MARLBORO—Townspeople gathered to give voice to an abundance of varied and deep concerns about the future plans of their town’s college.
On the morning of Nov. 23, a standing-room-only crowd packed the Community Center — a group comprised mostly of town residents, but also a handful of people from the college community — who wondered what will become of the Marlboro College campus on South Road.
Earlier in the month, Marlboro College and Emerson College, based in Boston, announced the broad brushstrokes of an agreement, which will be hammered into final form in the months to come.
The two-hour meeting drew approximately 75 people who shared a common cause over concern about the change — and expressions of frustration, grief, and even elegantly articulated academic rage brought several ovations from the floor.
In the end, no clear plan or consensus on future direction emerged from the two-hour meeting, but some themes did emerge.
A number of participants challenged the process as flawed, opaque, rushed, and overwhelmingly serving the interests of Emerson at the expense of Marlboro.
“I would personally like the town to formally register its outrage with this plan, and request that the president at least be promptly fired and the board explore how the entire college community can keep the college, or some worthy transformation of it, alive,” said Adrian Segar, to applause.
Segar, a former faculty member who organized the gathering and moderated its first half, said that residents are “all going to be affected, impacted, in multiple and painful ways.”
That point was reinforced earlier by one business owner, Jean Boardman, proprietor of the Whetstone Inn, who cited the damage to the local business economy of Poultney after the closing of Green Mountain College at the end of the 2019 academic year.
Segar referenced a “huge power imbalance that is deliberately created.”
“Just 23 people — Kevin and the board of trustees — have decided to close down the school and transfer the entire endowment and campus to Emerson,” he said. “Everyone else was completely shut out from this decision.”
Segar noted some counterexamples of “some schools that did something different”: Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Va.. — two colleges whose academic communities pushed back hard to save the respective schools from board attempts to merge or close.
He described Hampshire and Sweet Briar as “two examples of what small college communities can do if their board has the basic decency to announce publicly a decision to close without secretly locking their school into a divisive agreement, with no input from the school’s actual community.”
Segar read a comment from Pieter Van Loon, a graduate of the college and a town resident, who characterized the deal as “a sterling example of a flawed process catalyzed with a lack of creative problem solving.”
“He passed his clear writing requirement!” an audience member interjected, referencing a bedrock requirement of the college’s curriculum and prompting gales of laughter.
The fate of the campus
One point of confusion throughout the past several weeks is the disposition of the college’s 360-acre campus.
Segar pointed out that the college has spurned several potential offers, but one alumnus shared correspondence that offered clarity to the group.
According to correspondence between David Williamson, an alumnus and a resident, and Quigley, a working group will “most likely set up a RFP process to consider offers to purchase the campus and/or proposals for use of the campus.”
Between now and June 30, a working group will shepherd this process, “making recommendations to the Strategic Options Task Force and the Board, coordinating with Emerson when appropriate,” Quigley wrote. “After July 1, if the merger goes forward, Emerson will direct this process.”
Quigley anticipates that the offers of purchase will need to be submitted in the form of “a proposed legal agreement for sale, with earnest money, deposit, mortgage, commitment letter, letter of credit, as well as evidence that the organization or individuals have the resources to cover the roughly $1.3 million to $5 million annual costs to maintain the campus,” the attendees learned.
But Jeff Bower, a Marlboro College graduate and resident, pointed out that a timeline that Quigley shared with alumni during a recent webinar would almost certainly put Emerson in the position of deciding what to do about the campus.
According to Bower, the working group must complete its work about the campus in January, making Emerson’s role in the disposition of the campus “a fait accompli on behalf of leadership.”
Joe Mazur, a former longtime math teacher at the college, recounted how the college has been articulating only two options: merge with another institution, or close.
He said he was “horrified” by the Emerson deal and what amounted to the giveaway of the endowment that was intended to fund Marlboro faculty.
Mazur articulated a third option — one where the endowment could be used to offer a payout to faculty while preserving $13 million to endow the upkeep of the campus.
And the campus itself, with some financial support, could have some breathing room to be adapted into a smaller version of the college or an arts center — an idea that Mazur said he pitched to a board member who dismissed it just prior to the announcement of the Emerson agreement.
Dan MacArthur, a member of the Marlboro Town School Board, said that the news has inspired the board to meet with Quigley to talk about “moving all or part of the elementary school to the Marlboro College campus.”
“The school board has hired an architect to look at what we can do with our facility to make it function for the next number of years,” he said, and the architect will explore the feasibility of such a move.
MacArthur said that the school committee will explore the option to be part of a “consortium to purchase all or part of the campus.”
“What’s this going to look like?” he asked. “And can we come up with a plan, with earnest money in the short period of time we have?”
An ‘abominable’ process
Several people commented on the tensions of a college community that is centered around values of transparency negotiating a wholesale transformation and transfer of resources in secret.
“My focus on this has been on the process, which has been abominable,” said T. Wilson, who has taught at the college for 47 years.
“I think it’s irresponsible not to explore a variety of options,” said Wilson, charging that the college leadership has “worked against building constituencies and has even forbidden faculty members from attending a briefing for students so they could understand the students’ interests.”
“This is completely foreign to the traditions of Marlboro College,” Wilson said, his contempt audible, noting that the school determined its democratic methods of governance before it even determined its curriculum.
He, too, called for a change in the leadership of the college.
“During my time here I have fallen in love with this community and this college,” said Aaron Pilarcik, a current senior at the college who transferred from Wesleyan University, describing both school and town as a “special community.”
Pilarcik said that one reason he was attracted to Marlboro was the ability for students to have a democratic, equal voice in the school’s governance, including “big decisions” like faculty appointments.
“The news we got last Wednesday feels like it was out of nowhere,” he said. “It feels like we have no power.”
Sunny Tappen, an alumna who described her view from behind her desk as the longtime receptionist at the college, cited expensive “marketing schemes” that were incompatible with Marlboro’s traditions.
“The current leadership was never invested in what Marlboro College really is,” she said.
“When I was a student, there were 129 students,” she said. “It was struggling, but it made a comeback.
“It is not a typical liberal arts college. It. Is. Special. There is a place in this world for Marlboro College, and it is a really important part of our country. We really need it.”
But Nelly Sargsyan, a current faculty member, pointed out the long roller-coaster ride of numerous “reimaginings” of the school, the looming trends of demographics that the administration has cited as insurmountable, and her trust in faculty members who have served on the various committees that have led to both the Emerson proposal and, previously, a flirtation with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
“I love many of these faculty members, and I trust them,” said Robin MacArthur, a town resident, saying that it is “not up to any of us what this college decides to do.”
“What I want to focus on is what happens to this land and this campus,” she said — “how we can create something new and beautiful that honors the legacy of this educational model and continues the legacy of democracy, ecology, the arts, democracy. ”
The morning also provided time to grieve.
Amy Tudor, a graduate and a town resident, talked about the impact that Marlboro has had and how it removed her from an environment of poverty, thanks to the $14,000 the college invested in her through financial aid.
“And now there are people in eighth grade, in fourth grade, and it’s done for them,” she said, fighting tears. “I feel it very deeply for the people not yet here.”
A focus on the future
“I have no business talking to you at all,” said Rick Hearst, the parent of a town resident, who was visiting from Flagstaff, Ariz.
“To my mind, you guys are really up against it in terms of time, money, power, and convenience,” said Hearst, a math teacher who has negotiated faculty contracts. “I have not identified anyone here who is the bulldog who is going to take this by the horns.”
“I am a mean, manipulative human being,” Hearst said, evoking nervous laughter from the audience. “You’ve got to come out of this meeting with some organization and a plan.”
Some attempts to channel participants’ interests into committees stalled out, with the final suggestion — from Deanna Noyes — that townspeople move in the direction of coordinating efforts with Selectboard member Jesse Kreitzer, who was recently named as one representative of the town on the Strategic Options Task Force at the college.
Kreitzer — ironically, a graduate of Emerson College — pledged to represent the town from a position of neutrality. The first Task Force meeting is Monday, Dec. 9.
The Selectboard was also scheduled to take up discussion at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 26. “A small group of us are meeting with the Marlboro Selectboard tomorrow night to explore their role in this unfolding drama,” Segar told The Commons at press time on Monday.
“Though there were some who wanted this meeting to end with actionable steps, I thought it was important for the townsfolk to first have a chance to share how they felt and what they were thinking, as a prelude to individual and collective actions,” Segar wrote. “I think the format was successful at supporting frank and useful sharing and discussion, so I’m very pleased with how the meeting went.”