MARLBORO — A Marlboro College graduate who spent nearly two decades there as an administrator said the college's Board of Trustees missed a wonderful opportunity to preserve the college's legacy.
"What it really comes down to," said Will Wootton, "is long-term leadership problems and failures. It's just management stuff. They made mistakes and haven't been smart."
Wootton is a 1972 graduate and the author of "Good Fortune Next Time: Life, Death, Irony and the Administration of Very Small Colleges." In 2006, Wootton, who lives in Craftsbury, became president of Sterling College, which was dangling on the edge of failure just two years before the recession of 2008. Wootton retired from Sterling College in 2012, which is still, eight years later, in operation.
In July 2019, Marlboro College announced it was pursuing a partnership with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. The merger would have allowed for the college to remain in Marlboro. But that deal fell through and shortly thereafter, Marlboro College announced a proposal to merge with Emerson College in Boston.
That merger, though, will mean the closure of the campus in Vermont. Emerson would receive Marlboro College's $35 million endowment, hire any faculty that wishes to work in Boston and take on any students who want to continue their studies at the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.
"The steep, persistent decline in students willing to come to Marlboro, combined with deep discounts in tuition and fees needed by the students who did come, put us in an untenable financial situation," states a letter posted to the Marlboro College website on Friday.
Over the past decade, states the letter, the Board of Trustees developed and followed two strategic plans to address enrollment, retention, curriculum, and operations.
"We invested in new marketing, increased our admissions budget, and made possible creative programming like the Renaissance Scholars tuition free program, the Beautiful Minds Challenge, and Marlboro on the Road," states the letter. "We evaluated and employed a variety of cost saving financial models, we found ways to share back office expenditures and staff with other institutions, and we utilized our partnership with the Music Festival to gain much needed new buildings and campus improvements. ... After pursuing serious negotiations with several other colleges, we reluctantly concluded that no potential partner could provide the stability necessary to allow the College to function effectively as a four year, fully accredited liberal arts college while remaining on Potash Hill."
In December, Wootton issued a "challenge," asking for all the documentation that informed the board's decision. He also asked for a space on campus and access to administrators to ask questions about the college's finances and priorities. Wootton said he would submit a report within seven days showing how Marlboro could welcome a new class of students in 2020 and how it could survive into the future.
"Although Will has asked that various senior staff be made available to him, presumably to produce forecasts and sensitivity analyses in response to hypothetical questions, we cannot spare staff to meet that request," states the letter posted on Friday. "Some staff members have recently left the College and have not been replaced, which has put a greater burden on those remaining. If Will, and whomever he consults with, have questions after they have gone over the material, we will make a trustee available to answer those questions."
Wootton told the Reformer the letter posted Friday didn't contain anything new other than the mention that Marlboro College has lost staff members.
"I think they missed an opportunity," he said. "My point with the [Marlboro College] board was to try to get them to understand what retrenchment is and how it might work at Marlboro. Retrenchment, in its simplest form, is re-prioritizing what you're doing and finding out how to live within your budget."
Wootton believes there's still a chance Marlboro College could remain in the town of Marlboro. But, he said, it would take, for whatever reason, the collapse of the proposed merger between Marlboro and Emerson.
If that happened, said Wootton, maybe the board would go back to the drawing board and call upon the vast knowledge base that is the thousands of Marlboro College alumni they left out of the decision-making process in the first place.
"I think they should slow down, but they're terrified," he said. "They have worked hard and think they've made the right decision, but a lot of people disagree."
There has been much concern in the town of Marlboro as to what might happen to the campus if the school closes. While Marlboro Music, which is investing $16 million in two new buildings on the campus, has stated it plans to stay in Marlboro, what might happen to the rest of the buildings is unknown.
The college established the Marlboro Campus working group "to develop a process for assessing future uses and owners of the campus," states the letter. "The working group, comprising Marlboro alumni, trustees, staff, faculty, students and a representative from the town of Marlboro, is seeking proposals from organizations, businesses, and individuals for endeavors that would benefit the community and make productive use of the Marlboro campus. As this team proceeds, we expect to be able to share more updates with you about their progress."
An alumni group has also sprung up and collected nearly 1,000 signatures to urge the Board of Trustees to accept Wootton's challenge.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.