“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and I crossed that line.”With those words, Peter F. Burnham described his rapid descent from president of Brookdale Community College, in New Jersey, to convicted felon. He spent two years in prison paying for his financial misdeeds.
He was speaking this week to an overflow crowd of higher-education administrators at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Higher Ed Behind Bars
Peter F. Burnham, a former community-college president, spoke at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges about his experiences in the criminal-justice system after pleading guilty to misconduct and theft. He reflected on the humbling lessons he learned during two years in prison, and his view that community colleges should do more to educate inmates. Following are Chronicle articles that provide context and depth on those and related themes:
- What I Learned in Prison
- Pell Grants for Prisoners? A Limited Program Sparks Hope for Broader Change
- Do Your Students Have Criminal Records? Is It Even Fair to Ask?
- In New York, a Prison Record Is a Barrier to College
- Guns, Prisons, Social Causes: New Fronts Emerge in Campus Fights Over Divestment
“This is not a plea for vindication or exoneration in any shape or form,” said the 71-year-old former president, who also spent two years as chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a regional accreditor.He was sharing his story, he said, so that others could learn from his mistakes and avoid the pitfalls that sometimes come with power.
“Humility is a very difficult thing to maintain” when someone enjoys a position of leadership, he said. It’s tempting to think that “you’re totally Teflon and nothing can touch you.”
Mr. Burnham said he wanted to encourage community colleges to offer more education programs to help prisoners become productive citizens. And he was hoping someone would give him a second chance and offer him a job.
He’s ready, he said, “to get back in the game,” if someone would let him.
Mr. Burnham, who spent 27 years as a college president — 20 of them at Brookdale — served two years of a five-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2012 to official misconduct and theft.
He told his story without delving into the details of his crimes, saying only that he had made “serious errors” and that he “simply didn’t understand at the time how consequential” they would be.
Mr. Burnham didn’t dispute the details of his actions as described in news reports. He admitted to using college credit cards over an eight-year period to pay for more than $24,000 worth of personal expenses, including hotel stays, electronics, and clothing. He also admitted in court to asking his son to apply for a federal student loan to pay his tuition, even though Brookdale had already covered the tuition as a perk of the president’s job.
Mr. Burnham took pains to point out that he wasn’t making excuses for his behavior. He said it was ironic that he once taught a graduate course in the ethics of higher education.”I failed my own test, and I paid a huge price for it,” he said. “I was convinced that I was better than anyone else and that I had all the answers.”
In 2011, after an investigation into his spending resulted in his being put on administrative leave, he resigned his $216,000-a-year post, and all of his assets and his pension were frozen.
Prison was the farthest thing from his mind. Surely, he thought, all the years he had spent building Brookdale’s infrastructure and reputation would balance out the mistakes he had made.
He was wrong. A judge sentenced him to a five-year prison term with a minimum of two years without parole. “I was told I’d end up in a country-club prison,” he said. “I ended up in maximum security” — first, in the intake prison in Trenton, N.J., where all the state’s convicted felons go, and then at South Woods State Prison, in Bridgeton, where the maximum-security unit was the only one with an opening.
Mr. Burnham recalled the early days at the intake prison as “dehumanizing” — being taken from the courtroom in chains and handcuffs, having to change from his business suit to a prison jumpsuit that was three sizes too large. At night, he lay awake on a bed he described as “a thin slab of metal with no cover or pillow,” listening to the wailing of young men and the scratching of mice in the walls.
He recorded those impressions in essays he wrote “to stay sane.”
About 90 percent of the inmates were African-American or Hispanic, and most were young men. No one could figure him out.
“I was white. I was old. I had a Ph.D.,” he said. No one knew what that was, so he told them he had a doctoral degree.
“They all thought I was a medical doctor, so they started to come to me with every ailment,” he said. “After a while, I gave in. I’d tell them to take two aspirins and if it persists, go see the nurse.”Being a “healer” gave the man they called “Doc” a special status. So did the tough-guy delivery he developed. As a linguist, he appreciated the impact that delivering an expletive with just the right tone had on his fellow inmates.
What he really wanted to do was teach in the prison’s GED program, but that had been cut for budget reasons. When he saw the animated reactions among many of the inmates to shows like Shark Tank, where people pitch their ideas to investors, he realized he was surrounded by budding entrepreneurs.
He boned up on patent law and helped them write business plans. He also helped them write appeals.”It was an opportunity for me to use what skills I had to work with these young men,” Mr. Burnham said. “It struck me how sad it was that there were no further opportunities for them to learn and grow.”
They were capable of more than people gave them credit for, he said. “You say these men didn’t have math literacy, but they could take an ounce of cocaine and figure out seven ways to cut it.” Many of the violent prisoners he encountered deserved to be there, but most deserved a fresh start, through education programs he’d like to see community colleges expand.
Coming Full Circle
Blending into the crowd at the Chicago conference in a charcoal-gray suit and black glasses, Mr. Burnham could have been any community-college president easing into retirement. He was soft-spoken, but his words were tinged with bitterness when he talked about the racist attitudes that he said determine who gets paroled and who doesn’t.
“Prison does not rehabilitate,” he said. “Prison helps criminals become better criminals.”
His break, and his chance to get out on parole, occurred in 2014, when Raymond A. Yannuzzi, president of Camden County College, agreed to let him teach in Camden’s “Gateway to College” program while living in a halfway house across the street from the New Jersey campus.
The program, which began at Oregon’s Portland Community College, is now offered in 41 colleges nationwide, giving high-school dropouts a chance to complete high school while earning college credits.
Mr. Burnham, who had started his career teaching remedial classes and later headed the developmental-education department at Prince George’s Community College, in Maryland, felt he “had come full circle.””What happened to me was a rebirth,” he said, “a chance to work with youngsters who were getting a second chance.”
The euphoria was short-lived. While he was appealing to get the freeze on his pension lifted, officials at the state pension office noticed that his job — working at a public college — could violate the terms of his plea agreement, which stipulated that he would not hold public office in New Jersey.
Tutoring dropouts seemed a far cry from public office, but Mr. Burnham said he didn’t want to risk getting sent back to jail, so he quit.
“Just when I felt I was re-emerging into the light,” he said, “the door slammed shut.”
A Graduate of Hell
Mr. Yannuzzi, who introduced Mr. Burnham at the conference session, said the former president had developed a rapport with the mostly poor, minority dropouts who could easily end up in prison themselves. “While there are people who like that work and can connect well with students, no one can do it as well as someone who’s lived it,” Mr. Yannuzzi said.
Asked by an audience member what effect the scandal had had on his family, Mr. Burnham said it was “devastating” — both financially and emotionally. He also said he regretted the impact of the scandal on the college’s image.
“The perception was the place was a hotbed of corruption, which wasn’t true,” he said.
Mr. Burnham has been banned from Brookdale, whose main campus is just over a mile from his home. When he runs into former colleagues at the grocery store, “some embrace me and others turn around and walk the other way.”
Some college presidents who now face much more stringent accountability rules resent him for tarnishing their profession, he said.
As humbling as the experience has been, he told the audience he had enjoyed being at a conference among community-college presidents he used to call his peers.
“This is my profession. I want to be part of it, even in a small way,” he said. Still, he realizes, “I’ll always have a scarlet letter. I’ll never be a college president.”He asked audience members to let him know if they come across any opportunities, and distributed copies of some of the 25 essays he has written since 2012 that he’s trying to get published.
After the session, several people approached him and asked for his business card. It’s a plain, pale-yellow card that says, simply, “Dr. Peter F. Burnham, Higher Education Solutions,” with a generic-looking email address and phone number.
On February 5, Mr. Burnham was released from parole. Two weeks later, he received a “termination certificate” that he plans to frame and mount alongside his Ph.D. diploma.
“I served two years of hell and graduated with honors,” he said, “a better person, stronger, and more committed to our mission of access and opportunity.”
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter@KatherineMangan, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.