Deal with Emerson College could mean end of Marlboro College in Vermont

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MARLBORO — The tides that have been swamping small, liberal arts colleges around the country have reached the shores of Potash Hill.

After 73 years in southern Vermont, Marlboro College might be closing its doors in the spring of 2020 if a proposed "alliance" with Emerson College in Boston is finalized in May.

"There is a sense of loss and grieving for Marlboro," said Kevin Quigley, president of Marlboro College. "We pride ourselves on that ineluctable connection of people, place and person. Unfortunately, the alliance won't continue that sense of place in Marlboro."

Despite the very real possibility that Marlboro College will close its campus in Vermont next spring, Quigley insisted "This is not a closure."

In a press release issued on Wednesday, the details of the agreement were outlined, which include turning over Marlboro's $30 million endowment and its $10 million worth of real estate to Emerson College.

"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 will continue to teach there as well.

Administrative and support staff are not part of the proposed alliance, Quigley told the Reformer.

"A proposal was made but it turned out to not be credible," he said.

"Trustees will be collaborating with the administration to develop severance packages that demonstrate the College’s gratitude," wrote Quigley and Marlboro College Board Chairman Richard Saudek in a letter published on the college's website.

THE FUTURE OF MARLBORO MUSIC

What will happen to the campus on Potash Hill is still up in the air, said Quigley, but Emerson College can't dispose of the campus "as it sees fit" because there are obligations under a 99-year lease inked with Marlboro Music in 2019. That agreement includes the construction of the Jerome & Celia Bertin Reich Building and a new residence hall at a cost of $12.7 million.

"They'll have to be part of the discussion," said Quigley. "We have a working group set up to address how do we retain educational and artistic programs on this campus in a financially viable manner."

"We are committed to working with Emerson to discuss the future of the Marlboro campus, including the role of the Marlboro Music Festival, which we hope will continue to provide substantial benefits for the town of Marlboro and southern Vermont more broadly," wrote Quigley and Saudek in their letter.

Christopher Serkin, the chairman of the board of Marlboro Music and grandson of its founder, Rudolph Serkin, told the Reformer that while everyone involved with Marlboro Music is saddened by the possibility Marlboro College will be leaving Potash Hill, Marlboro Music has no plans whatsoever to leave.

"We are committed to providing our programs as we have, for generations to come," he said.

Serkin said while he was unaware of Marlboro College's discussions with Emerson, he knew the college was working to find a partnership that could preserve its traditions.

"We've not yet had a chance to talk with Emerson about any plans they might have for the campus, if they have any plans," he said. "Obviously we'll be working hard to minimize any impacts on us going forward."

Construction will continue on the two new building, said Serkin, but there are no plans to utilize space left behind if the alliance between the two colleges is formalized.

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Serkin, who grew up in Marlboro and graduated from Brattleboro Union High School and now teaches law at Vanderbilt in Nashville, returns every summer to Marlboro and recognizes the importance to the region of both Marlboro College and Marlboro Music.

"Marlboro Music is a strong institution," he said. "We remain unique and important in the musical landscape, though we do expect some complicated transitional issues."

Fortunately, he said, Marlboro Music, due to the lease signed last year, has a right to remain on the property and a right of first refusal if Emerson College decides it wants to sell the campus.

"Anyone who might buy the campus, buys it subject to our lease rights," said Serkin. "It's our expectation and our plan to stay on campus."

BRIDGEPORT WAS FIRST SUITOR

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 ..."

"As the smaller institution, Marlboro College was especially determined to protect the integrity of its rigorous, self-directed academic model and self-governed community," stated a press release announcing the termination of the proposal. "In addition, Marlboro needed assurances on UB's enduring commitment to the Vermont campus and guarantees that the wishes of Marlboro's generous donors, who established the College's sizeable endowment, would be maintained."

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.

"Unfortunately, Marlboro’s ongoing budget deficits are only a preview of the difficulties ahead, as the number of students in the region declines precipitously over the next decade," wrote Quigley and Saudek. "It has been sobering to watch a number of our neighboring schools make excruciating decisions to close in the face of these insurmountable challenges, something that our accreditors have watched with alarm. The accreditors have shown concern with Marlboro’s own sustainability since 2015, and their oversight has increased dramatically as our neighbors have closed. The Board’s willingness to address all of these challenges now has meant that Marlboro, unlike our neighbors, has the resources to forge a partnership that ensures the continuation of our mission."

Before Marlboro College signed a non-binding letter of intent with the University of Bridgeport in July 2018, Marlboro had sent out a prospectus to a number of other educational institutions. While Emerson did receive the prospectus, Quigley told the Reformer on Wednesday, it did not respond until after the talks had fallen through with the University of Bridgeport.

'BY FAR, OUR BEST OPTION'

Quigley said while losing the campus in Marlboro is a tragedy for the community, the mission and culture of Emerson College is much more closely aligned with Marlboro College than it was with the University of Bridgeport.

"Emerson has always admired our academic programs and our people, but they don't want the real estate," said Quigley, who said the sacrifice has to be made to preserve the pedagogy, the identity and the faculty jobs of Marlboro College. "This was by far. our best option."

"Marlboro College’s long-standing mission to develop critical thinkers, clear writers, and active citizens aligns with Emerson’s commitment to 'core liberal arts values that seek to promote civic engagement, encourage ethical practices, foster respect for human diversity, and inspire students to create and communicate with clarity, integrity, and conviction,'" wrote Quigley and Saudek in their letter to the community.

Students will retain current tuition unless they transfer into another major or study on another campus outside of Boston. Students, including juniors, will be able to complete their work at Emerson with Marlboro faculty and in addition will have access to Emerson’s own faculty and interdisciplinary course offerings. Students who would prefer to continue their studies elsewhere will receive Marlboro’s full support in their transfer process.

“This is an extraordinary alliance and a quintessential win for both of our commonwealths of learning,” said Emerson President Lee Pelton. “For Emerson, the [$40 million] gift will permanently fund Emerson’s Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies program. For Marlboro, their legacy will live on, their students will benefit from enhanced educational programs, and their tenured and tenure-track faculty will continue to teach in an environment that supports intellectual creativity, innovation, and experiential learning.”

Based in Boston, Emerson College has 3,780 undergraduates and 670 graduate students from across the United States and 50 countries. Emerson has experiential learning programs in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., the Netherlands, London, China, and the Czech Republic as well as its new Global Portals in Paris, Barcelona and Lugano, Switzerland. For more information, visit emerson.edu.

Combined enrollment for undergraduate and graduate programs at Marlboro College, which was founded in 1946 by Walter Hendricks, is less than 500 students.

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


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