MARLBORO — Marlboro College has a long, storied history in southern Vermont since its inception in 1946. But recently, the closings of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Green Mountain College in Poultney brought Marlboro's future into sharp focus.
On Thursday afternoon, in a surprise press release, Marlboro College announced it was signing "a letter of intent" with the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, to enter into a merger. The merger is meant to "create an expanded university with deeper connections between professional programs and the liberal arts," states the press release.
A memorandum of understanding is expected to be finalized this fall, Kevin Quigley, Marlboro College President, told the Reformer late Thursday. If, as he expects, the MOU is signed, Marlboro College will fall under the purview of the University of Bridgeport, while retaining its identity and its programs. UB has also agreed to honor tenure and seven professors who are on a tenure track, said Quigley.
"Our corporate structure and our assets will become part of UB, but there are a lot of steps before then," said Quigley. "And there will be changes; we will be part of a much larger university. But Bridgeport's proposal was the proposal most committed to leaving Marlboro pretty much doing what it does right here on our campus in southern Vermont."
"We understand this news will stir varying emotions in our community, as it did for us when we first considered this option," wrote Quigley and Board Chairman Richard H. Saudek in a notice posted to the Marlboro College website. "Like many small private liberal arts colleges, Marlboro has experienced significant challenges around enrollment and finances in recent years. ... The planned merger would retain Marlboro's faculty, students, and campus as part of the new Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences within the University of Bridgeport, while significantly increasing educational opportunities for students on both campuses."
Quigley told the Reformer that the Board of Trustees has been working on a solution for a while, and even though they have been involving the community, faculty, staff and students, everybody knew how important it was to keep the process quiet.
"There are a lot of steps in the process," he said. "A lot of things could have gone wrong."
Quigley said Marlboro College received a number of responses from "meritorious" institutions and conducted discussions with four of them before deciding the University of Bridgeport was the right partner.
"If this hadn't happened, the future was uncertain," said Quigley. "We know the story all too well to our sorrow in Vermont."
Quigley said the board realized Marlboro had only three possible futures — "Make it on our own; find a partner who values what you do and how you do it; or you can close."
Marlboro College began the process of seeking a strategic partnership last year, noted the press release, contracting with EY-Parthenon to help it "navigate the burgeoning crisis facing small liberal arts colleges across the country." According to its website, EY-Parthenon provides strategic business advice and transaction advisory services to companies and organizations seeking to "reshape themselves for a better future."
According to the notice posted to the website, the "Reimagining Marlboro" initiative began last year in the midst of significant revenue challenges resulting from a rapid and accelerating decline in the number of college-aged students in New England and beyond.
"The most promising strategy identified by the Marlboro Board of Trustees was to pursue a partnership that could maintain Marlboro's mission and curricular priorities while creating a financially secure future," wrote Quigley and Saudek.
In the search for a "complementary institution," states the notice, Marlboro College sent out a "Request for Partnership Vision" to more than 70 colleges and universities followed by dozens of conversations with potential partners over the last several months.
"This partnership of two mission-driven schools embodies a remarkable complementarity, joining UB's strengths in engineering and the health sciences with Marlboro's strengths in the arts and sciences and self-directed learning," stated Quigley in the press release issued Thursday. "It links our beautiful campuses in the Green Mountains and on Long Island Sound in innovative ways that will expand educational opportunities for all of our students, better preparing them for meaningful work and lives of purpose."
According to the press release, the University of Bridgeport "is regarded as a leading innovator in STEM and the health sciences, along with a strong tradition in the arts and sciences, offering degrees from bachelors to masters to Ph.D. and Ed.D. ..."
The University of Bridgeport has three colleges under its umbrella: The College of Health Sciences, The College of Engineering, Business, and Education, and The College of Arts and Sciences, which will be renamed The Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences.
"At a time of hyper-competition and swift change in higher education, our two unique institutions are demonstrating a new paradigm for colleges and universities of the future," stated Laura Skandera Trombley, president of the University of Bridgeport. "In strategically combining the shared values, strengths, and resources of the University of Bridgeport and Marlboro College, we are proactively ensuring an extraordinarily enriched academic experience for current and future generations of students."
The University of Bridgeport is nearing its 100th anniversary. It has 5,400 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students enrolled in three colleges offering degrees in engineering, business, education, the health sciences, and the arts and sciences. Marlboro College's undergraduate and graduate programs serve about 500 students.
The merger is expected to be complete as soon as next spring.
"Bridgeport President Laura Trombley ... recognizes what makes Marlboro so special and believes we will add an important dimension to the Bridgeport curriculum," wrote Quigley and Saudek. "Our initial agreement with UB demonstrates Laura's commitment to protecting Marlboro's campus and academic mission while giving Marlboro students access to the focused disciplinary and professional educational offerings that distinguish UB."
Quigley and Saudek noted the process is in its early stages, but updates will be regularly posted at www.marlboro.edu.
"We genuinely believe this partnership allows the unique educational experience that defines Marlboro College not only to survive but to thrive through a merger with the dynamic, mission-driven University of Bridgeport," they wrote.
Recently, Marlboro College announced a 99-year lease with Marlboro Music, which includes a new rehearsal space for musicians and a new residence hall, a $12.7 million project.
Quigley said Marlboro Music is pushing ahead with its plans and has started preliminary work for the two new buildings.
"It's full steam ahead," he said.
What the long-term future will bring for Marlboro College is unknown at this time, but Quigley believes it will remain in Windham County for many more years.
"My hope is Marlboro College will remain here for another 75 years," said Quigley.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.