Podolsky: Marlboro College leaders abandon ethos ahead of 'merger'

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The leadership of Marlboro College claims their proposed "merger" (which would actually close Marlboro) will preserve the college's ethos. However, during recent Marlboro events, the administration has damaged their credibility by violating the core tenets of their own institution, even before the finalized agreement has been signed.

Marlboro's DNA centers around the small town democratic ideals students can learn (and practice) in Town Meetings, created by the college even before it had a faculty. According to Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, Marlboro College will gift $40 million to Emerson and cease to exist.

Why is openness being curtailed by discouraging press coverage and through intimidation, right when the college faces the most critical question in its history: will it exist after the end of the current semester?

Marlboro's mission statement specifies that it will be a self-governing institution. If the proposed merger goes through, students would be transferring from a small, isolated, rural college where all the students follow the same pedagogical progression, into a big city college. According to Ruth McCambridge, editor in chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly, "Perhaps the greatest red flag of this merger is that while Emerson is relatively traditionally managed, Marlboro is an intentionally "self-governed community famous for its town halls."

According to the Spore Amendment made in 1968 to Section 1 of Marlboro College's constitution, "Town Meeting shall not abridge freedom of speech or of the press." However, on Feb. 27 of this year, the college's select board issued a restriction for reporters on campus, stating concerns about having outsiders present and that they considered an outright ban. Instead, they settled on allowing Beacon reporters on an invite-only basis. According to T. Wilson, who taught at Marlboro College for 47 years, this restriction is, "Absolutely unprecedented, both in fact and in principle. I am, frankly, shocked. Would these people think Trump is entitled to keep critical reporters out of his press conferences?" Just two days before this, the Beacon published an article in the Marlboro Monitor (one of the Beacon's mastheads) about Marlboro College's Select Board restricting access to minutes. Is the new restriction on the Beacon retaliation for their article which seemed to expose a reduction in transparency?

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Kate Hollander, a professor in Boston who is a Marlboro alum, asks, "How are the Emerson student journalists `outsiders'? If and when the merger goes through, all these students will be ... members of the same student body and community. No academic institution should exclude its own student journalists. I know that this is an extreme situation for Marlboro (the potential end of the College as an independent institution), but isn't it actually in extreme situations that our commitments to democracy, truth, and freedom of the press are most tested?"

Amy Tudor is the founder of IBelieveInMarlboroCollege.org and a Marlboro alum who is taking a film class there this semester. She is working on a mini-doc about the shattering of the community at Marlboro and her project had been approved by her professor. When she heard about two students proposing a committee at Town Meeting to look into options for saving the college, she decided to capture footage. At the meeting, a select board member objected and Town Meeting voted not to grant her permission. Some people even demanded that she delete her footage. If documentary work is considered part of the free press, it should have been protected by the Spore Amendment. I could not find any bylaws indicating that filming is not allowed. Even the college promotional video called "This is Marlboro College" includes a student explaining that she live-blogs town and faculty meetings weekly because it makes people feel more invested and encourages them to contribute to the conversation.

So far, reporters have not picked up on opposition to the merger on campus, because the administration has been skillful in curating their message, dividing communities, and initially being hospitable to reporters who come to campus but privately deciding to ban student reporters when they cover the merger too much.

What is being kept from public scrutiny? Why are so many restrictions to public dialogue that is core to Marlboro's tradition being imposed, given officially this proposed merger is still "exploratory"? Under the proposed merger, a number of current students will not be able to complete the educational opportunities promised to them when they entered Marlboro, but there are enough funds available to do so at Marlboro through a retrenchment that ends profligate levels of spending. This raises concerns on whether this merger is truly openly defensible and in the best interests of the college. A multi-stakeholder group called "Mobilize Marlboro" is now collaborating on alternatives that would be open to the community, and keep the college on Potash Hill.

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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