MARLBORO—The road less traveled — a reference to Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken — served as a theme that accompanied Kevin F.F. Quigley as he took the helm this past weekend as the ninth president of Marlboro College.
Over three days, the college celebrated the inauguration of Quigley, who took over from Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the college’s president for 11 years.
The inauguration weekend kicked off Sept. 11 with an afternoon of service, with approximately 80 students and staff volunteering throughout Windham County that Friday.
Early the next morning, Quigley spoke about how serving and volunteering in one’s community supports democracy.
When thinking of democracy, people traditionally think of institutions like an independent legislature, an independent press, and due process, he said.
But undergirding all of those concepts are citizens and the practice of key values like empathy, tolerance, and respect for minorities’ rights, Quigley noted.
“How do you create an open society?” he said. “Unless the impulse is internal, it’s almost impossible to do.”
He called service “one of those great mechanisms” where citizens practice and learn the essential skills of democracy.
Connecting Marlboro College to the world, service to one’s community, and building student’s civic skills so they can engage in their communities are some of the goals guiding Quigley as he looks to lead the almost-70-year-old college and its sister school, the Marlboro Graduate Center in Brattleboro.
“My life is an example,” he said. “You can do everything and anything.”
A life unexpected
Taking the road less traveled represents to Quigley the power of a liberal arts education and the unique opportunities offered at a liberal arts institution like Marlboro.
The college and a liberal arts education “prepare us for a life unexpected,” he told students and faculty shortly after his hiring announcement in February.
Quigley left his role as Peace Corps country director in Thailand to join Marlboro. He has also served as president and chief executive officer of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA), a global alumni organization for the more than 200,000 former Peace Corps staff and volunteers.
According to the college’s website, Quigley has served in leadership positions at places like the Asia Society, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and as legislative director to the late Senator John Heinz.
Quigley is the author of For Democracy’s Sake: Foundations and Democracy Assistance in Central Europe.
He holds degrees from Swarthmore College, the National University of Ireland, Columbia University, and Georgetown University. He has also been a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, a program administered by the Council of Independent Colleges, which brings “prominent artists, diplomats, journalists, business leaders, and other nonacademic professionals to campuses across the United States for substantive dialogue with students and faculty members for nearly 40 years,” according to the program’s website.
Quigley says that the more he engages with students and faculty at the college, the more they impress him as people living, or building, a “life of purpose.”
A liberal arts school in a commercial market
Quigley feels fortunate to be at Marlboro surrounded by “great faculty” and a strong board of directors.
A search firm contacted the Quigley about taking the president’s position at Marlboro College.
One of Quigley’s goals for the school is to deepen its connections to the world at large. He expects to spend his first year listening and learning about the community. Like his predecessor, McCulloch-Lovell, Quigley expects to continue making the case for why schools like Marlboro continue to matter.
One of the challenges for Quigley is reversing the school’s low student enrollment. He also seeks to attract more international speakers and students to campus.
The school has approximately 175 undergraduates and 100 graduate students. Quigley would like to grow that number to between 250 and 300 undergraduates and 125 to 150 graduate students.
Higher education is in a challenging period of history, he said. Enrollments are low at many colleges as potential students and their families weigh a degree’s return on investment versus taking on student debt.
Yet a liberal education provides critical thinking, strong writing skills, and communication skills, he continued. Every job requires these things.
As for Quigley’s plans for raising enrollment, he said to “stay tuned.”
The school has new opportunities for growth, he said, but the growth must build off of the school’s great history and maintain its core values.
Quigley will soon announce a new scholarship program as well as determine next year’s tuition by the spring so prospective students can plan their finances. He’s hoping to remove as many financial barriers as possible for students.
From family business to academia to international volunteer
Quigley sees his own life as an example of the road less traveled.
The youngest of nine children, he could have become a third-generation movie man. It was the family business, after all.
According to Quigley, his grandfather started out as a film reporter and reviewer in Chicago. After viewing D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Quigley said his grandfather thought to himself, “That’s the future.”
Quigley’s grandfather, Martin J. Quigley, left the newspaper business and started an eponymous company that published trade papers on the film industry.
In 1928, says Quigley, his grandfather moved east to New York City.
His grandfather later wrote the Motion Picture Production Code, Quigley said.
Quigley’s father, Martin S. Quigley, also worked in the family’s publishing company. He has authored books on the film industry and two accounts of his experience as a spy in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II: Peace Without Hiroshima and A U.S. Spy in Ireland.
Quigley’s brother William was president of the former production studio Vestron Pictures, the company behind Dirty Dancing and the last film directed by John Huston, The Dead, based on the short story by James Joyce.
During an interview, Quigley said he was on track to become a college professor. Then his road diverged, and he joined the Peace Corps in the 1970s.
The Peace Corps showed him a different path to making a difference in the world, he said. As an American, he found that he could engage with the world on a human level experiencing “life as lived by others.”
A Peace Corps volunteer enters a country often without knowing the language, community relationships, or power structure, he said.
“It’s that process of being on the outside,” he said. It is humbling.
But it is also a way of being that becomes comfortable, and Peace Corps volunteers “feel at home in the world,” he said.
Stationed in Thailand, the Peace Corps had taught him to speak Thai, but most of the people Quigley interacted with spoke Lao.
But, Quigley said, he had learned how to learn. He knew how to listen. He could practice empathy.
After that experience, the former humanities scholar turned his attention, in part, to economics and politics to better understand the community he hoped to serve.
Citizens at play and practice
Quigley has felt fortunate to engage with the world through cultural exchange and through people during his international study abroad, his stint with the Peace Corps, and his experience as a scholar in the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
For him, these experiences serve as a foreshadowing of Marlboro, with its distinctive purpose of engaging students in a community and as citizens.
“We practice what we preach,” he said.
Students practice to be citizens through the Vermont Town Meeting model, he said, a Marlboro tradition that links educational theory with real-life practice and highlights the community’s values.
The college provides a space for people to practice skills necessary to living as an engaged citizen and community member: tolerance, respect, and listening. Helping citizens participate in and steer their communities also strengthens democracy.
However, he said that our civic culture is fraying, and our nation has become a collection of isolated people.
A memory from Quigley’s adolescence has stayed with him.
When he was 15, on a family visit to Ireland, Quigley found himself wandering around the house of film director John Huston located outside Limerick.
While poking around Huston’s home, young Quigley came across a door — small, uninteresting, and far away from the house’s grander rooms. Curious, Quigley pushed the door open.
It led to an office used by the filmmaker. On a shelf behind the desk stood three Oscar awards. The golden statues, prized by many in the industry, had no fancy spotlight or fanfare. Instead, they were a modest, everyday part of the room.
The incident taught Quigley “how endearing modesty is in people of great accomplishment.”
He said the moment also taught him that when you see a door ajar, go through. You’ll never know what you will learn or discover.
He said his background prepared him for tackling big issues in the communities that he’s served because his liberal arts education had taught him to read, consider, and communicate.
The world changes, he said.
Quigley has assisted with anti-apartheid sanctions in South Africa and industrial policy issues, led one of the largest private programs to support people of the former Soviet Bloc when the Berlin Wall came down, and worked on issues around sweatshops and global supply.
“And then 9/11 happened,” he said.
Quigley, living in Washington D.C., watched the Pentagon burn on that clear September day in 2001.
“How do you prepare for that?” he added.
The pace of change is accelerating, he said. No one has a crystal ball, but critical thinking, problem solving, and being a lifelong learner — all hallmarks of a liberal arts education – all keep people nimble, he said.
“It was a life completely unexpected, but I always felt prepared,” he said.
Liberal arts colleges enables people to see the inherent value in others, he said.
It’s important to encourage students’ passions, Quigley said, noting that it’s also important to help them remain mindful to orient their thoughts and work toward building their communities.
The next phase? Listening to others and speaking respectfully, he said. If people truly listen to fellow citizens, then they will have to adjust their own points of view.