Jessica M. Dolan: Don't let 'Degrees of Freedom' corporatize Marlboro campus

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Dear Governor Scott, Attorney General Donovan, senators Balint and White, Representative Long, Board of Education of Vermont, and Board of Trustees of Marlboro College:

I recently learned about the proposal to populate the Marlboro College campus with "Degrees of Freedom," a proposed not-for-profit charter school institution that describes their mission as providing tuition-free, quality education to Americans who are made vulnerable by society — especially Black and Brown youth ("Anonymous allegations roil Marlboro College sale," July 15). The proposal describes a "virtual reality" education that will allow students to "travel" to places such as Rome, Vienna, or the Egyptian Pyramids.

I am writing to urge you to not sell the campus to this purported charter school business, for a number of reasons. Following a closer look at the proposal and the background of "Degrees of Freedom," I have strong reservations that it is as honorable, or effective, an institution as it claims to be. There is information circulating about harmful structuring and implementation of discipline in Seth Andrew's schools, as well as a negligence on his part to seek academic accreditation for the institution he proposes to house on the Marlboro campus.

As a scholar and an academic who has taught, researched, and studied in four countries and on three continents over the last 25 years, the pedagogical, social justice, and funding structure of the proposed charter school all appear to be quite questionable — as has been Andrew's strategy of trying to acquire several different "failing" small colleges in Vermont over the last few years. This proposal also falls within a troubling phenomenon that has been occurring with higher education over the last 20 years, specifically, a shift to a corporate management business model within universities.

Contrary to the portrayal that moving to a corporate management structure will result in universities becoming more "streamlined" and successful, this corporatization has burdened them with greater costs, depleted support for professors and students of all backgrounds, limited the range of intellectual and academic exploration, driven up tuition costs, and converted faculty positions to adjunct contracts.

Over the last few years, we have seen the closure of Green Mountain College, Southern Vermont College, Burlington College, and College of Saint Joseph, as well as the re-structuring and downsizing of School for International Training, which greatly reduced the presence of national and international students and faculty who come to Brattleboro. These and other college closures are not due to a lack of people who want to go to college, it is because college has become less accessible under the corporate management structure.

Colleges are closing because their long-term success is not supported by a corporate management styles that emphasize the delivery of a "product" (an education that "guarantees" post-graduation employment) to "customers" (students) so that they can then pay off their high-cost education. This is the same model that is leaving a generation of graduates mired in debt for decades after graduation all over this country. The success and viability of colleges has increasingly become something that is evaluated on their business model, rather than on their ability to educate the coming generations.

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We can see that Marlboro and other institutions like it were struggling to implement their mission and vision in this broader corporatized landscape of higher education. This struggle isn't a good reason to jump on the corporatization bandwagon ourselves.

On the surface, it may appear that the values of the proposed "Degrees of Freedom" charter school are consistent with the values of Marlboro College. Problems and serious reservations arise when the proposal is considered within the broader landscape of higher education, unemployment, poverty, and racism in the United States.

The proposed "Degrees of Freedom" Charter School would, in its implementation, take students of color from their communities and relocate them to Vermont, where they would live on an isolated, albeit beautiful, rural campus. They would be taught using virtual reality videos, rather than through the direct human interaction that forms the basis of strong communities.

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While the proposed technology lends an aura of futuristic innovation, this is still, at its heart, a race-based model of residential schooling for "disadvantaged" youth. The model of removing youth from their communities and educating them to "succeed" in society, reinforced by a strict disciplinary regime brings to mind segregated schooling and the residential school system that Native American youth were subjected to not very long ago. There are real critiques of Democracy Prep, that it is a school franchise that operates on a deficit model that defines Black and Brown students based upon what they are lacking to "compete" in society, rather than an asset model based upon their strengths, talent, potential, and unique perspectives on the world.

Vermont needs to prioritize educational models that equip students with the critical thinking and skills to participate as empowered citizens in a democracy, and to help build a better future for everyone. We already have in Vermont a two-year state college system, Community College of Vermont, that is motivated to support high school seniors and first and second-year college students, often from backgrounds that are regarded as "non-traditional" in higher education: First-generation college students, students of color, and students from families who do not have enough money to cover the high costs of university. Community College of Vermont and the Vermont State College system has thousands of eager and dedicated students and professors, and this wonderful state college system serves as a conduit for high school students to complete their secondary education and helps them transition into either associates degree programs, or the first years of college.

The effects of the corporatization of higher education over the last 20 years have decreased cross-race, cross-class accessibility to college — not increased it. So, the solution for Marlboro's future is NOT another private charter school that profits from students' marginalization. Even if students are successful in the proposed program, they will still need to find a college that is accessible and viable for completing their education. The solution is that we need a four-year college on Marlboro campus that champions the values of this area — social and environmental justice, cross-class unity, intellectual exploration and political agency through participation.

We need a college that will recruit and support students of all racial, ethic, gender, sexuality and class backgrounds, especially first-generation students. We must address racial, ethnic, class, and gender disparities by actively creating equity in colleges, through supporting everyone to be educated in an integrated, empowering manner that enables them to complete all four years. Many studies have shown that non-traditional college students are best served by:

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1. Costs that are not prohibitive, with administrators who help students with admissions;

2. Professors who embody all racial, ethnic, gender, class, and sexuality backgrounds; and

3. A supportive, integrated student body where difference and diversity are prized as assets and sources of learning and celebration.

Therefore, I implore you, distinguished readers, to seek out a four-year institution of higher education to move to the campus, one that is actually compatible with the values of Windham County and the vision and tradition of Marlboro College. I am certain that, if you continue to look, you will find a stronger institution that will embrace the realities of the 21st century and equip students to tackle the challenges at hand: economic hardship, crises of professionalization due to increasingly prohibitive costs of college, education that works with the realities of climate change, food and water insecurity, and that embraces changes in pedagogical structure toward anti-racist, intersectional teaching and learning — a model so beautifully embodied by SPARK teacher education institute.

Marlboro College has an opportunity now, when higher education is already poised to radically transform due to COVID-19, to dream, innovate and breathe new life into supporting the coming generations to attend college here in Vermont. We can host a four-year institution that will attract students from all over the United States and Canada, and bring them together to study with Vermonters, to work and live here, and perhaps, as generations of Marlboro students have, make Vermont their home.

Jessica M. Dolan, PhD, is on the adjunct faculty of the University of Guelph and Community College of Vermont, and is a grant writer for the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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