Anonymous allegations roil Marlboro College sale

Marlboro College.

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MARLBORO — Marlboro College's Board of Trustees intends to go ahead with the sale of the campus to Democracy Builders Fund Inc., a nonprofit hoping to "re-imagine" higher education in Marlboro.

That's even after the Board became aware of online, anonymous allegations of racism, abuse and favoritism at the nonprofit's project Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools founded by Seth Andrew, who announced his plans for the Marlboro College campus in late May.

Dick Saudek, chairman of the Marlboro College Board of Trustees, told the Reformer Monday that the Board of Trustees conducted an 11th-hour review in response to Black N Brown at Democracy Prep, a group that claims it is composed of former and current students, their parents, faculty and staff at the charter schools.

Saudek said following the review, the board is satisfied it is still moving in the right direction, which will eventually result in the merger of Marlboro College with Emerson College in Boston.

Saudek also said the Board has "no reason to doubt the concerns raised by Black N Brown" about problems at the Democracy Prep schools, adding, "There are other reports that are favorable."

"We reviewed a number of aspects of Democracy Builders' record," Saudek said. "We found that they have established an impressive number of schools and were teaching many thousands of children. We also recognized that some of their schools had not stood the test of time, but on balance it appeared their model had succeeded."

That's not the story being told on the Facebook page or the story the Marlboro Select Board heard on July 9.

"I find it very disturbing that a person like Seth can purchase a university that is supposed to train people to work together when he has absolute disrespect for Black and brown people," said Zenzile Keith, a former staff member of Democracy Prep, during the Marlboro Select Board's July 9 meeting. "Don't allow someone like this to come into your community and spread the kind of hate he has for Black and brown bodies."

Keith told the Select Board that during her tenure at the charter school, she witnessed "a number of racist and white supremacists actions," both against students and women in supervisory positions.

'VERY DISCOURAGING'

The future of the campus in Marlboro has been of much concern for many people since the Marlboro College Board of Trustees announced a planned merger with Emerson College in Boston. That merger, which will create the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson, is expected to be finalized before the end of the month. However, Emerson College has shown no interest in the campus, and the Campus Working Group was established to help find a buyer for the 500 acres and its more than 50 buildings.

The sale and merger are expected to be complete by the end of the month, Saudek said.

Andrew hopes to offer classes in Marlboro this fall, with cohorts of students traveling from charter schools in Washington, D.C., for two-week sessions. Andrew also hopes to eventually offer undergraduate programs at the campus and has tentatively named the program Degrees of Freedom.

But over the past few weeks, Black N Brown has been sharing testimonials on its Facebook page, and those posts have caused concern for people living in Marlboro, alumni and former faculty members at the college. The testimonials are typed on image files and attributed to, for example, "DP Harlem HS/Democracy Prep Student," or "DP Harlem Middle/Democracy Prep Staff" with a set of years, presumably when the student attended or staff member worked there.

Efforts to interview a spokesperson for Black N Brown were unsuccessful.

"We have concerns about everything we have been hearing," resident Andy Horton said via Zoom during the July 9 meeting. "We'd like to hear more from Seth and we would like the Select Board to ask some deep questions about what his pedagogy is, what his intent is and how students will be treated. The stories I have heard are very discouraging. It's not the kind of institution we might want at Marlboro."

Andrew has previously said he is willing to hold a public forum to discuss his plans for the campus, but only after the sale has gone through.

Lissa Harris said it's the responsibility of the Marlboro community to hold Andrew, or anybody else who hopes to purchase the campus, accountable.

"We are committed to making sure that Black and brown people in our community and beyond are not subject to the kind of victimization, abuse and racism we have been reading about," Harris said.

"At the last board meeting, Seth talked a really good story," Board member Aaron Betts said, admitting he was "enthralled" by Andrew. "I left that meeting feeling good."

Now, Betts said, after reading the allegations and hearing them during the Select Board meetings, he is not feeling so good about the proposed sale.

'ABSOLUTE ATROCITIES'

A person representing Black N Brown told the board the group is a collective, sharing statements about "the absolute atrocities that left hundreds of Democracy Prep students, staff and parents traumatized in its wake." The spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, said Black N Brown has collected more than 350 stories about the charter schools and "the catastrophic legacy" left behind by Andrew.

"His lack of integrity is extremely troubling. But more troubling is the toxicity that was there for staff, students and parents. He is just not prepared to run such a college."

A woman who identified herself as "Telling Truth" and an alumna of Democracy Prep, said in a voice call at the meeting that she has seen both the positive and negative sides of Andrew. She said when she started at the school she was the kind of success story that Andrew liked to trumpet. But after a disagreement over quitting debate club, she began to see "the monster" within.

"Seth is a narcissist and a manipulator," she said. "I hope Seth is never in an environment where he is leading Black and brown bodies ever again," she said. "If we are going to have a program meant for Black and brown students, it needs to be run by Black and brown leadership ..."

On Tuesday, Select Board Chairman Jesse Kreitzer issued a board statement calling on the Marlboro College Board of Trustees and the Vermont Attorney General's Office "to conduct a thorough investigation of the testimonies made by the collective, and to be transparent in its findings."

But during the Board meeting, Kreitzer reminded people that the Select Board does not have the power to intervene in a real estate sale.

Kreitzer served as the community representative to the Campus Working Group, which reviewed the offers for the campus. Sara Coffey and Dean Nicyper, co-chairs of the working group, had no comment at this time.

'I RESOLVE TO DO BETTER'

On June 24, Andrew posted "Reflections on Race & Democracy Prep," on Medium, an online publishing platform. In the essay, Andrew admitted to making mistakes in the first year and apologized for his role in "perpetuating systemic racism."

"I incorrectly thought I knew what was best, and I didn't ask enough questions or invite critiques," he wrote. "Many students, families, teachers, and staff of color felt disrespected and hurt. I sincerely apologize, and resolve to do better."

In the essay, which was removed by Andrew shortly after it was posted, he committed to having a board that is majority Black, indigenous and people of color and to recruit the same for staff and faculty at Democracy Builders.

"I commit to listening more critically and humbly to the experiences of students, staff, and communities of color, and holding space for them to do so authentically," he wrote. "I understand that injuries occurred, and I will continue to take responsibility for my part in them. I understand that without a process or forum for them to be aired, hurt can linger."

He also wrote, "I worry that ad hominem, anonymous, and, sometimes, outright false critiques of me and others will not lead to the collaboration that is needed for better allyship and real and lasting change."

During a Zoom meeting with the Reformer on Monday, Andrew said while he did remove the essay, he stands by every word and will share it with anyone who asks for it.

He said he removed it because he didn't want his words to become the focus of the conversation. He wanted to share it with, and then listen to, "a specific group of people I care deeply about."

"The intent was to proactively demonstrate a sense of accountability and forward-looking commitments to building new anti-racist institutions with a diverse team of partners," he said.

Also on the Zoom call were Marlboro Campus Project Manager Tonia Kennedy; Jazel Smith, a member of the board of Democracy Builders Fund and a graduate of Democracy Prep; Chandell Stone, director of recruitment for Degrees of Freedom and a former Democracy Prep teacher; Jamie McCoy, a former student and now a teacher at Democracy Prep; Basil Smikle, a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and an education consultant; and Marcellina Cummings, a Democracy Builders board member and parent. Andrew referred to the participants as design team members.

They all said they are passionate about starting a new kind of program in Vermont for the thousands of students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to take college-level courses, study on campus and graduate debt-free. The design team members made it clear that what they are bringing to Vermont is not a charter school, but a nonprofit program that is re-imagining higher education.

IN DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY BUILDERS

Cummings, a parent of four students who went to Democracy Prep, said she was looking for a school for her son when she stumbled upon Democracy Prep. Because of his excellent experience there, she said, she sent his three younger siblings there, too. She said that if her children "felt like a consequence or a rule was unfair they were always able to speak with staff members and advocate for themselves directly. These were precise skills my children developed at DP."

Jamie McCoy, a former student and now teacher at DP said going to the school was the best choice she could make. Two of her siblings also graduated from DP. All of them thrived in the safe environment provided by the school, she said.

McCoy said what is especially unique about Democracy Prep and its approach is that it's always evolving and adjusting to the needs of its students and families. When McCoy went to the school, the majority of her teachers were white. When she returned, the majority were Black.

"I had such pride in the school that I returned," she said. But it wasn't just pride that brought her back, McCoy said. "I saw how it continued to evolve. That says something about the institution."

And that's where she is having a problem with the criticism that has been leveled at Andrew and Democracy Prep.

"This could have been a really good opportunity to enrich DP with more conversations about anti-racism," McCoy said.

"Lifting voices is generally good," Smith agreed. "Speaking your truth and advocating for yourself and your community is what DP is all about. But, making up lies or tearing people down is not."

But Smith said the door is still open to people who want to contribute to making Democracy Prep a better institution, a process that would benefit Democracy Builders as well.

"We extend an open invitation for the creator of the anonymous page to come to the table as we design an inclusive institution," she said. "It's seductive to just go around with a pitchfork calling everyone racist and trying to cancel them. It's a lot more difficult to sit down and have a dialogue about improving opportunities for students and build a new institution with them from scratch."

'IT IS HURTFUL'

Jazel Smith said when a few of her Facebook friends started publishing online, she was reading the stories with an open mind even though what they were describing was not her experience, but she quickly soured on the postings. She started questioning the credibility of all the postings when one mentioned a student being pushed through a metal detector.

"There are no metal detectors in any of DP's buildings, so only someone with no actual knowledge of DP, but a dangerously mistaken sense of what our schools were like, would write or publish that, even anonymously," Smith said.

She said when she came to the conclusion that a page meant to help people share their experiences was actually publishing false information to advance a personal agenda, she became angry.

"It is hurtful," McCoy agreed. "This is not 'Seth Andrew's college' we are talking about. There is no one asking me why I want to build a college here. When you try to take away Degrees of Freedom and the potential of this program, you're not just taking it away from Democracy Builders, you're taking it away from all of us who have been working on this project for years."

Andrew said he has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism since he started Democracy Prep in 2006, some of it warranted. But he said he didn't ignore that criticism, and applied it to make the school better for students, families and staff. "And all the data supports the progress we made over time.

"There are nearly 100,000 families of color who have actively said they want a DP education for their children," he said. "It's sad that a small group, including Marlboro alumni, are trying to silence thousands of their voices and limit their choices."

Stone noted that Democracy Builders is raising funds for paid fellowships for students who want to be involved in the creation of the school in Vermont. She said this involvement speaks to the legacy that Marlboro College is leaving behind.

"We are going to be co-creating and developing programs with fellows who will be paid for their insight," Stone said. "We believe that is honoring the town, the college history, and the new voices and leadership these students are bringing. We will be valuing the opinions and lived experiences of our students in a number of ways."

Stone said she hopes the anonymous critics step into the open and engage in an honest conversation about what a Black-led college in Southern Vermont might look like and how Democracy Prep can do better.

"The risk of cancel culture is people with the willingness to grow and the ability to leverage their privilege for the benefit of our community being pushed out at a time where we need more allies like Seth," she said.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Saudek told the Reformer the Attorney General is expected to release its report on the sale of the campus and the merger of the two colleges on Monday. He hopes everything will be done by the end of the month.

He also said the proposal the Board received from Democracy Builders had budget projections that appeared "sound," even though the organization has only between $1 million and $2 million in capital.

"It appeared they would be able to come up with more money for the founding and the stabilization of the school," said Saudek, who also said he understands those opposed to the merger with Emerson feel this is a reason for the Board "to walk away from its contractual obligations."

"If we did, we would be walking into a very bad situation and our faculty and students would suffer," he said.

Most of Marlboro College's faculty will be continuing their academic careers at Emerson in the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. Students who have decided to move to Boston will keep their current tuition rate and will receive subsidies to help them get there.

"If that transition doesn't happen, it would have dire consequences," Saudek said.

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


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