Marlboro College held its annual meeting May 16 in which they overrode term limits and ignored a petition with more than 800 signatures calling on leadership in favor of closure, to resign. Their plan to give away millions of dollars to Emerson College, while taking on new debt, $1M in Paycheck Protection Program funds from the federal government and $1.5M to build a new dorm this year, lacks judgement. The trustees voted to give another term to Chairman Richard Saudek, who has been on the board for 23 years, despite a term limit of 12 years, and overrode the term limit for Bart Goodwin. At least two other board members appear to have served over the term limit, two members formerly served as chairman of the board, and one member is former special assistant to the president of Emerson College.
The Renaissance Scholars program was praised, despite having skyrocketed the discount rate to well over 80%. This program was President Quigley’s first major initiative in 2015, yet the high discount rate failed to increase enrollment according to the college’s accreditor.
Quigley’s Renaissance Scholars program intended to award full tuition scholarships to students in each of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, and were renewable for four years. Quigley comes from a background in the Peace Corps, not higher ed administration, and the college’s finances have plummeted throughout his tenure.
Marlboro boasts of its uniqueness: “It begins with a promise and ends with a plan.” The “guarantee” is to make all incoming students, no matter what they study, graduate with the skills they need for a successful life. Yet the president and board of trustees have resigned themselves to this so-called “merger” with Emerson College protecting little of the Marlboro College promise.
For months now, I have worked with others to engage like-minded individuals in support of the continued operation of Marlboro College, but much to my amazement, many think saving Marlboro is a lost cause, I know it is not. I was deeply involved with the Save Hampshire College movement. Why? Because I understood the importance of offering alternative educational opportunities to students interested in a smaller, more flexible learning environment. As part of the effort that succeeded in changing the administration and direction of Hampshire College, giving it a strong chance for continued operation into the future, I heard about what was happening at Marlboro College.
Marlboro and Hampshire have a number of things in common. Their campuses are located in rural New England. They recruit students interested in working closely with professors on an educational path that culminates in an independent area of study. And both colleges are praised for their uniqueness in the higher education landscape.
From my perspective, this “merger” is the easy way out for the board of trustees that oversaw a poorly managed institution for years. A plan to sell the campus valued at $10 million, is under consideration with expectations to finalize an agreement by late May or early June, while they plan to hand over the proceeds, plus $22 million left from the endowment which has declined due to overspending, and some market decline. This gift amounts to a paycheck protection program to provide career extensions to tenure and tenure-track faculty at nearly $1M per faculty member eligible to transfer (all other employees will lose their jobs).
So why, with many Marlboro students wanting to continue their education in Vermont, willing donors with a sound re-envisioning plan in place, and a significant endowment in the bank, wouldn’t the board of trustees use this period of time to install new leadership to right the ship?
Marlboro College is perfectly situated, in this coronavirus time with its rural setting and brand-new dorm to allow for appropriate distancing, to attract students driven to crafting their own educational path.
I believe the retention of institutions such as Marlboro College is the bulwark against the increased standardization, homogenization and commodification of higher education in America.
I know from experience that if there is the will, there is a way to save Marlboro College. It has been done before. Even Emerson College survived a similar situation in the 1950s. Sweet Briar College in Virginia was saved, too. At Hampshire, I helped organize events such as teach-outs, meetings, a campus-wide event, and a talk by Lili Leonard who wrote her dissertation about the Saving of Sweet Briar College.
From this experience, I learned how intelligent, well-meaning board and senior administration members who were successful in other fields, could make the wrong decisions about a college in trouble. Small, insular groups, fearing that honest talk about the institution’s finances might scare away donors and prospective students, work behind the scenes to hatch weak plans under the auspices of a “merger.” Merger, though, is just another word for extinction, because with further analysis, their plans were found to be pipe dreams and the ethos of the original institution would have disappeared.
So let’s use Hampshire and Sweet Briar as the examples of success where the wider community of stakeholders came together and forged a direction that allowed these institutions to survive through a combination of new leadership, inclusion, better fundraising, marketing and a re-envisioning plan for its future.
To join the effort to save Marlboro College go to www.IBelieveInmarlboroCollege.org.
Jonathon Podolsky lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, and participates in I Believe in Marlboro College and in Mobilize Marlboro.