Marlboro College alumni call for pause on Emerson merger

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MARLBORO — A group of Marlboro College alumni wants the school's Board of Trustees to hit the pause button on its merger with Emerson College in Boston.

But the chances of that, said the board's chairman, are slim to none.

"There hasn't been a good reason to change course," Chairman Dick Saudek said. Even now, he said, with the whole nation on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the merger will push forward.

"We haven't seen yet the full effect of COVID on education," he said. "The fundamental problems are still there, the problem of attracting students to a tiny liberal arts college and the problems of tuition discounting. Those things won't change and, if anything, they will probably intensify."

Saudek said he could not comment on the process of shutting down the Marlboro campus and transferring its assets, students and faculty, to Emerson. He did say, however, that he would have more to say in about three weeks.

"The choice was a hard choice," he said. "But choosing Emerson so far seems very promising. One of the things that is most heartening is the appreciation Emerson has for the Marlboro tradition of education. They have made that very clear. We are optimistic this affiliation will come to pass."

Struggling with declining enrollment and falling revenue for nearly a decade, the board and school administrators reached the decision that the best way to preserve the college's legacy was to merge with a partner that can preserve its unique methods and practice of student-guided education.

Early last year, the board thought it had found a solution in a partnership with the University of Bridgeport. That agreement would have preserved the campus in Marlboro. But in September, the agreement was called off. Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley said "insurmountable barriers to developing a sustainable financial model that would ensure Marlboro's mission into the future" led to suspension of the negotiations.

Then, in early November 2019, Quigley announced the board had reached a preliminary agreement to merge with Emerson College. The merger, if approved, includes 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. Staff members employed in Marlboro will lose their jobs, however. If the merger is finalized, the institute will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

Emerson College, however, made it quite clear that it is not interested in property of Marlboro College on Potash Hill. For several months, a campus working group has been working with a consultant and realtors to suss out any parties that might be interested in the sprawling campus and acres and acres of preserved woodlands.

In an email to the Reformer, Sara Coffey and Dean Nicyper, co-chairs of the working group, wrote that they were not at liberty to discuss the group's progress.

However, in a posting to a Marlboro Facebook page, a member of the group was quoted as saying it has spoken with a number of interested parties and had just last week made a formal recommendation to the board."

"It's now up to the trustees to work with the prospective buyers and make a decision," states the posted quote.

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It did not have to be this way though, said a number of alumni since the merger was announced. Most recently C.J. Churchill, Class of 1991 and a Marlboro trustee from 2006 to 2009, sent a letter on behalf of himself and more than 500 alumni to the Vermont Attorney General's Office.

"I ask your office to require the Marlboro College Board of Trustees be dissolved and the College's current president be relieved of his position in order for Marlboro College to be led into the bright future that awaits it," states the letter dated April 13. "If the College is restructured to meet the new demographic and financial demands of the 21st Century, Marlboro can continue to lead the nation by example as a bastion of independent thinking and participatory democracy."

Churchill told the Reformer he hasn't received a response from Attorney General T.J. Donovan. A spokeswoman from the AG's Office told the Reformer that Churchill should be getting a response before the end of this week.

Churchill noted that Marlboro College's board and its senior administrators relied on outside consultants - something antithetical to the school's self-governance model - when deciding how to keep Marlboro's tradition alive and thriving. The board and its current president, he said, have lacked the vision to discover the solution that sits immediately in front of them.

"The college administration has failed in the last 15 years to reach out to alumni who could be a major force for recruiting new students," said Churchill. He said there are hundreds of alumni who act as ambassadors for the school, extolling its virtues and attesting to its value as more than just a place to get an education.

"The life of the mind and pursuit of knowledge for its own sake matters," said Churchill, who recently retired after 18 years as a professor of sociology at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y. He is now the director of the Psychoanalytic Training Institute of the Contemporary Freudian Society. "I have close-up experience to both Marlboro's promise and what it can do for personal and career development."

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Churchill imagines a network of Marlboro College alumni around the world championing the school's promise to prospective students. But to do that, he said, some serious changes have to happen, which include stopping the merger, firing senior leadership and removing board members "who cannot or will not support a future for Marlboro College."

A new board is needed, insists the alumni group, to reimagine Marlboro College and find a path forward that is both fiscally responsible and sustainable.

"We are not saying that the College can continue 'as-is,' especially at this point," stated Rhett Bowlin, Class of 1993, in a May 4 press release. "We do know that with new leadership at the administrative and board levels, that we can recreate Marlboro College as a powerful and compelling model of self-governance and academic rigor."

Churchill, Bowlin and fellow alumus C. Angus Schaal, are spearheading the effort.

"We were shocked when the college made the announcement last July," said Churchill. "All of us were blindsided by it."

Many of those opposed to the merger have expressed similar sentiments, accusing school administrators of taking a corporate approach to consolidation without working with alumni to find a path forward for Marlboro.

Although many people affiliated with the school knew there were concerns about Marlboro's future, said Churchill, most of them had no idea a merger was on the horizon until the University of Bridgeport proposal was announced.

"Everyone was caught by surprise and traumatized by the announcement," he said. Now the group is asking that the merger with Emerson be stopped and Marlboro's future by thought about "in a calm rational way," said Churchill.

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"We have deep roots in Marlboro," he said. "We have a sense of how it should operate and what might need to be done for Marlboro to survive. If given enough time, we have a fighting chance."

If the process is allowed to continue, said Churchill, Marlboro's legacy will be a plaque on a wall in "some sort of arcane institution" in Boston.

"It makes me angry," he said. ""Marlboro College is going to be disappeared into this other college that doesn't share much of Marlboro's commitment to the life of the mind and democracy."

Saudek told the Reformer that Marlboro College's struggles have not been kept secret. Marlboro, like other small liberal arts colleges in the United States, have been struggling with declining enrollment for a number of years. The Green Mountain State has seen the closure of three similar colleges in the past 18 months — Southern Vermont College in Bennington, College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Green Mountain College in Poultney.

"We've been dealing with these problems now for about eight years," said Saudek. "It finally got to the point where we felt we had no choice but to spend our endowment very quickly or find a partner."

He also said the college has tried to engage with alumni, but "with limited success."

What will guarantee that Marlboro's tradition continues, said Saudek, is the faculty members who will be going to Emerson College to continue their careers. Transferring the endowment to Emerson will allow Marlboro's faculty to continue to teach and will protect their futures as well, said Saudek.

"The heart of Marlboro is the faculty," he said.

If the board was to hit the pause button, said Saudek, the endowment, from which the board had to make a withdraw this last year to cover a budget shortfall, will disappear quickly, leaving the school's faculty with no place to hang their hats.

Saudek said the passion of the school's alumni attests to the value of its education.

"Nobody on the current board will deny or gloss over the fact that Marlboro College has changed many lives for the better over the years," he said.

But alumni around the country and the world are not yet ready to quit. They "stand ready to form a new governance structure" in accordance with a plan submitted to the Attorney General last March by Will Wootton, states the May 4 press release. "And we stand ready to engage in fundraising efforts that could dwarf those attempted to date by those who have been at the helm."

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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