'Cultural allies' seek to forge college alliance

Lee Pelton, the president of Emerson College in Boston.

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MARLBORO — If an agreement is finalized between Marlboro College and Emerson College next year, the deal will guarantee the survival of the legacy of Marlboro, albeit in Boston and not on Potash Hill in the town of Marlboro.

"I am very confident that we will be able to reach a contractual agreement by July 1," Emerson College President Lee Pelton told the Reformer on Thursday morning.

Emerson has agreed to accept all of Marlboro's 24 tenured and tenure-track faculty members and the 100-or-so students who are now freshmen, sophomores and juniors, if they want to continue in Boston.

In return, Marlboro College's Board of Trustees has agreed to "gift" its current $30 million endowment and its $10 million worth of real estate in Marlboro to Emerson.

"Perhaps the best way to understand this transaction is to think of the 40 million in the same way an individual would make a 40 million gift to endow an existing Emerson program," stated Pelton in an announcement posted to Emerson College's YouTube channel.

The gift will permanently fund what will become known as the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, which includes Emerson's Individually Designed Interdisciplinary Program.

The gift will also increase Emerson's endowment by 17 percent, said Pelton.

But the deal will also leave the campus on Potash Hill empty starting at the end of this academic year. While Marlboro Music will continue to host its regular summer activities, it is uncertain what will happen there the rest of the year.

"The music festival is not going anywhere," said Pelton. "It will survive and thrive. I am confident that through several conversations and discussions we will be able to arrive at an agreement that satisfies their needs and Emerson's aspirations."

How those aspirations might involve the Marlboro campus, Pelton is not ready to discuss without a finalized agreement between the two schools.

"It is too early for me to speculate on what that outcome might be," he said. "I want to properly and thoughtfully steward the future uses of the campus and the land on which it sits. But I want to be clear that I am acutely aware and sympathetic to the concerns, hopes and aspirations that many have for the real estate and the property going forward."

Pelton said he understands the cultural and historical value of the campus and the effect the deal will have on the surrounding communities and the administrators and support staff who currently work at Marlboro College and who will no longer have jobs if the agreement is finalized.

One of those who will lose his job is Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley, who helped shepherd the agreement.

"Our positions will be eliminated, and we're working very hard to find ways to support the staff who will lose their positions here," Quigley said in an interview with The Berkley Beacon, Emerson College's student newspaper. The Vermont college plans to develop a process that will provide support to the staff, both financially and with finding new jobs, Quigley told The Beacon.

But without this agreement, Quigley told the Reformer, the college itself might disappear into memory after 73 years in Vermont.

"While the community has worked hard to make it on our own, at this time, if this merger with Emerson does not succeed, the only other path will likely lead to closure," he said.

Pelton said he and Quigley have had conversations and discussions over the past couple of years about the similarities between the two colleges and how they are "cultural allies."

"Both of our institutions value independence, independent-minded thinking, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication," said Pelton. "The factor that made this work is that two presidents and two boards of trustees understood the cultural connectivity between the two institutions. I would argue the absence of that factor with Bridgeport contributed to the failure of that proposed deal."

Earlier this year, Marlboro College reached a tentative agreement with the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, to merge their academic programs. The proposal would have preserved the campus in Marlboro, but in September Marlboro College announced the deal had fallen through.

At the time, Quigley wrote in a letter to the Marlboro Community that there were "insurmountable barriers to developing a sustainable financial model that would ensure Marlboro's mission into the future ..."

Marlboro College, like other small, independent liberal arts schools in Vermont, has been struggling with enrollment. In the past year, the Green Mountain State has seen the closure of three similar colleges — Southern Vermont College in Bennington, College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Green Mountain College in Poultney.

"We share cultural values and from that perspective this is not simply a financial deal," said Pelton. "It's rather an arrangement between two entities that share certain cultural values."

While some students will decide not to further their educations in Boston, Pelton acknowledged, those who do make the transition will have access to increased educational opportunity through Emerson's many programs, including in journalism, film studies, marketing and communication.

"There will be students who will be attracted to the possibilities of concluding their college careers in a curricular environment that is familiar to them but one that is immeasurably enhanced by Emerson's programs," he said. "Those students will bring with them the same tuition and financial aid discounts that they currently enjoy at Marlboro."

Pelton said their tuition will be "about half of what they would pay" if they had been Emerson students at the start.

"There are cultural and ethical issues involved here, which is why we will honor their current tuition," he said. "For subsequent students who come to this program fully as Emerson students, they will pay the same tuition and receive the same financial aid discount as other Emerson students."

The transition will also be a benefit to any of the faculty members who choose to move to Boston, said Pelton.

"While it's wonderful for the Marlboro students who have already developed relationships with these faculty ... the faculty who come to Emerson will teach not only in the directed studies program, but also outside of it."

Those faculty members will have access to a network of 400 peers at Emerson and resources they might not have at Marlboro College, said Pelton.

"This is an exciting time for both of our communities, even though we are at the very early stages of this exploration," said Pelton in his video address.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.

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