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A Windham County institution since 1946, Marlboro College has experienced a sharp decline in the activity at the admissions office, creating a scenario that would have led to inevitable closure, according to a number of people associated with the college.

News

University of Bridgeport primed to absorb Marlboro College’s campus, programs

Two unlikely educational partners envision a creative and pragmatic merger for a small hilltop college otherwise facing almost-certain closure

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

MARLBORO—Marlboro College and the University of Bridgeport have unveiled the two institutions’ intent to merge, with the intent of creating an education experience that bridges the Connecticut university’s professional programs with the Vermont college’s self-directed liberal arts education.

The two schools have announced that the next incarnation of Marlboro will be as the Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Bridgeport.

As part of what Marlboro President Kevin F.F. Quigley describes as a true and equal partnership, the university, located in a seacoast city in Connecticut, will absorb Marlboro’s assets and liabilities — including its campus on South Road on Potash Hill — and assimilate its fierce tradition of idiosyncratic and intimate academic excellence. A combined board will include five of Marlboro’s current trustees.

A joint press release, issued July 25, describes the University of Bridgeport as “a private, non-sectarian university with 5,400 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.” It offers degrees in engineering, business, education, the health sciences, and the arts and sciences.

For UB President Laura Skandera Trombley, the two post-secondary institutions may be miles apart physically and worlds apart in scale and philosophy, but she believes a space exists between the two schools’ academic programs for immense creativity.

Trombley told The Commons that Marlboro’s pedagogy and academic programs drew her to pursue the merger.

“This is an opportunity to embrace what we already do well,” she said.

Marlboro has reassured incoming students that it will continue to offer a self-directed liberal arts curriculum — but with added resources.

The college, founded in 1947, has offered undergraduate and graduate programs to a student body now numbering 142. “The school has fostered independent and self-directed study in a structure that focuses on collaboration between students and faculty,” according to the press release, which noted that the school “also uses the New England town meeting model of governance.”

The financially distressed liberal-arts college’s leadership structure and upper management will reportedly be replaced by UB’s.

Many alumni have responded to the announcement on social media with a spectrum of emotion, ranging from indictments of the college‘s communication to acceptance of the benefits of ensuring the campus remained a viable and integral part of the Windham County economic and educational landscape.

Many also expressed frustration that news of the merger came out of the blue.

But Quigley said the announcement came sooner than it might otherwise have, as the college’s leadership decided to go public after both parties signed a letter of intent, rather than wait until the next step — a memorandum of understanding — whichmakes the plans binding.

He acknowledged that the change is big news for southern Vermont and, in many cases, painful news for the Marlboro community.

“We wanted our alums to be informed,” Quigley said. “Marlboro is very much about a culture of participation.”

In the case of the school’s alumni, he said he understood the strong reaction many have had to the news.

It’s hard to witness change to a place that has had “such a transformative impact” on one’s life, he added.

Rising tide of red ink

Quigley said that for approximately the past three years, Marlboro has operated with a deficit of between $4 million and $5.5 million and told The Commons that the current debt is not at all at a crisis point — yet.

In 2018, the college sold its graduate center building in Brattleboro for $3 million and moved its graduate programs to its flagship campus. While the cash infusion and the college’s endowment helped offset those losses, at that pace, simply cutting costs is not a viable alternative for saving the school, he said.

“Preserving the best of Marlboro” through a merger, was preferable to closing, Quigley said.

He said that the school has spent the past year investigating first the feasibility of a merger and now its partnership with UB.

The school had established the Strategic Options Task Force to investigate a merger and vet potential partners, Quigley said. This task force, which met weekly for almost a year, included a wide swath of the Marlboro community, including trustees, alumni, staff, faculty, and current students.

“This task force took a deliberative look at trying to find a partner,” he said.

The group first developed the school’s request for proposals (RFP) and crafted a prospectus that Marlboro used as part of its outreach to potential partners, then screened the proposals that resulted from that outreach.

According to Quigley, throughout the merger process, the college leadership and task force wanted to find a partnership that would maintain the key aspects of Marlboro by:

• preserving the college’s identity;

• preserving the college’s “pedagogy” — academic ethos, teaching methods — as well as protect the school’s staff, faculty, and students;

• preserving the college’s academic purpose to help students build meaningful lives and careers;

• preserving the college’s campus.

Quigley also said that Marlboro’s tradition of student mentorship and shared self-governance will continue at Potash Hill.

According to Tristan Toleno, who leads Marlboro’s graduate program, current undergraduate and graduate students will also finish their studies with a Marlboro degree.

He said that while giving current students an exit plan is the right thing to do, it is also required by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).

NECHE is the accrediting body for colleges and universities in New England.

The commission wouldn’t allow the schools to merge government structures without such an exit plan in place, he said. All those operational details will be ironed out in the weeks ahead.

According to Toleno, arriving students will receive more information over the next few weeks.

A financial roller coaster

Sources close to the process, speaking to The Commons on condition of anonymity, say the merger announcement comes at the end of a long effort — and, at times, a roller-coaster of a process — to save the college from a financial ruin that many alumni and community members say comes as a complete surprise.

These sources say that the college’s low enrollment and financial pressures had alerted NECHE. The accrediting body had put Marlboro College on notice that, unless remedied, the situation might jeopardize the college’s accreditation.

Marlboro has “been facing substantial revenue challenges” due to lower enrollment levels and what students can pay, Toleno said. These conditions are in part what led the college to choose the merger path.

Quigley said that Marlboro hired education consulting firm EY-Parthenon, which specializes in school mergers, to help find potential partners.

According to Quigley, the firm helped broker recent mergers such as Boston University and Wheelock College in 2018, the Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music in 2016, and the Andover Newton Theological School and Yale Divinity School in 2017.

The firm worked with Marlboro for approximately four months and identified 70 potential partners, said Quigley.

From that process, four strong candidates emerged. From there, the task force whittled the number to two schools that Quigley declined to name.

At the end, UB rose to the top as the better partner.

Toleno said that UB is also in a better financial position that Marlboro.

In the early 1990s, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — formerly the Unification Church, founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon — became affiliated with UB, giving the school millions of dollars over more than a decade, according to archive reporting from Connecticut media sources.

That affiliation formally ended in May of this year.

Toleno said this cooperative vision between the two campuses emerged from an almost 10-month investigative process.

He said the University of Bridgeport emerged early in the process, expressing interest in Marlboro and its “historic” and its “unique” approach to liberal arts education. He added that UB’s leaders felt that partnering with Marlboro would augment its own strengths.

According to a question-and-answer document on the Marlboro website, the university first approached the college “about finding ways to collaborate early last year, completely independent of our own process to find a strategic partner.” It subsequently responded to EY-Parthenon’s request for proposals.

Quigley would not comment on the record about potential layoffs at Marlboro. Quigley did say, however, that running two institutions and two campuses is expensive and the two schools will probably find “administrative efficiencies.”

He said that some of the school’s graduate programs will end but that the future of the Marlboro Graduate School is still part of the negotiating process. Quigley also said he hopes some of the programs will “reboot” within the larger university.

‘Potentially an innovative model’

One recent larger narrative around higher education has focused on the relationship of college to future work. This conversation has focused on the value of professional training that leads directly to high paying jobs — in other words, not liberal arts.

Yet, at the same time, economic and workforce development leaders, such as Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. Executive Director Adam Grinold, have said that employers need workers with skills in verbal and written communication, with the ability to view issues within a larger context, and with creativity — an indirect endorsement of the value of a liberal arts education like Marlboro’s.

Quigley agreed that this tension exists in higher education. He cited three of core outcomes for Marlboro graduates: strong communications skills, the ability to live and work in diverse communities, and their proficiency in taking a project from an idea to its execution.

In this case, he believes the Marlboro-UB merger is “potentially a very innovative model” that combines the best of professional training with liberal arts.

A merged school that grounds liberal arts in real-world applications has the potential to help students — regardless of what degrees they choose — build professional lives of purpose, he said.

In weaving Marlboro’s approach to liberal arts education into the Bridgeport system, “They [Bridgeport] have some lofty inspirational goals” behind their decision to merge with Marlboro, Toleno said.

“I do think that they have a vision for how to use the campus that certainly helps their academic mission at Bridgeport,” he added.

Faculty previously enjoyed high levels of flexibility in both the courses they taught and the amount of time spent in the classroom, but they will also find that autonomy reined in.

Known unknowns

While many in the Marlboro College community, including alumni on social media, have expressed grief at the news, others see positives in the changes ahead.

“I’m hopeful, it’s complex, there are parts of this that are going to be challenging and sad and parts of it that are really forward looking and potentially transformative,” said Toleno.

Toleno — who is also a graduate of the Marlboro Graduate School and serves in the Vermont House of Representatives — stressed that Marlboro’s challenges are not unique.

As context, he said that within the last few years, Vermont saw several of its small liberal arts colleges either closed or merged with another entity.

According to Toleno, to complicate the situation further, there has been as much as a 25 percent drop in the number of students applying to traditional liberal arts programs in the United States.

This drop is due in part to a national trend where more students are “self-selecting” degrees other than traditional liberal-arts programs, he said. These choices have to do with the cost of tuition, weighing student debt against potential future earnings, and national efforts to increase the number of students interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs.

Toleno continued that the Northeast also has a higher density of higher-education institutions compared to other parts of the country. The entire Northeast also is experiencing declining high school populations and demographic shifts similar to Vermont’s.

He added that — in general -— colleges and universities tend to recruit their students from within 100 miles of their location. Therefore, in the Northeast, this means more competition for what seems to be a dwindling population of liberal arts majors.

One of the way colleges compete for students is offering more direct financial aid. So “net tuition revenue” — or what schools actually receive from the average students, as opposed to the full listed tuition — is what covers the costs of running the institutions, Toleno said.

Toleno called such competition a “dangerous cycle” for schools because it means their revenues eventually suffer.

“That’s created substantial budget pressures,” he said.

In Toleno’s view, while Marlboro had better financial foundation, or endowment, to weather the changes, the school and trustees recognized that the bigger-picture changes meant that Marlboro College could no longer go it alone.

Marlboro’s leadership had the foresight to take action and find another university to partner with before the college’s situation hit crisis levels, he said.

“They productively engaged in conversations with potential partners about what might work,” he said.

Some of the other schools in Vermont that recently closed waited too long to still run their schools while building potential deals, in Toleno’s opinion.

Burlington College closed in 2016. The last classes graduated this year from the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Southern Vermont College in Bennington, and Green Mountain College in Poultney.

“So Marlboro’s role has been to be out ahead and to be realistic about what the limits are and what is possible in trying to find the right kind of fit early on,” he said.

“A good byproduct of the merger” is that the Marlboro campus could become a part of a bigger strategy to bring new residents to Windham County, Toleno added.

He said that most colleges in Vermont that attract a “substantial out-of-state population” have shown that “a pretty important percentage of their students stay and make at least the beginning part of their careers in and around where they went to college.”

He envisions a realistic scenario where more diverse and enterprising students remain, creating huge potential for the Windham County region.

“It’s certainly something I will be trying to help bridge,” he said.

Transitions ahead

Toleno commented on what the transition will look like going forward for the undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at Marlboro College.

Anyone currently enrolled at Marlboro either as an undergraduate or graduate will have a way to complete their degrees, he said. How this will work is part of what the two institutions will develop as part of the memorandum of understanding.

Toleno believes that the Marlboro brand will stay alive within the Bridgeport system.

He said that the Marlboro College of Liberal Arts within the university and the Marlboro campus experience will continue the legacy of a self-guided liberal arts training that also complements UB’s applied learning programs.

Quigley compared the letter of intent to a “contract of sale on a house.” Buyers have indicated their desire to purchase a house, but the final sale is still contingent on other details, like whether the buyers receive a mortgage and the house passes inspection, he said.

For the next few months, Marlboro College will “do its due diligence” and continue negotiations with UB.

He expects leadership to complete a memorandum of understanding between the two institutions in the fall. The boards of trustees from both institutions must respectively approve the plan.

Marlboro and UB hope to launch their new joint programs, events, and student exchanges in the spring of 2020, he said.

UB: excited for possibilities

According to UB’s website, Trombley, inaugurated four months ago as the university’s 10th president, is also president emerita of Pitzer College and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. A Mark Twain scholar, she previously served as vice president for academic affairs at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“Students have always been my best teachers,” she said.

In a July 30 interview, Trombley said she holds enormous respect for Marlboro and believes that this merger has the ability to demonstrate how an academic collaboration can work.

Marlboro’s rural campus and programs brought back childhood memories of summers at her parents’ cabin, she said.

Both her parents were teachers, she said, and when she was born they built a “cabin in the woods,” where Trombley spent most summers and holidays. Without a television, Trombley had two sources of fun: nature and the local library.

“Nature is the greatest teacher, and we all need to be better students,” she said. Her trips to the library also taught Trombley “the joy of an intense intellectual journey.”

Trombley, in her 17th year as a college president, said that “it’s always best to let faculty and students lead the way.”

Given the opportunity, Trombley believes, faculty will develop “creative and innovative curriculum.”

This week, Trombley held a town hall meeting to discuss the merger with UB students. They have already started to suggest exciting ideas for the merger, she added.

“We’re very excited for all the possibilities this creates,” said Trombley.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #521 (Wednesday, July 31, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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