Marlboro College President Ellen MucCulloch-Lovell (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Marlboro College President Ellen MucCulloch-Lovell (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

MARLBORO -- There are two permanent generators that outgoing Marlboro College President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell had installed following the 2008 ice storm that knocked out power to the college for almost three days.

McCulloch-Lovell announced last week that she will be leaving Marlboro at the end of the 2015 academic year, and among the long list of achievements that she and the trustees wanted to highlight following the announcement, McCulloch-Lovell said those generators are a part of her legacy.

During her 10 years at Marlboro, McCulloch-Lovell shepherded the small college on the hill through two natural disasters, including Tropical Storm Irene which created havoc throughout the town of Marlboro and which cut the school off from civilization for two days.

"I did go to the Harvard presidents school at the beginning of my time here, but they didn't teach you how to manage a natural disaster," she said. "The don't teach you what to do when the power goes out for 50 hours."

But over the last decade McCulloch-Lovell also committed herself to helping Marlboro weather a different kind of storm, and one which will likely continue to pound at its doors.

Colleges in general, and liberal arts schools specifically, are being questioned in times of rising tuitions, crippling student debt and an economy that appears to have fewer and fewer jobs for Philosophy or Literature majors.

McCulloch-Lovell said that as the conversation over the cost and value of higher education continues it will be important to focus not on the dollars, but on how colleges are training students to perform in a complex and ever-changing world.

"What I find most challenging when people question the value of higher education is how people may not understand why a young person needs a broad humanistic education anymore," she said. "Encouraging students to learn about culture and foreign language and the great thinkers and great literature of the world is all bound up in preparing people who are going to be informed and engaged citizens in a democracy, and who are going to live really fulfilling lives."

A good liberal arts education, she argues, prepares critical thinkers to compete in the workplace.

And McCulloch-Lovell includes finding a job that pays a graduate enough to live a comfortable life part of a school's responsibilities, but the discussion does not begin and end with annual income when evaluating colleges and universities.

"I am distressed that it is not as valued as it used to be," she said. "Students and families are economically anxious. A good job that you enjoy is important, but life is more than that too. I want to acknowledge the economic necessities but not make that the sum of why you go to college."

Over the past few years McCulloch-Lovell has published a number of essays in publications ranging from the New York Times to The Chronicle of Higher Education to the Boston Globe, and in each she has argued for the importance of supporting the liberal arts.

The counter argument, at the same time has grown louder and more intense.

From the "U.S. News and World Report," which rates colleges every year, to the U.S. Department of Education's recently developed Score Card that positions colleges and universities on their costs and values, McCulloch-Lovell said students and families are left sometimes focusing on the wrong benchmarks.

"Everything is being monetized," she said. "If you step back and look at it, engineering schools will always score higher because engineers make more than teachers or people who go on to work in the Peace Corps, or artists. Somehow these people believe that how much you earn after college is a way to rate if a college is doing a good job, but I argue that it is wrong-headed. It is measuring the wrong things, and we need alternatives."

McCulloch-Lovell is not ready to give up that fight, but she said after what will be 11 years when she leaves in 2015, it is time for her to leave Marlboro.

On average, she said, college presidents remain on the job for about six years, and so she said that while she still loves what she is doing, it is time to move on.

"Ten years is a long time for a college president. It seems like a natural time," she said. "Transitions can be healthy for an institution, and leaders shouldn't stay too long. Institutions should be able to coalesce behind the search for a new leader. It brings a fresh perspective and fresh energy and that is good."

While colleges are constantly changing and growing, McCulloch-Lovell came to Marlboro in 2004 during a particularly dynamic time.

Along with those two generators on campus McCulloch-Lovell will be leaving Marlboro College in much better shape than it was when she arrived, Board of Trustees Chairman Dean Nicyper said.

When she was hired, the Rudolph and Irene Serkin for the Performing Arts was being built, and she helped the college develop programming and move into what is now the center of performing arts at Marlboro.

While the Marlboro College Graduate School in downtown Brattleboro opened seven years before McCulloch-Lovell took over as president she brought new programs and helped strengthen its mission.

She came at a time when Marlboro was on shaky financial ground and was able to increase the endowment by more than 50 percent to about $39.5 million.

"Because of her successful and tireless efforts over the past 10 years the college is much stronger than it was when she joined us in 2004," Nicyper said. "She placed the college on significantly firmer footing organizationally and financially, for which we are all grateful."

McCulloch-Lovell understood coming in that one of her primary responsibilities was to raise money for the school, and she said she was successful because she enjoyed that aspect of the job..

"Small, idealistic places like Marlboro need to raise a lot of money to keep them going and keep them strong," she said. "It's very rewarding to give people the opportunity to have the same kind of experience our students have and to allow them to participate in something that is worthwhile," she said. "It's very tangible. If you raise money for something you love, and you know it makes it stronger and it creates more opportunities and possibilities, it is very rewarding."

And while she understood her financial and organizational responsibilities coming in, McCulloch-Lovell was less aware of what the expectation would be in extending the college's reach in to the broader community.

During her tenure she made sure events at the Serkin Center were open to the public, and she forged stronger ties with the Marlboro Music School and Festival.

She helped form the Windham Higher Education Cooperative among Windham County's six colleges and the exchange program among the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges.

McCulloch-Lovell said she has no plans right now.

After more than 10 years of living on campus, she said she and her husband plan to move up to Central Vermont to be closer to their family, and she wants to continue writing poetry.

In 2012 she received a MFA in creative writing and published her first book of poetry in 2010 with Janus Press.

"Everything I've been able to accomplish at Marlboro has been with the collaboration and support of this remarkable intellectual and creative community," she said. "This is the first time in my life I have made the decision to leave a job I absolutely love, but now is the time."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.