MARLBORO — More than 50 people turned out for a community meeting in Marlboro to discuss the future of the campus of Marlboro College, but many people also wanted to talk about how the merger with Emerson College might be stopped.
"My focus is mostly on the process, which has been abominable," said T Hunter Wilson, a Marlboro resident who taught literature and writing at Marlboro College since 1968 and is now retired. "This whole thing has taken place more or less in secret."
Wilson said the process was designed "to scare people into accepting" the one alternative, merger, that has been offered by the Board of Trustees.
"It's irresponsible not to explore a variety of options," he said. "The leadership of the college has really failed."
Wilson and others called for the resignation or termination of President Kevin Quigley and a changing of the guard on the board.
In a press release issued on Nov. 6, details of the agreement were outlined, which include turning over Marlboro's $30 million endowment and the $10 million campus to Emerson College in Boston.
"Marlboro's $40 [million] gift to Emerson will endow Emerson's Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies program where Marlboro students will be enrolled and Marlboro faculty will teach," states the press release. "The Institute will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College."
Currently enrolled students will be offered the opportunity to complete their degrees at the newly named institute and Marlboro tenured and tenure-track faculty, if they decide to do so, will relocate to teach there. Administrative and support staff are not part of the proposed alliance.
Emerson College has indicated it does not want to maintain the campus, and it's unclear what will happen with the facilities if a buyer is not found. Emerson approached Marlboro College after a merger with the University of Bridgeport, which would have kept the Marlboro campus open, fell through.
Wilson said the process of deciding Marlboro College's future was "completely foreign" to the model that has been in place since its founding - one of transparency, inclusion and self-governance.
"The way this plan was developed," said Adrian Segar, who taught computer science at the college for 10 years and has lived in Marlboro for 40, "it's turned this into an us versus them situation that is destructive and painful for everybody."
If the merger goes forward and Marlboro College ceases to exist on Potash Hill, he said, it's the people of Marlboro who will have to live with the results. Segar said those people didn't have any say in the process and it's time they took the initiative.
Nelli Sargsyan, a doctor of anthropology, said she "respectfully disagreed" with Wilson's assessment of the process. Even if it wasn't structured in a more open way, she said faculty members did participate and they had the best interests of everyone in mind.
"To assume that we didn't try different possibilities is also invalidating the input people had and their energy and time," said Sargsyan.
She said under the merger plan, her job will transition to Emerson, but her personal life is still in the town of Marlboro, where her kids go to school. She insisted that everyone involved treat each other with compassion, "articulate our differences at the same time as being able to be neighbors and colleagues."
"We should focus on the land and the campus to create something new that continues the legacy of democracy, the arts and ecology and focus on the future," said Robin MacArthur, a writer and Marlboro resident.
But Joe Mazur, who taught math at the college for 30 years until 2003, said he shared an idea with a number of people — a smaller version of the college complemented by an art center — but the reception was somewhere between "cold and lukewarm."
Mazur likened the board's thinking to a "Door A" and "Door B" scenario, where one option was the merger and the other was closure.
"Where's Door C?" he asked.
Mazur also told people to appeal to the Vermont Attorney General, who has to sign off on the transfer of Marlboro's endowment to Emerson.
Dan MacArthur, a member of the Marlboro School Board, said there has been some discussion that Marlboro Elementary School, which educates children in kindergarten through eighth grade, could move off of busy Route 9 to the quiet campus on Potash Hill.
"The school board has hired an architect to look at our facility and to come and assess some of the buildings at Marlboro College to see if they would function as an elementary school and to see how much it would cost ..." he said. While the board is not interested in operating the campus as a whole, he said, they might consider buying or leasing a portion of it.
But the discussion kept circling back to how the decision was made to merge and how to stop the process in its tracks.
"The idea the college has to close immediately, I believe to be false," said David Williamson, class of 1998. Williamson said his $5 million offer to buy the campus was turned down outright. He believes $35 million could sustain the college for at least 10 years.
Wilson said after the deal with the University of Bridgeport fell through, alumni contacted the college and asked how they could help, but that help was spurned.
"A lot of them are furious," he said.
"We have all been ignored and shut out," said Segar. "Twenty-three people, a consulting firm and attorneys decided the fate of this school. It's outrageous."
He insisted that the town "register its outrage of this plan" and that Quigley be fired. Then the board needs to engage the entire college community and figure out a way to keep the college or some version of it alive, he said. "Unless the president and the associated members of the board who are in agreement with this particular plan are removed, nothing is going to change. We need to get the president, at least, out."
Tim Segar (no relation to Adrian Segar) taught sculpture, visual arts, and environmental studies at Marlboro for 22 years before retiring in 2018.
"The way in which this plan is fracturing us and pulling us apart is a danger I hope to resist," he said "I hope we can find a way forward without becoming acrimonious toward each other."
Segar said while he was torn between the idea of finding something new for the campus and advocating for new leadership at the college, he said, "There are resources for us to use whether toward reinventing a solution or reinventing a new identity for the campus."
A visitor from Flagstaff, Ariz., who was in town to see his children and grandchildren, said there is very little time for those who oppose the merger to act. Marlboro College hopes to have ironed out a memorandum of understanding with Emerson in February, with closure set for the end of this school year.
The man from Flagstaff said it's important to engage with Emerson and "get aggressive and quit messing around talking about conscience, morality and ethics ... offer money, power and convenience. That's what they care about."
Laurie Panther, who went to Marlboro College in the 1980s and whose daughter is now attending, recently moved to town and is building a home in Marlboro.
"My deepest fear is like a steel town, the plant closes, the town dies," she said. "The train has left the station regarding my daughter's going to Emerson. She's decided she wants to go."
Dianna Noyes said her husband, who is a staff member at the college, will lose his job of 20 years if the merger goes through. Noyes, who herself graduated from the college in 1980 and worked there as a staff member for 25 years, said she goes back and forth "between anger and heartbreak."
"Every once in a while there's a little glimmer of optimism," she said. "So much could happen with positive energy and a lot of hard work ... I'm not convinced the board is interested in doing that and that leaves me feeling hopeless."
Robin MacArthur said it appeared there needs to be two groups going forward. "We are not unified in what we want. Some want to resist and some want to re-imagine. Decide where you want to put your energy." Some people liked the idea, while others said they could both resist and re-imagine.
This coming Saturday at 10 a.m., Christopher Serkin, the chairman of the board of the Marlboro Music Festival, which occupies the campus two months in the summer, will be in Marlboro to discuss the organization's future. Last year, the Music Festival signed a 99-year lease to continue its activities in Marlboro. It is spending $13 million to build a new residence building and rehearsal hall on campus. Also on hand at the Marlboro Community Center will be Jesse Kreitzer, of the Marlboro Select Board, who is also a member of the Marlboro Campus Task Force, and Robin Marie MacArthur, a graduate of Marlboro College and a Marlboro resident.
The Nov. 23 meeting was recorded and is now available on BCTV's website at www.brattleborotv.org.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.