Jonathon Podolsky: It's a closure, not a merger

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Marlboro College's proposed "merger" with Boston's Emerson College would spell the end of the small Vermont college forever. Despite this grim news, there is growing resistance to the merger and clarity that other options can be considered. "Marlboro's curricular and pedagogic experiences are profoundly linked to and influenced by the Vermont rural landscape. Its setting is the raison d' tre — the animating spirit that brings to life, in full measure, the teaching and learning that takes place on Potash Hill," declared Lee Pelton, who is, ironically, president of Emerson College.

Under the proposed deal, most Marlboro employees would lose their jobs; only tenured and tenure-track professors would move on to Emerson (perhaps displacing adjunct faculty) and Emerson would be gifted over $40 million (Marlboro College's endowment plus the sale of its campus). "Please let's not refer to an arrangement whereby the campus closes down, and all assets are transferred to another institution, as a 'merger.' This is a closing," says David Van Deusen, president of the Vermont AFL-CIO.

Proponents argue it's a way of preserving what is unique about Marlboro College, but this is unrealistic. "To imply that the pedagogy is going to survive if 20-odd faculty go into a giant host of over 200 faculty, we are not carrying our pedagogy there. We are a virus trying to infect a host with a lot of antibodies," says Brad Heck, Marlboro visiting professor. "Emerson already has its own DNA ... This idea that Marlboro will continue on is representative of a fundamental failure to understand organizational cultures," says David Williamson, visiting professor, Miami University.

Some assert that the "merger" is better for current students than an uncertain future at Marlboro. However, Marlboro Dean of Admissions Fumio Sugihara says, "We recognize that not all of our students were going to want to go to Emerson ... Some of them intentionally chose Vermont, and they really want to be here. Some students might prefer a location that is not in an urban center, or they might prefer a more rural location." In addition, some students don't believe that Emerson is strong in the areas that they want to study. Marlboro student Aaron Pilarcik explains, "We're looking at 40 to 50 students that'll go there. They'll graduate in just a few years, they'll be gone ... at that point, Marlboro College will essentially be gone. There'll be a very small contingent of faculty, but it's hard to say what their future will be."

The administration is spending money on merger maven EY-Parthenon (a member firm of Ernst & Young Global Limited), whose office is close to Emerson and contributes to the metrics Massachusetts regulators use to evaluate which colleges should close or merge.

In contrast, the board could accept the free offer to conduct a retrenchment study (reducing expenses to fit the current enrollment and other sources of predictable revenue, which shows financial stability to regulators and potential donors). The offer is made by Will Wootton — a Marlboro alum, former VP of advancement for 19 years, and former president of Sterling College. His book, "Good Fortune Next Time: Life, Death, Irony, and the Administration of Very Small Colleges" details his successful retrenchment effort at Sterling. "Will Wootton reminds us of the joys and the value of small liberal arts colleges [and] why we should fight as he did mightily for their survival," according to Paul LeBlanc, former Marlboro president. The petition encouraging the board to accept the offer already has around 1,000 signatures.

Marlboro's board claims, "We are open to Will Wootton's challenge, and we look forward to hearing his thoughts. Will has made a generous offer of his time and expertise," covering over their refusal to give him access to senior faculty for four days to go over the raw financials. The response claims inadequate staffing due to recent departures. Even if this were the case, they could certainly show the financial information and provide one senior administrator for a few days. This seems a trivial sacrifice compared to the loss of a 75-year-old institution. In addition, we begin to see new ways forward, including reinvigorated support from alumni academics, former staff, faculty, and deans. There were also new ideas for Marlboro mentioned in Inside Higher Ed on Tuesday, Jan. 21.

Some claim the recent closing of Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph are signs that demographic changes in Vermont mean that small closures are inevitable, even though 80 percent of students come from out-of-state. Yet we see successful changes from small Vermont colleges such as Sterling and SIT. Beyond Vermont, Hampshire, Sweet Briar, and Antioch supposedly could not operate independently yet these colleges took the road less traveled and are on the road to recovery and innovation. Marlboro can go that route — or sit in a Boston-driven merger mania traffic jam.

Jonathon Podolsky is the moderator of Local Frogs: Hampshire College Alumni of Western Massachusetts and has been active in the saving Hampshire College movement. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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