MARLBORO—Stacks of memos and projects line the office desk and meeting table of outgoing Marlboro College President Ellen McCulloch-Lovell.
When asked what she wished she’d accomplished while Marlboro’s president, McCulloch-Lovell responded, “Oh, my gosh, so many things. That would be a very long list.”
She joked that she’s compiling a memo to incoming President Kevin F. F. Quigley: “Things I wished I’d done.”
After listing a number of wish-list projects that included expanding internship programs, increasing enrollment, and better marketing the college’s reputation for writing, McCulloch-Lovell stopped short.
“I guess it’s good to leave when you still have ideas,” she said.
McCulloch-Lovell — poet, leader, and Marlboro College’s eighth president — arrived at the campus on Potash Hill at the age of 57. She then served 11 years as the college’s first female president until she stepped down on June 30.
According to McCulloch-Lovell, when she took the call from a recruiter while sitting in her Washington, D.C., office, it never occurred to her they’d ask her to consider the position.
Her first response was a strong no — her professional background did not include academia — but the school persisted.
McCulloch-Lovell fell in love with the college, its mission, and the potential of the Marlboro Graduate Studies Center, commonly called the Grad School. The rest is history.
Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, she said that the job of education is to help students find “what sets their minds on fire.”
Marlboro has a strong identity that other colleges envy, she said. The college’s hallmark is helping students find what animates their minds and passions and letting them run with it.
So why step away from a true love?
It’s time to give Marlboro an influx of new ideas, she answers.
“I’m a big believer in institutional renewal and change,” she said.
Even at a democratic place like Marlboro, the president has a lot of influence, she said.
“I’ve always had a burning purpose in my life in a job,” she said.
For many years, the college provided her burning purpose. College president is a job that never ends, she continued with a smile — and that part might not be as missed.
McCulloch-Lovell is working on her second book of poetry. She has stuck to her writing routine despite travel and other duties as the college’s president.
Completing the second book will require a fuller and sustained focus.
Beauty on all levels
A June breeze lifts the curtains on McCulloch-Lovell’s window that overlooks the campus, parking lot, and lavender-tinted mountains along the horizon.
Marlboro’s beauty — physical, intellectual, community — continues to catch McCulloch-Lovell’s breath. She feels honored to have had a hand in expanding the school’s beauty through new infrastructure, programs, and student support. She has added 114 acres and two new buildings to the school while president.
According to college trustee and alumnus Peter T. Mallary in a spring article for the school’s magazine, Potash Hill, McCulloch-Lovell will leave Marlboro’s undergraduate and graduate schools stronger than she found them.
Mallary notes that the school’s endowment has grown from $16 million to almost $40 million since 2004.
“She has a gift for telling the college’s story — and convincing people that they want to be a part of that story,” Mallary writes of McCulloch-Lovell’s donor relations and fundraising skills.
According to Mallary’s article, McCulloch-Lovell faced a high turnover in faculty during her tenure due to retirements. In response, she raised $12 million to endow the Fund for Inspired Teaching to help attract and train the school’s new teachers.
Higher education is changing “rapidly,” McCulloch-Lovell said.
“I work to champion liberal studies in an era where people question its value,” said McCulloch-Lovell, who remains concerned about the “commodification” of higher eduction. Students have become customers and their degrees products, she said.
The experience the “customers” receive and the “products” they receive are measured in terms that have very little to do with learning, she warned.
Most of the metrics thought to measure future success in higher education are economic in nature, she said: the price of tuition, the rate of loan default, the expected salary of faculty.
In her opinion, an educational experience goes beyond economics and should foster self-discovery that leads to a career and a satisfying life.
Students graduating now will likely have six to eight careers, she said, pointing out that liberal studies lead to job adaptability.
Broad humanistic education provides students with the ability to discover and create new knowledge, inventions, and networks in their careers, she said.
Marlboro College has a mission to prepare citizens who participate in their communities and civic life, she said.
Prospective students search for a Marlboro College type of education, said McCulloch-Lovell. She feels the pendulum has begun to swing back from highly specialized degrees toward broader liberal arts educations.
McCulloch-Lovell referenced commentaries she had read in publications like The New York Times. Prioritizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs to the detriment of humanities can produce scientists, engineers, or mathematicians without a social context for their work or the ability to communicate their ideas, she said.
According to McCulloch-Lovell, employers say they want their new hires to be able to express themselves, to be skilled at creative problem-solving, to possess critical thinking abilities, be proficient at working in teams, and understand the context their work fits within.
Liberal studies fosters those skills, she said.
McCulloch-Lovell said, according to 2012 data from the school, 77 percent of Marlboro undergraduates enroll in a strong graduate program within five years. Of recent graduates, 96 percent are employed.
These numbers point to the efficacy of the liberal arts education, she said.
Regarding the cost of higher education and student loans, McCulloch-Lovell said that Marlboro graduates often leave college with less debt than the national average. Still, the school could do better at helping students and parents understand the cost of education.
“It’s still the best decision you’re going to make, depending on where you want to go in life,” she said.
People are willing to take out car loans in order to drive to work, so why not invest in the future by having a solid education? she added.
McCulloch-Lovell said she has worked to collaborate with other education institutions to share Marlboro’s course offerings. The school participates in the dual-degree program at Brattleboro Union High School which allows high school students to take college courses for credit. Marlboro also collaborates with local two-year schools for students with an associate’s degree to continue their studies.
The Washington years
Prior to the college appointing her president in 2003, McCulloch-Lovell spent 21 years in Washington, where she worked as chief of staff for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. She then worked another seven years with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the White House.
She also spent a little over three years in the Library of Congress as the founding director of the Veteran’s History Project. This project collected veterans’ oral histories, diaries, letters, and photo albums.
McCulloch-Lovell pushed to include all those who had been part of the conflict, including people like Red Cross volunteers and women working in wartime factories.
For McCulloch-Lovell, she made the leap from Washington to Potash Hill because she missed Vermont. Watching the goings-on of the federal government left her concerned about the next generation of leaders.
Deeply devoted to public service and “making democracy work,” McCulloch-Lovell said she wondered who would encourage citizens to understand how to use their skills to participate in their democracy at the local, state, and federal levels.
Then a new election cycle passed in 2000. The Democrats were out, and the Republicans in, she said.
“It wasn’t my town anymore,” said McCulloch-Lovell.
Marlboro’s mission pulled her back, she said. “My husband and I were homesick Vermonters.”
Gratitude and sadness
McCulloch-Lovell said she has reveled in the joy she feels from being part of an intellectual and creative community. She also takes pleasure in having had the opportunity to guide the school’s graduate studies programs.
She wanted to bring the original technical programs in Brattleboro closer to the liberal education “on the hill,” the phrase the Marlboro community commonly uses to describe the undergraduate campus.
She is also proud to have had a hand in launching and shaping the graduate school’s nonprofit management program,
“So many of the good things in life are often run by nonprofits,” said McCulloch-Lovell, noting that 20 percent of the state’s economy comes from that sector. Yet, no one was providing the training to run and manage these often-complex organizations.
One of McCulloch-Lovell’s final acts as president was to codify the graduate school’s management and leadership programs into the Center of New Leadership.
Paradigms change through changing leaders, she said.
“Leadership has a lot to do with relationships,” McCulloch-Lovell added.
At a leadership symposium on June 20, McCulloch-Lovell said a fond farewell to colleagues and peers. She told the audience, “Leaders need to be continual learners; time for reflection on one’s ideas, actions, and feelings is essential.”
“Having practiced skills — in finances, planning, engaging other people — a leader will need to use them to react quickly at times, even to improvise when the path ahead isn’t clear in rapidly changing circumstances,” she continued. “A leader inspires others with a vision — one that is developed together with them.”
In a later email, McCulloch-Lovell commented on her growth as a leader.
“As a young leader, I felt tested when others disagreed with the direction I wanted to go in,” she said. “I had to slow down, listen, be willing to change my mind or find ways to bring them along — to persuade them to take risks together.”
“There are many tests in political life,” she added. “Often one has to get as much information as possible in a brief time frame, then rely on sound advice, honesty, and good judgment.”
Her role at Marlboro College, however, differed from her other leadership positions, she said.
“Leading in a college means sometimes following … appreciating and weighing differing views,” McCulloch-Lovell wrote. “The testing times that stand out for me at Marlboro were the emergencies: a student death, managing through the ice storm, and after the floods of Irene.”
“Those urgent situations take vigilance, calm, and resilience,” she said. “They took a strong community in cooperation to get through as well as we did.”
‘Dynamic, creative, wonderful place’
McCulloch-Lovell will miss Marlboro College and its people.
“I am continually inspired by the faculty’s devotion to teaching, the willingness of students to engage and make breakthroughs, the shared understanding of staff of the mission,” she wrote in an email. “I was and am also uplifted by the beauty of the college — on the hill and downtown by the river.”
She will even miss the school’s stalwart cadre of donors and dedicated Board of Trustees.
McCulloch-Lovell will move to Montpelier with her husband, Chris Lovell, where the couple will be closer to their adult son and their three grandchildren.
“Marlboro is a dynamic, creative, wonderful place, and it will continue to develop,” she said.
McCulloch-Lovell, who feels “a lot of gratitude and sadness,” stressed that all she accomplished during her tenure, she did because of the Marlboro College community.
“All we’ve done, we’ve done together,” she said.