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Shaw Israel Izikson on the day of his graduation from Marlboro College (May 17, 1998), wears his dorm sign. He is flanked by his grandfather and father. Surrounding the photo are snippets of online conversation about the fate of his alma mater.

Voices / Viewpoint

Eulogy for the college on the hill

With the proposed merger with the University of Bridgeport, Marlboro College is, in effect, going out of business. It will no longer be the independent and quirky college that we all once revered. And as alumni, we were kept in the dark.

Shaw Israel Izikson graduated from Marlboro College in 1998 with a degree in history and sociology and a minor in cinematography. He has worked as a reporter and editor throughout New England, including 11 years for the Lakeville Journal, a weekly in Connecticut, where he won an award for his editorial writing before a recent layoff. (He also owes over $100,000 in college student loans, yet he holds no ill will toward anyone.) He is working to launch The Winsted Phoenix, a newspaper in his current hometown of Winsted, Conn.

Winsted, Conn.

When I was a student there from 1994 to 1998, Marlboro College described itself as a “learning community unlike any other in the country,” one “distinguished by its philosophy of self-governance, its tradition of academic vigor and excitement, and by its curriculum, self-designed, tailored to the individual, and taught in very small classes and one-on-one tutorials.”

For the first few months of my time there, I was an outcast in a community filled with outcasts. At mealtime, I would always sit at the table at the dining hall alone. Students would pull empty chairs away from the dining table I was sitting at just so they could sit with their buddies and pals.

It was a lonely time. I remember telling my late father that I didn’t want to go to college because I felt that I had nothing left to learn.

My father would tell me, “Once you stop learning, you’ve stopped living.” And with his words always in my mind, I pressed on — and I became an outcast who learned how to fit in with the others.

Over time, I learned valuable lessons from great professors: sociology and the words of Thorstein Veblen, from Jerry Levy; the importance of writing styles (and how to not eat like a slob), from Chris Blackwell; the Clear Writing Requirement (and how not to get too full of myself), from Laura Stevenson; and how to study and write about history, from Tim Little.

Through its town meeting–style form of self-governance, this Baltimorean learned about how traditional New England town governments operate. I would end up covering town meetings all over New England during my 15-year career as a journalist.

During my time at Marlboro, I made a seemingly endless list of some great lifelong friends. I am very humbled and thankful that they let me into their lives.

And along the way, we all had academic experiences that could not be undertaken anywhere else.

During my time at the college, I saw students produce unique senior plans: documentaries, dance performances, books, movies, science experiments, sculptures, photography, and music.

My own plan, about the history of Marlboro College, included a documentary on the people at the school during my time there, along with a book on the college’s oral history and issues of the newspaper I produced there, produced with funds voted by the school community.

* * *

Flash forward to a few years ago, when we alumni heard rumblings of a financial crisis at the college.

As the founder and co-admin/moderator of the Marlboro College Alumni Facebook page, I’ve seen various alumni directors come and go from the college over the years. They have all been members of the group.

At various points, alumni have asked these directors what was going on with the financial situation at the college and what we could do to help.

The usual response from any of these alumni directors was along the lines of “We have some big things planned, but we cannot discuss it now.”

It was the same response year after year.

We had questions, but no one from the college would answer them.

This pattern extended to last year, when Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley announced a “Kevin Unplugged” session at the college that would take place during the alumni reunion.

He would answer questions from alumni, but the session would not be recorded or broadcast or made available in any way to the majority of alumni, who could not physically make it to Vermont that day to see or hear about the direction and condition of the college.

So here we were. Alumni. Graduates. Intentionally kept in the dark by the current college administration.

And yet again, we were a community of outcasts.

* * *

Then, on July 25, the news hit on the college’s Facebook page: “What’s small and green and excited all over? Marlboro, announcing its plans to merge with University of Bridgeport!”

The news hit both me and my fellow alumni like a car sideswiping a pedestrian at 120 mph.

A lot of people asked “Is this satire? Is this real?” and many people expressed their sadness. In response to the news, on social media, a few alumni posted links to the songs “American Pie” and “The End.”

On its website, the press release states that “Marlboro has been proactive in developing a participatory, transparent, and deliberate process that has led to a solution that provides our students with increased opportunities while retaining the collaborative, close-knit, student-driven education that defines the Marlboro experience.”

This could not be any further from the truth.

In an interview with the Brattleboro Reformer on July 25, Quigley admitted that the whole process, including discussions and negotiations with the University of Bridgeport, were all kept quiet.

From the feedback that I have gathered on the alumni Facebook page and through private conversations, a very large majority of people in the alumni community did not know that merger talks were happening.

* * *

Many of the alumni I have spoken to are troubled by this proposed merger for multiple reasons. According to the details gathered through both media reports and the college’s own website, if the merger is approved, Marlboro College will effectively cease to exist. It will become the Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Bridgeport.

It will no longer be the independent college on a hill, but instead a satellite campus of the University of Bridgeport.

What about this university allows students to pursue their unique academic interests? What about the estimated 3,150 students who are enrolled at the University of Bridgeport? Will classes on the Marlboro campus — currently averaging seven students, according to the Marlboro website — still maintain a traditionally small class size?

Who knows for sure what will happen?

The college is issuing press releases stating that the merger will allow students to continue with their education and that this merger will preserve faculty jobs.

But how? These parts have not been explained. All that has been explained are the things the college wants to explain. Nothing else. Instead of the big picture, we’re getting very small bits and pieces of information. Again — far from the “transparent” process that the administration claims.

After the merger, will there still be a traditional Marlboro College education? Probably not. The college will no longer be independent and it will merely be a campus of the University of Bridgeport. It’s uniqueness, along with everything its many professors and administrators established over its 75-year history, will be wiped away.

But there is also the element of the University of Bridgeport’s prior connection with the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church, now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

According to a May 30 article in The Connecticut Post, since 1992, the church has been funding the university. In exchange, the church had the right to approve trustees of the university and have a university president of its liking.

In May, the university decided to expunge any reference to the church and Moon, formally severing the 26-year partnership.

While the university broke off its relationship with the church in May, Marlboro is about to associate itself with a university that, at one point and until recently in its history, was funded by a group that many consider a cult.

That is quite troubling.

* * *

But even without considering the university’s past, this proposed merger goes against everything that the college once stood for, including its independence and academic freedom.

Some of the alumni I have spoken to have said to me, “Many colleges all over the country have already gone out of business, and several of them were in Vermont. Would you rather have Marlboro go out of business?”

With this proposed merger, Marlboro College is, in effect, going out of business. It will no longer be the independent and quirky college that we all once revered.

As alumni, we never had a chance to offer any input on the direction of Marlboro College because we were kept in the dark. That in itself goes against what the college once stood for: that everyone — employees, faculty, staff, students, and alumni — has a voice.

Yet, the spirit of what was once the true Marlboro College still lives on in the graduates and students who attended the college.

Its spirit still resides in the creative people, including writers, artists, scientists, sculptors, musicians, military personnel, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and so many others who all attended Marlboro for generations, all of them still trying to make the world a better place for everyone.

When I interviewed former Marlboro President Tom Ragle for my senior plan back in 1997, he told me that “Marlboro College isn’t the students, the staff, the faculty...it’s all of us.”

This is something I still believe.

While Marlboro College will be no more after this merger, nothing can take away its spirit and what we, as generations of alumni, learned there at that college in the woods, up on the hill.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #521 (Wednesday, July 31, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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