Town struggles with Marlboro College closure plan

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MARLBORO — It was state Rep. Emily Long's regular monthly meeting in Marlboro to talk about issues affecting her constituents, but one topic dominated the conversation on Saturday — the proposed merger of Marlboro College and Emerson College in Boston.

"On the face of this, it is an amazingly good deal for Emerson and a lousy deal for Marlboro College and, obviously, this town," said Adrian Segar, a resident of Marlboro who taught computer science at the college for 10 years.

On Nov. 6, Kevin Quigley, who has been president of Marlboro College since 2015, announced the boards of both Marlboro and Emerson colleges had agreed in principle to "an alliance" that would mean the end of classes on Potash Hill in the town of Marlboro, where the college has operated since 1946. The agreement, if approved by May 2020, would wind down operations at Marlboro College at the end of the 2020 school year, with the opportunity for all remaining students to transfer to Emerson College to finish their studies with their current tuition packages. The deal also guarantees positions for Marlboro's 27 tenured and tenure-track faculty members. However, the 50-plus staff members at the college will be unemployed if the deal is finalized.

Marlboro College has been struggling to fill its classrooms for several years, with attendance dropping to about 150 for this current year. The school has also been under the scrutiny of the New England Commission of Higher Education, which is the regional accreditation agency for colleges and universities in the six New England states. NECHE has expressed concern over the past few years about Marlboro College's financial viability due to declining enrollment.

"If we don't merge with Emerson, it's pretty clear we will lose accreditation and we will close anyway," said Kate Ratcliff, a professor of American studies and gender studies at Marlboro. Ratcliff was a member of the task force that worked on Marlboro's future, as was William Edelglass, who is on partial leave from his position as a professor of philosophy and environmental studies. Both Ratcliff and Edelglass said they were at the meeting not as official representatives of the college, but as members of the Marlboro community.

"There are no real good options," said Ratcliff. "The merger with Emerson is by far the best option for the college and the community."

"[NECHE] does not believe we can make it on our own," said Edelglass. "Our academic programs are very strong but our financial situation is fundamentally unsustainable. Enrollment and finances are not up to [NECHE] standards and haven't been for several years."

Ten years ago, he said, during the last full accreditation process, "The warning signs were flashing." At the time, said Edelglass, tuition revenue was just under $8 million, he said. Now, it's less than $2 million.

Earlier this year, Marlboro College reached a tentative agreement with the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, to merge their academic programs. That proposal would have preserved the campus in Marlboro, but didn't guarantee its existence into the future. In September, Marlboro College announced the proposal had fallen through, partially because Marlboro didn't receive an "enduring commitment" to the Vermont campus and because there was no guarantee for the integrity of Marlboro's self-directed academic model and self-governed community.

While Emerson College has indicated it has no desire to acquire and maintain the campus on Potash Hill, it has promised to preserve Marlboro's independent study tradition by renaming its Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies as the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

In return, Emerson College gets to add Marlboro's $30 million endowment to its own $170 million endowment and will also receive the proceeds of any possible sale of the campus in Marlboro, which is assessed at $10 million.

Marlboro resident Piet Van Loon, Marlboro College's business manager from 1973 to 1999, asked if there are "any other suitors" if the proposal with Emerson falls through.

"Emerson is the best," said Ratcliff. "There are no other institutions in the wings."

Edelglass said during this whole process, the folks at Marlboro College have spoken with nearly 80 different institutions.

"Bridgeport was the only one that saw any possible path forward for the campus in Marlboro," he said.

However, said both Ratcliff and Edelglass, while the entire Marlboro community is grieving, it's not all doom and gloom.

"I am also truly optimistic that something will happen on the campus that will be beneficial for the community and the region," said Ratcliff. "There are a number of conversations going on now that are confidential at this point that hold great promise for re-purposing the campus and adding value to our community."

"The college is interested in doing something with the campus that would keep the place as vibrant as possible," said Edelglass.

"I need to be convinced that this is worth $40 million," said Segar, a sentiment echoed by a number of other people in attendance.

Segar said if the school has to close in Marlboro, it should be done "as humanely as possible," which would include severance packages for all those staff members who will be out of jobs come the end of the 2020 school year.

Ratcliff insisted that this is not just a financial decision between the two entities, that Emerson College will be able to expand its offerings through the faculty coming from Marlboro and those faculty members will be able to continue their relationships with students already enrolled at Marlboro.

Edelglass also noted that the cost of taking on Marlboro's faculty might exceed any financial benefit to Emerson College.

"Most colleges, if they want to add a tenured track line, have to add $2 million to make it sustainable," he said. "I would be surprised if they got the entire $40 million."

After the meeting, Edelglass told the Reformer he mentioned the costs to Emerson because he wanted to stress how generous Emerson is being by entering into this agreement.

Severance packages for staff members who will lose their jobs will also come out of the endowment, Edelglass noted.

Emerson has also agreed to honor the contracts with students in Marlboro's Renaissance program, students who pay no tuition at all.

"For faculty members in general, this is a horrible job market," she said. "The fact Emerson will take the faculty and honor the students' financial aid is not a small deal."

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Despite the upside for faculty and students, the process of determining Marlboro College's future didn't sit well with many members of the community.

"The task force started with the assumption we had to merge or close," said Allison Turner, who has been teaching laboratory and field techniques in the natural sciences at the college since 2006. "None of us heard any of it. It makes it hard for us to trust the process."

"It wasn't a foregone conclusion that we would just close or merge," responded Edelglass. "Those were the most likely."

But both Ratcliff and Edelglass acknowledged the concern that the college's closed-door process in finding a partner appeared to be antithetical to Marlboro's tradition of transparency and self-governance.

"I am deeply sorry the college didn't do a better job communicating with the community," said Ratcliff. "That was a mistake."

"The way this was done was a departure of our traditions of shared governance and broad participation," said Edelglass, who said the task force looked at a number of options, which included cutting 40 positions, staff and faculty, and even with such a drastic measure, "The best we could do was keep the college running for three more years."

And working with a partner like Emerson College or the University of Bridgeport requires a level of confidentiality, even if that confidentiality goes against the grain for many people in Marlboro.

"Unfortunately, said Edelglass, after the meeting, " this was necessary because going through an enormous amount of information and working through a many-month-decision process cannot work with the whole community. There was a process wherein some students, faculty and staff gathered as focus groups and the attributes of the college they wanted to retain were prioritized."

Edelglass said the results of those focus groups were brought to Town Meeting and the community approved them.

"The decisions to go with Bridgeport and then with Emerson were guided by these values articulated by the community," he said.

Van Loon asked if the community will be involved going forward in any discussion about the campus.

"There is no intention on the part of the college to close the community out of discussion," said Ratcliff. "We are all in this together."

Ratcliff said that while she believes a majority of the faculty will go to Emerson, they will maintain their homes in Marlboro.

Segar expressed concern that Emerson College is not as financially stable as one might hope.

"Emerson has $100 million in debt in outstanding, low-quality bonds," he said. "The future of Emerson doesn't look so great either."

But Ratcliff insisted Emerson is in "a strong position."

"Emerson had 16,000 applicants last fall and only accepted 30 percent," she said. "It is a highly selective, very financially solvent institution with a very strong future."

One attendee, who would identify himself only as Jessie, indicated if Emerson's expansion into California is any example, people in Marlboro should be wary.     

"Their expansion into Hollywood was ill-conceived, ill-informed and poorly executed," he said. "It's a showboat of a campus. It's a centerpiece and it wasn't until after they agreed to doing all this work buying the campus ... that they realized how poorly functional it was ... "

Another concern for many in attendance is the future of the Marlboro Music Festival.

"Presumably, the Music Festival could be bought out," said Edelglass. "But they have a choice of staying or not."

The Music Festival recently signed a 99-year lease to host its activities on the campus and is currently constructing the Jerome & Celia Bertin Reich Building and a new residence hall at a cost of $12.7 million.

"Marlboro has eight months to figure out what to do with the campus," said Edelglass. "That will involve all the stakeholders — Marlboro, Windham County, alumni and the Music Festival."

"Emerson has no interest in owning the campus," added Ratcliff. "They don't want to be involved in the process. They want us to take care of this in a way that serves our community and serves the region."

Ratcliff also said that while some may be taking the impression this is "a done deal" between Marlboro and Emerson, there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out.

People with connections to Marlboro College are not going down without a fight. Following quickly on the heels of the Nov. 6 announcement, a large contingent of alumni and former faculty members has coalesced into action groups, determined to preserve some semblance of the campus in Marlboro. One of those action groups has formed the Save Marlboro College Facebook page, where people are batting around ideas.

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


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