind or energy efficient, that would make a big difference. It would lower our energy footprint as a state, it would show a commitment, it would lower our costs, and it would support industry. I think education and industry should be moving forward together.

For me, the focus has to be on the individual, the worker, not on profit margins, not on stock returns, but on how do we have a wonderful community in the State of Vermont that has good jobs that keep our kids here and keeps our communities healthy.

VBM: It seems a symbiotic relationship. The educational system supplies industry and business with the people that they need in order to be successful, so industry ought to be working with the educational system from the beginning. I also wanted to talk about your program of sending students to Cuba.

Sanders: Yes! We have a program where we have an agreement with the University of Havana, where we're going to be able to send up to 15 students to Cuba. They'll stay in a co-op residence and be taking four classes. They'll take an arts and culture class that brings them around the entire island, where they'll see the architecture and the art. They'll be taking Spanish, and an elective that they choose at the University, and the core course will be a course on Cuban Studies, history, politics, geography, economics - everything about Cuba. We're very excited about it. There are very few places that have a course like this. We had to go to the Department of the Treasury to get a license to be able to do it. Sandy Baird (Burlington College's director of International Studies and Civic Engagement) and I, we're leading the program, have been going back and forth to Cuba to set it up. I think it's a very good thing to have at this particular point in time because I think things are changing in Cuba, with the next generation of leadership, and it was very interesting to learn about that.

VBM: It might be a good time to start actually talking to those nations that are different from us, considering how the alternatives have been working out!

Sanders: Right. When we started the sister cities program it was before perestroika, but you could feel it almost happening when we got there. I think that in Cuba you can feel that there's change afoot, but not change to the basic values. There will be change because that's what happens in life. It would be a good thing if we could be in on it at the beginning, have our students learn first hand how countries evolve and how relationships between countries evolve.

VBM: What's it like now being the wife of a US Senator? Do you spend much time in Washington?

Sanders: When he was first elected and there was all this orientation, I was down there probably every three weeks for three days or so. Now it's month to month about three days or so. He comes home every weekend. It's a crazy life because I have a lot of scheduled events and he has a lot of scheduled events. We have competing issues that we have to deal with. I'm working on a New England Association of Schools and Colleges report while he has the week off! It's terrible. So there are those kinds of things. But, it's fascinating.

VBM: How is being in the Senate different from when he was in the House? I've heard that Bernie has adapted, being a little more cooperative minded, now that he's in a place where his voice will be heard more. Are you seeing those sorts of things?

Sanders: Yes. It's more of a community. When we were in the House, we were focused always on the issues. We created a Progressive caucus, and we had about 54 people in that. They met and talked about things, fought about things. They fought for things on the floor of the House, but they didn't win usually. Bernie won a lot, but it was by pulling together coalitions - the ideas were not broadly felt. In an institution with 435 members, 54 have a voice but not enough to actually carry the day.

What has been very surprising in the Senate right from the start is that when you have a good idea and you can really translate it to make sense to people, people are really listening. The issues that Bernie has won on are the issues he's been talking about for a long time and people are recognizing him as a leader. He came into the Senate with a reputation as a very hard worker. He devotes every single day of his life to his work. That is something that people respect tremendously. He's also smart. So that adds to his ability to get things done there.

VBM: I was going to joke that probably being really smart would go a long way toward making you stand out in the legislature, but I guess I shouldn't do that!

Sanders: It's kind of funny to have all these people that are running for President sitting across the table from you talking about things. Although I found this in the House as well, the members of the Senate are not dismissive of spouses at all. Usually people of that level marry people who also have something to say. Perhaps a different perspective or a different background.

VBM: Today the spouse is probably not just the husband or wife of a Senator, but likely successful in their own career.

Sanders: Yes. It's wonderful to be able to go to a meeting and talk higher education with Ted Kennedy, you know, and talk about the higher education bill. I loved that. To be able to talk with people about ideas. They're very open. I stand very impressed with a number of the Senators, with how much they really want to accomplish. They're very interested in finding solutions.

VBM: Now that Bernie is a Senator, do you have Bono over for dinner or Condi Rice for brunch?

Sanders: No, no, no. It's not quite like that! It is funny to be a spouse and have the Secretary of Labor also be a spouse, and have us talk about - and completely disagree over - things at lunches. It's been interesting and a real education. I'm a lifelong learner, as all our students here are, and both in the House and in the Senate the opportunity to learn is enormous. You can meet leaders in every field. For instance, when Bernie was down there his first week, before he even had an office, just like he did when he was mayor he called in everybody that had to deal with childcare and early education. I got there, because that was my background, and sat down and talked with them about what the country should do, to the 15 people who are names we all know. It was the same with energy and the environment. He had to cover everything, but I got to pick and choose which of these meetings I wanted to go to. It's a wonderful learning opportunity. And of course when we travel, you get to meet with the presidents and the prime ministers and members of parliaments.

VBM: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you want to include in this discussion?

Sanders: Burlington College is a very unique institution. We have students that come from all 50 states, with most students from the New England states. Our average age is 24. Over the last 30 years we've increased our number of majors and we've increased our programs and certificates. We've established an art gallery, the Institute of Civic Engagement, which is akin to the Snelling Institute from a different point of view and much more focused on community at large as opposed to the business or political community alone. We've grown quite a bit, and I've really had to focus on business here.

The education here has always been excellent, but without the underpinning of the finances, infrastructure, long range planning and strategic thinking, colleges across the country, especially small colleges, are closing left and right. So I've had to put on my business hat more than my academic hat. So I see all these courses and I might want to take them, but I don't have the time!

We have a phenomenal board of trustees, and we could not have enjoyed the success we've enjoyed over a short period of time without their constant and dedicated oversight and commitment. It's really nice.

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