MARLBORO — The characteristics that make Marlboro College so unique in higher education might also be one of the main reasons a merger with the University of Bridgeport was called off late last week.
"The fact we were so transparent and participatory, I think it made Bridgeport really uneasy that so many people knew so much about the deal, and it's understandable," said Kevin Quigley, the president of Marlboro College. "They thought maybe we were not negotiating in good faith or we were violating our letter of intent and our non-disclosure agreement. I understand that perspective, but our perspective on this is part of the Marlboro way is to be transparent and participatory."
What was most important to Quigley, the Board of Trustees and everyone involved in the process was inking a deal that preserved the college's educational model of self-directed learning in the context of community governance while also protecting the faculty members who make Marlboro so unique.
Robert Berchem, UB's board chairman, told the Connecticut Post that Marlboro College found it hard to loosen its grip on independence.
"They found it actually difficult to do it when push came to shove," Berchem said.
Sources told the Post that, while UB had no plan to close the Vermont campus, it also could not guarantee its existence in perpetuity.
"After having considered it for as long as we did and discussed it for as much as we did, I think that it's probably best that we wound up not going" through with it, Richard Saudek, the chairman of the Marlboro College Board of Trustees told the Post.
"I know this is unsettling for my community, because we have been working very hard and the community has come around that this was a good potential partner," Quigley told the Reformer. "But we have said at every step of the way that this isn't a done deal and that it may not work out. I hope my community will come to see that this isn't a crisis; it's a setback but not a crisis."
While the vision for the merger was compelling, he said, many on Potash Hill had misgivings because the plan for the merger lacked clarity as to how that vision would be executed.
"When we asked to get the clarity on how it would work programmatically and financially, that never materialized. That made us concerned about how we preserve Marlboro and how we use our assets, our endowment and our campus. We had some very productive discussions over the last couple of months. We had some great ideas but we had to know how are these going to work, lay it out with some detail, and we never got enough detail to give us the assurance we needed to take the next really big step because the next step would be binding."
Quigley reiterated one of his often spoken talking points, that Marlboro College has three options — "Trying to make it on its own, find a partner or close."
"Marlboro has a history of seemingly getting to the brink and then through hard work, grit, ingenuity, creativity and some generous donors has been able to walk itself back from the brink," said Quigley. "Those other times it was really more about Marlboro. Now, the pressures on small liberal colleges are acute. There is a changing demographic, concerns about costs and debt and intense competition not only from our peer institutions but also from public colleges. It's really a kind of witch's brew that has made this so challenging. But as we went through these conversations, people came to understand the stark choices we have."
Although Marlboro College has a healthy endowment, he said, continuing to forge ahead on its own would have eventually depleted that endowment, leading to a closure. And no one, said Quigley, not the Board of Trustees, faculty, alumni or students, want to see Marlboro College go the way of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Green Mountain College in Poultney, all of which closed their doors this year.
So, about 18 months ago, he and Marlboro's Board of Trustees chose the middle road of finding a partner. Now, not quite back to the drawing board because of lessons learned, Marlboro College will begin the process anew.
"We are focused on this setback to make this a learning opportunity so that we can move forward in a way that helps us meet those objectives we've laid out around identity, around purpose, around supporting our people," said Quigley. "This process we went through to find a partner began with us saying what do we value, what are our assets and attributes, what do we value about ourselves and what do we value in a partner. We identified a number of things, including our identity, our pedagogy and our pedagogical connection to our practice of community governance — or the close collaborative relationship between faculty, students and place, our campus on Potash Hill, which is is essential to what we do and how we do it. With those items in mind, we will continue to look for a partner who values all of those things."
Marlboro received four proposals they considered serious contenders for merger, including Bridgeport's proposal. Quigley said the three remaining proposals and two others that have recently come to his attention will be in the mix going forward. Quigley wouldn't divulge the identities of those institutions.
"I am very grateful that they are willing to engage," said Quigley. "When I informed them that they weren't the first choice, every single one of them said, we know that sometimes these relationships don't work out and if they don't, please get back in touch."
Quigley noted that maintaining a presence on Potash Hill is of utmost importance. However, he noted, the use of the Marlboro College campus is probably going to change.
"If we're saying we are going to maintain a presence of Marlboro as an educational institution structured the way that it currently is ... that's too limiting to have fruitful discussions with potential partners," said Quigley. "Our goal is we want to make sure the campus is utilized as fully as possible. We understand its economic, social and cultural importance to our surrounding area, but we also have to be flexible to say there could be some really exciting uses of our campus."
Those uses would complement the traditional uses of the campus as a residential environment, and might include short-term specialized courses that utilize the college's two theaters or its ecological niche in southern Vermont. It might also be used for faculty retreats and classes for non-traditional learners, said Quigley.
"There are a lot of opportunities," said Quigley. "I don't know precisely, but they'd have to evolve from a conversation with a potential partner. Part of the campus might be used for things that don't look like the traditional four year residential model, which, frankly is under threat. It could be things that are educational, culturally related, and there could be multiple program providers. We are trying to be open and to be flexible and we do think there are some possibilities out there."
Quigley said there isn't a deadline to find another partner and seal a deal.
"This isn't a question that if we don't find a partner by the end of the year, Marlboro will close. That's not the case. We want to be prudent and thoughtful but we are also going to move quickly."
When asked what the timeline is for finding a new possible partner, Quigley said, "Soon. We're not going to let the grass grow on this one."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.