Marlboro students

From left to right: Pranit Chand, Regina Trevethan, Jaime Tanner, Emery Lawrence, Jillian Estelle Gillman on the Boston Common, April 29.

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BOSTON — This era of a global pandemic has been a year of uncertainty and transition for everyone, changing the way we do things while not really knowing what to expect next.

The same can be said for students and faculty who went from the forested hills of Vermont to the streets of Boston when Marlboro College merged with Emerson College.

“I really do miss the quiet,” said Regina Trevethan, who is finishing up her junior year in Boston. Trevethan, who had designed a course of study in biology and mammalogy at Marlboro College, said nights on Potash Hill were blissfully quiet. “That has been one of the hardest adjustments ... how to get to sleep at night. We have this little bar at the base our our building and we have people constantly yelling on the street late at night.”

According to its website, the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson is focused on liberal arts learning that is individualized, interdisciplinary, inquiry-based, and integrative in approach.

“Through a new four-year self-designed interdisciplinary major, Emerson builds on Marlboro College’s commitment to inquiry-based, student-driven education,” states the website. The offerings are crafted “to uphold Marlboro College’s distinctive educational promise that students can craft their own education, engage in self-directed inquiry, and bring a big idea to life from conception to execution.”

Trevathan, who spent her first eight years in rural Ohio, moved to the big city suburbs of Austin, Texas, with her family about 10 years ago.

When she was first considering Marlboro College, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to travel back to a rural countryside.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere and I was getting really nervous,” she said.

But Trevethan was a recipient of a Beautiful Minds scholarship, which covered most of her tuition for four years. When she visited the campus, she fell in love with it and she decided she couldn’t pass up the opportunity of being able to design her own course of study that included using the forest as her classroom.

But that same scholarship meant she really didn’t have a choice when it came to moving to Boston, because no other schools were going to honor it, as Emerson College had promised. And, she said, to be honest, she was excited about the thought of moving to the city.

“Emerson has some things that Marlboro doesn’t, such as the conveniences of living in a big city,” said Trevethan, who became a resident assistant at Emerson. She said by immersing herself in the culture she has been able to soften the blow of the move.

She had to tweak her course of study, because Emerson doesn’t offer the hard sciences she was studying at Marlboro. She switched to scientific literacy and communication, which aims to break down complex ideas and present them in a way even a third-grader can understand.

“I do miss the forest,” she said. She also misses the “family” feel of living on campus in Marlboro. “It’s hard to recreate that. But I’ve made some really good friends while I’ve been here.”

STUDENT-TEACHER RELATIONSHIPS

Like Trevethan, Jillian Gillman, who grew up in Wareham, Mass., was the recipient of a scholarship that only Emerson was going to honor.

“What attracted me to Marlboro College was the student-teacher relationship,” she said, “and how much the teachers are really into spending time with the students. They really put their time into understanding what a student wants and helping them work through it.”

She completed two semesters in Marlboro before moving to Boston, and admits she misses the intimacy of the Marlboro College campus.

“I’ve been able to meet people and make connections and do some networking, but it’s not the same with COVID,” she said.

Gillman said the relationships she started with Marlboro faculty have remained, but it’s hard to build relationships with new professors when it’s one day a week in person and the rest of the time online.

Nonetheless, she has enlisted one of her new professors in her student-directed course of learning, in environmental sustainability and marketing.

“It feels like that same type of relationship I had at Marlboro,” said Gillman, who said she wants to help sustain the Marlboro legacy at Emerson.

“It has a lot of potential,” she said. “But it’s going to take a lot of work. When I graduate, there will only be teachers left. The whole idea of keeping a community alive after the community has left seems impractical. The biggest thing we can do right now is focus on what made Marlboro Marlboro.”

What she has grown to appreciate is the passion the faculty have toward their students and the Marlboro legacy.

“A lot of teachers at Emerson have that passion, too,” she said.

Emery Lawrence, who is focusing on cultural studies and political philosophy, had planned to start her first year in Marlboro, but found herself in Boston instead.

Lawrence, who grew up in Chicago, said being in Boston has not been such a stretch for someone like her. And while she never had a chance to experience student life in Marlboro, she is slightly in awe of the faculty members who picked up everything to move their lives to Emerson.

She said the Marlboro faculty is a valuable addition to the Emerson community.

“They bring a real academic rigor and inquisitive lines of pedagogy I had not experienced before,” said Lawrence.

Lawrence was a member of one of the working groups that worked to make sure Marlboro’s ethos remained part of the program description so that students could continue the tradition of flexibility in course offerings and access to faculty.

“I am excited and happy to be part of the beginning,” she said. “I hope more of the traditional students move to this model.”

Pranit Chand, an international student from Nepal, spent two semesters in Marlboro before he transferred to Emerson.

“Marlboro offered me a good scholarship and financial aid,” he said. “And I wanted a small liberal arts education where I would be in charge.”

Chand’s focus of study is on the creative economy and understanding why artists are not paid as much as they deserve, though he started out studying the integration of data, science, math and economics.

Chand also misses the intimacy of the Marlboro campus.

“In Marlboro, you could just talk to a professor, but here you need to register in advance to talk,” he said.

One of the hardest parts for Chand was that Emerson has more liberal arts requirements than Marlboro College did. But, admitted Chand, considering the pandemic, it’s hard for him to judge how different the transition might have been to Emerson.

“I’ve never really had a normal semester,” he said.

Nonetheless, Chand believes the program has gotten off to a good start.

“There is a lot more work that we need to do, but we are definitely headed in the right direction, especially with Marlboro faculty in charge,” he said.

The Marlboro Institute is also an opportunity for more traditional Emerson students to expand their perspective on a liberal arts education, said Chand.

“Emerson can benefit a lot from the Marlboro Institute,” he said.

PRESERVING THE TRADITIONS

Jaime Tanner, who taught biology and environmental studies at Marlboro College for 10 years, still lives in Marlboro and commutes one day a week to Boston to teach at the newly formed Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

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Tanner was a member of the Strategic Options Task Force that was formed to find ways of preserving Marlboro’s traditions. After looking at all the options, the task force came up with three — creating a plan for ethical closure, continuing as is with no certainty the school could continue, and exploring partnerships with other schools.

After a brief flirtation with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, which promised to preserve some of the programs in Marlboro, the deal fell through. Eventually, the board of trustees settled on Emerson College, which had no interest in the Marlboro campus, but promised to take on all tenured and tenure track faculty and students and create the new Marlboro Institute.

“It was probably one of the most difficult positions I’ve been in,” Tanner said.

She called the decision to close the college “a cultural reckoning” that caused years of “tumult, heartbreak and disappointment” in Marlboro.

“We all could have used group therapy in the beginning,” she said. “It was so emotionally fraught. We’ll be processing this for a long time.”

One of the reassuring things for her has been the ability to maintain contact with her other Marlboro colleagues.

“It’s so exciting to see familiar faces in an unfamiliar landscape,” said Tanner. And all of them share the burden of making sure the Marlboro Institute is a success.

“We are all committed and take seriously our responsibility of carrying this torch.”

And despite the unusual nature of this past year, she believes the Institute will be a success, and part of the reason is the support the faculty and students have received from the Emerson administration, its faculty and its students.

“The Emerson faculty want us to succeed,” she said. “I have been pleasantly surprised by the warm reception we have received.”

But trying to recreate the intimacy that made Marlboro College so unique might be impossible in Boston, she admitted.

“Maybe, in the fall, when things get back to being more normal,” she said. “I still have hope we can recreate that. It all remains to be seen how it will work out and how successful it will be. I still have hope that we are going to be able to create something that maintains some of the essence of Marlboro. I don’t want to sugarcoat this, though. There has been a lot of loss. But we are all committed to making this work.”

Dena S. Davis, a Marlboro College graduate and an Emerson College trustee who teaches bioethics at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said even though she graduated in 1972, she has never lost her connection to her alma mater.

For Davis and others who managed the transition, the question was more about what pieces of Marlboro could successfully be “transplanted and nurtured” at Emerson.

“Marlboro was rural and Emerson is assertively urban,” said Davis. “Marlboro had Vermont as an important part of its brand and Marlboro was to an extreme, self governing. This is not Marlboro College at Emerson. Anyone who thinks that is going to be frustrated and discouraged.”

For Davis, insuring faculty had jobs at the new endeavor was paramount. As part of the deal with Emerson, all tenured and tenure-track faculty members were offered positions in Boston. In the end, 20 faculty members took the job.

“That’s a lot of faculty to carry forward a pedological way of thinking,” said Davis. “For Emerson, it’s a total win. The cost to them was never dramatic and they received great teachers from a different background, who are injecting this ethos and energy into Emerson. This alliance saved as much as could possible be saved. This was the best possible outcome from a situation nobody wanted.”

Seth Harter, who taught at Marlboro College for 20 years, was a member of one of the working groups established to find a way forward for the school.

“If we could have carried on in Vermont the way it had been done 20 years ago, everyone would have been very happy to do that,” said Harter, who began his career with a focus on Chinese political history, which eventually morphed into the study of Asian history and culture.

He knows there is much “ill will” associated with the decision to close the college and move to Boston.

But, he said, no solution could be found to save the Vermont campus considering the “ever-deepening hole” of declining enrollment and the commensurate decline in revenues.

“The likely alternative was pretty bleak,” he said. “I was fairly pessimistic as to what was coming next, but Emerson, having invited us in, has been a much better result than I could have ever imagined coming out of 2019.”

He knows it’s up to the faculty who moved to Emerson College to keep alive the ideals that Marlboro embodied.

“So many of us went with the intention of perpetuating some of our academic practices and intellectual ideals,” said Harter. “We are pushing for more student initiatives in curricular design, more chances for independent research, and more collaboration between students and teachers. The faculty and the students are trying to sew the seeds of that culture and promote that kind of idealism, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”

That attitude has had a welcome reception at Emerson, he said.

“The people at Emerson have been very enthusiastic about our arrival,” he said. “They are open to changing their ways in existing practice and trying to find ways to support the Marlboro academic culture.”

And being with 19 other faculty members who were part of the Marlboro community has made the Institute “feel much more like home,” he said.

Still, said Harter, the transition has been “pretty disruptive to my professional practice and thoughts on how to go about teaching and connections to students. Ultimately it’s going to have a positive effect on my teaching because it’s made me rethink a lot of things.”

EASING THE TRANSITION

Amer Latif had been teaching religious studies at Marlboro since 2003. He said he is excited that more students are experiencing the way he teaches religious studies.

“I’ve taught more people in the last year than I did in three years.”

But Latif doesn’t want to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the students.

“They’ve been real troopers,” he said.

Latif was a member of the operations group that worked with Emerson College and the Marlboro students to ease their transition.

“We worked together on putting a good system in place,” he said.

Latif has also received a warm welcome from the other faculty members at Emerson.

“The colleagues I have met in Boston so far, it feels like they could have been at Marlboro,” he said. “There are a lot of similarities. For the most part, there has been a real excitement at our arrival.”

Latif believes the creation of the Marlboro Institute means Marlboro values “will infuse a new generation.”

He’s also realistic about it, though, and knows not everything about Marlboro can be recreated in Boston.

“Part of it will survive,” he said. “And part of it will be transformed.”

“Marlboro values will infuse a new generation,” said Latif, who also understands it will be up to the faculty to carry on the Marlboro tradition.

“Once the students who were at Marlboro are gone, the memory will be in the faculty alone,” said Latif. “It has to be ingrained in the structure. We have to create a structure that codifies those values. So far, we have been successful, but we’ll keep tinkering.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.