A failure of governance

The Burlington College controversy provides an object lesson on the roles and responsibilities of nonprofit boards — and the consequences of insufficient oversight

I've been watching the national effort to politicize Burlington College's demise and am saddened by the venality of our politics and our dangerous ignorance of nonprofit governance.

It's endemic in Vermont, where too many of our major nonprofits have limped through a decade or two of unreviewed leadership performance, mission decay, and disconnection from constituents because their boards have no idea what the obligations and liabilities of board members are or even what board service means.

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I won't dwell on the details of Burlington College, except to say that the entire fault lies with the board. It can be said that Jane Sanders, its former president, has a checkered history leading colleges, but all presidents serve at the will of their boards.

It's also been alleged that Sanders tried to deceive the board. But this doesn't happen with a properly functioning board that verifies the bases for all major financial and academic decisions.

A president or executive director's performance is meant to be reviewed annually by the board with input from constituents, administration, trustees, and community. Boards that don't commit fully to this basic process own the errors of their chief executives.

Delivery on mission, ethical integrity, financial integrity, and leadership performance are the key responsibilities of a board. If a president threatens any of those objectives substantively, they must be adequately warned, then terminated.

Legally, excuses don't cut it. Boards are responsible. Any board members taken by surprise at the sudden financial collapse of their institution have no one to blame but themselves.

A board financial committee monitors financial viability ratios in real time, challenges significant changes in financial position, and must verify and approve every financial decision by the president which significantly alters the balance sheet.

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The oversight college-accrediting organization that does financial and academic monitoring, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, would have known and warned the board well in advance of the Burlington College's trajectory. Then it would have been up to the board to either choose new leadership or arrange for an orderly shutdown.

Either would have been preferable to sitting by and watching the college collapse.

Sadly, politicians are trying to make this a political issue, rather than what it is - a complete failure of governance.

Our vigorous nonprofits harness the commitment and energy of Vermonters to improve our lives. Their boards must rise to the challenge of good governance and preserve and protect this vital community energy.

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