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Special Focus / Interview

‘Can’t just turn over and die’

Will Wootton, a former vice president at Marlboro College, talks about the painful changes that might be employed to keep the college on Potash Hill. It might not be pretty, and it definitely won’t be the same. But would it be worth trying?

MARLBORO—MacLean Gander of The Commons interviewed Will Wootton on Dec. 28 to discuss the challenge he posed to the Marlboro College board and administration — to open the college’s internal financial records to inspection to get a second opinion about whether the plan to incorporate Marlboro’s students, faculty, and academic legacy into Emerson College.

Will Wootton has done the most to contest Marlboro’s merger with Emerson, and his challenge to Marlboro’s board and administration may have been behind the college’s decision to make several years of audited financial data available on its website in December.

Wootton, a 1972 graduate of Marlboro, served as a vice president there between 2006 and 2012. He later served as the president at Sterling College, a school even smaller than Marlboro that continues to survive in northern Vermont. It does so in part by having strong support in the local community, a smaller physical plant than Marlboro’s, and an operating budget about a third of the size. He retired in 2012.

The two discussed efforts to save and stabilize Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and Antioch College in Ohio — three institutions that have gone through financial stress and have undergone or are undergoing a rebirth.

This interview has been summarized in some places for length and edited lightly for clarity.

* * *

MacLean Gander: I’ll start with the simplest question. Given where things stand right now, what do you think is going to happen next?

Will Wootton: Well, I think that the board has, or the president at least has, made statements about the challenge, and basically shot the idea down. And presumably, the whole board would [agree].

But I’m hearing also that not everybody on the board feels that way, that they want to understand more about this process and why I’d need to be on campus to complete it or even to begin it. And I can imagine they have fears about my doing so, or the administration does.

[Our proposal would be] an active moving set of numbers and ideas produced by experts in their positions and then critiqued by myself and others outside the college until we come up with and make a formal presentation that would then be sent to the college and the board.

And presumably, they would request that this plan would be reviewed by the commissioners of NECHE [the New England Commission of Higher Education]. And in my opinion, they would review it, and if it makes sense they would agree with it.

Despite all the kinds of changes that you’re reading from NECHE and hearing from Marlboro, it’s not the way that NECHE works. They’re not going to let this [opportunity] go by.

When I first learned about this deal with Emerson, I kept hearing that it is our only choice. I heard that over and over and over from numerous constituencies, even students, faculty, and board members, and it struck me that they must have done their homework. And then, President Kevin Quigley told the media that he was responding to the idea of Marlboro standing on its own two feet.

And he said the board has looked at that extensively and that there’s no credible evidence that the college can stand on its own two feet, even though that’s everyone’s preferred option. So when I saw that, I said, “Well, they must have done a great retrenchment job, but what [options] didn’t come up, if anything?”

I said in my challenge that I’d like to see it. And I said it again and again and again and again. And I’m not getting anywhere.

So my conclusion is that the [college administration is] purposely misleading the public, and their board, perhaps, and the people in Windham County by saying they’ve tried to do this and it’s impossible.

So I’m really saying, “Perhaps I could try to do it and show you how it is not impossible.” That’s pretty much it. [This exercise is] not rocket science. It would be difficult to execute. It can be very difficult and painful. But you see these other colleges whose boards have attempted to close them but they have not closed. What do you think those guys are doing?

I don’t think anyone at the college had ever heard the phrase “institutional retrenchment,” which is not a glorious-sounding term, but it’s a very well-known term in higher-education management. These guys aren’t talking that way. They never did it, and to me that’s my hook.

And that’s where I’m going to keep driving until I can find out. If they have done it, let’s see the data. If they haven’t done it, then let somebody in there to do it.

And you can get out of that with a reshaped institution with different priorities and structures, and it won’t be pretty, but you’ll be alive and you can build from there.

If they did do it and it came up empty ... then I’m happy. I can understand colleges get to the point where they can’t function, but they have got to try. Can’t just turn over and die.

Gander: Right now, it looks like the sort of best chance on enrollment revenues is about $2 million, and that even if you leave out all the building costs, there’s something like $6-to-8 million in operating expense that you can’t really shed very easily. So when you think about retrenchment, what do you have in mind?

Wootton: Well, it’s really impossible to say because I don’t have the data. You get gross figures like that when you’re facing retrenchment, and that’s why you need to retrench. The endowment right now is making money hand over fist, then they empty the bucket about every month. Then some months later, it is back up.

That’s just a terrible scenario, especially when you’re planning on having a retrenchment and not getting into debt. You might use your resources to retrench, but you would not try to invade the endowment, and you sure wouldn’t be spending it on research or with consultants or on all kinds of other stuff.

Even closing a college can be expensive. So you’re ultimately going to have to incorporate all the resources you can gather in order to transform yourself. I agree that it’s difficult, but I can’t even imagine it without getting down there and looking at the terrible numbers and saying, “Well, let’s get to work.”

Gander: In order to do something like what Hampshire College did, or Sweet Briar College or Antioch College, you really have to have a lot of support behind that. Not just alumni, but also some people who can be heavy lifters in a turnaround. You may not want to comment on this, but I was curious to know where things stand in terms of your marshaling of support for your energies.

Wootton: I don’t know. It’s a good question. You know, I get a strange feeling that all these big major donors have pulled back, right? It could be because they’re disgruntled. It could be because they don’t like seeing their money going down a rat hole. And so they represent, I’m guessing, maybe four to seven individuals or families. And that’s a big blow to the college. And I think it’s really been happening for a couple of years. These are things I don’t know, but I’ve been gathering.

So if we can present a plan that NECHE would approve, that maybe we could raise some money, maybe from these former donors or from some other wealthy people. And you would try to make a reasonable guess about how much we know we can raise. We’d have to ask: What can we snatch out of an endowment legally and ethically in order to get over the hump?

You can’t have the current president closing down a place — can you imagine the chaos? But you could put out a call to the Registry for College and University Presidents [an organization that matches educational institutions with professionals willing to assume an interim leadership role] and find someone who’s done this before and who could at least bring common consensus either to closing the college or rebooting it.

They can’t do this themselves — my god.

Gander: But one of the things that comes up is whether Marlboro’s business model in terms of its educational program just doesn’t work, whether it’s sustainable. What would you say about that?

If you were to envision a reopened college without, you know, doing blue smoke and mirrors, what kind of elements would have to be in place to make the thing attractive to students and to get enough tuition revenue to rebuild it?

Wootton: Well, you know, tuition is a trade game and tuition income has gotten so low [at Marlboro].

I was talking to a [former college] president the other day who is advising a small college, and she said that they were thinking of going tuition-free, because they have room for more students, but they can’t attract them for some reason. And they were thinking, “Well, the hell with that; let’s see if we can get 50 more students, and that would be the same as having 25 tuition-paying students because we get so little tuition money.”

I’m not saying that we’re there yet — it’s just a box to check off and move on. But I thought it was a very interesting idea.

* * *

In the interview, Wootton went on to discuss a number of different ideas that have been proposed, such as creating a daycare that would serve the town of Marlboro and also be supported by faculty and by students in early childhood education.

He emphasized the idea of running different scenarios, using actual operating costs and expenses as a basis.

Wootton also pointed out that June 30 marks a financial deadline — the end of the current fiscal year — so there is urgency in making this sort of alternative-scenario strategic financial planning happen.

* * *

Wootton: We’d have to be in financial order by June 30 and have a good plan on how to get through the next fiscal year. And if it means raising a million dollars, then we’d have to ask: Do we think we can do it? And if we don’t think we can, then, well, we’d cut somewhere else and try to make it work.

And we might get to the point where we say, “It’s too risky, it’s not worth it.”

We have a bundle of ideas that we could build into a re-done college. But first, we’d have to get back in shape. And that would be just brutal. And I don’t know how many faculty we could afford. I don’t know how many staff we could afford. But you’ve got to pare it down, because that’s where you’re at, and go from there.

Most people in higher education were already worried about Marlboro and say they should have started this process five or six years ago, when they were already down to something like 270 in student enrollment and they were still building new buildings.

No one there seems to know anything, because all they do is hire consultants. I mean, it’s just stunning.

* * *

Wootton addressed the question of whether the merger with Emerson College might be preferable to the kind of significant cost-cutting that would be required to keep Marlboro College independent and alive on its Vermont campus.

* * *

Gander: I’ve wondered how much would be lost in retrenchment and if changing the educational model and sort of doing things from scratch on Potash Hill would be almost as big a change as this move to Boston, which looks like it will maintain a few pedagogical elements. And obviously Emerson wants some of what Marlboro would bring to their campus.

It seems like it’s a hard choice. Either way, it seems like there’s no way to keep Marlboro the way it’s been for the last 30 or 70 years.

Wootton: Well, here’s one observation along those lines. Say the college decides to retrench and shrink itself down, and retain as many faculty as it can, and the Plan [of Concentration] — although it would be a one-year plan, not a two-year plan — and all kinds of other things. It could succeed on this limited time-frame here. And it very well could crash and not succeed. But you would still have, in principle, a $30 million endowment and a $10 million campus sitting right there waiting.

I think it’s worth the risk, because you don’t lose the prize. The prize is still there, it’s still available — the value that people are arguing over. The value I’m trying to preserve is the institution, so the values can continue. And sure, its curriculum would have to change because you can’t afford that many faculty. Lots of things would change.

But I don’t see why it couldn’t still emanate the same feeling and generate the same quality of education as it did before.

I don’t see any reason it can’t do that.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #543 (Wednesday, January 8, 2020). This story appeared on page C2.

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