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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Vermont Center for Geographic Information

Marlboro College — the “college on the hill” — treasures its remote location and intimate size. But over the years, both qualities also impeded the school‘s efforts to recruit students.

Special Focus

End of an era

While some opponents of its announced merger with Emerson College continue to fight, Marlboro College’s community girds for the very likely closure of its Vermont campus

Marlboro College was incorporated in 1946 and opened the next year on a hillside farm in southern Vermont, with a couple of farm buildings for classes and residences for its 56 students, more than half of whom were veterans studying under the GI Bill. They lived at first in army tents borrowed from the National Guard while waiting for dormitories to be completed.

The current chapter of that college on that hillside effectively ended 73 years later, on Dec. 16, 2019, when a letter to the college community from the Board of Trustees said that the college will not reopen next year.

“Alas, and with great sadness,” the trustees wrote, in describing the efforts that had been taken, “we ultimately reached the conclusion that there wasn’t any viable option that would allow the College to remain on Potash Hill.”

Although the story may not quite be over, and some may prefer to have it termed a reincarnation rather than a death, it seems clear that the conclusion has been written. When September comes to Potash Hill next year, the Marlboro College campus will be empty.

The trustees’ letter made clear that despite the efforts of some former faculty and alumni to stop or slow the process and explore other options, the college is resolute in its plans to execute an agreement for its assets to be absorbed by Emerson College by June 30, 2020. These include an endowment valued at about $30 million and a campus assessed at $10 million.

In exchange, Emerson, based in Boston, will provide a safe landing for Marlboro students and offer positions to Marlboro’s tenured and tenure-track faculty.

Marlboro’s name will be retained by Emerson as the Marlboro Institute for the Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, a renaming of an existing program.

Emerson’s decision to absorb Marlboro appears to be part of an attempt to strengthen programs in these areas and position Emerson for the ongoing shakeout in the higher-education industry. [See “Raiding the nest egg,” page C3.]

Marlboro’s Potash Hill campus is almost certain not to be used by Emerson, which, according to reports, hopes that it may be sold off before June 1, 2020. The role of the Marlboro Music Festival, which has a 99-year agreement to use the campus for its summer programs, is still unclear.

A year ago, in an agreement with the college, the Music Festival began construction of two new buildings: one a residence hall, and the second a multipurpose building for rehearsal space, office space, and a new library. These buildings are still under construction. The Music Festival continues to plan to operate in Marlboro in the summers, as it has since 1951.

For some people who have been connected in various ways to the college since it was founded, having a clear sense of what happened that the college should finally close feels urgent, because there is a sense that Marlboro survived before. So why should it not find a way to do so now?

An analysis of the college’s financial records by The Commons from the earliest years until the present suggests that Marlboro always was living on borrowed time, whether through the sacrifice of faculty members or staff who sometimes worked for no pay, the indulgence of local banks that extended lines of credit, or the generosity of major donors who believed deeply in Marlboro’s mission.

There were very few years in its history when Marlboro’s revenues covered its expenses. In some ways it may be harder to believe that the college lived so long as to see that it is closing now.

‘No credible alternative’

The conclusion of Marlboro’s 73-year history left many within its community in disappointment and dismay.

“Losing Marlboro College on Potash Hill has been my most difficult experience at Marlboro and it hasn’t even happened yet,” said Jenny Ramstetter, who has taught at the college since 1989 and is also a 1981 graduate, writing about what it means for her students not to finish their college education in Marlboro, Vermont. “For all of my adult life, Marlboro has been a part of me and a place I’ve lived in or longed for, so it’s hard to fathom taking memories with me to a different place.”

In the weeks since the two colleges announced the broad brushstrokes of the plan last fall, members of the Marlboro community have broadly echoed that sense of loss in emails and Facebook posts.

Several faculty and staff contacted for comment by The Commons said that they would prefer not to say anything at this moment of an unfolding story. While it was clear that some alumni and former faculty strongly oppose the merger, most current faculty are planning to go along with the move to Boston.

In the weeks leading to an open meeting of the Board of Trustees at Marlboro College on Dec. 14, some had placed their hopes in former faculty and staff who were not accepting the inevitability of the closure at face value.

One such response came in the form of a “challenge” from Will Wootton, who worked as a vice-president of Marlboro College under two former Marlboro presidents, Rod Gander and Paul LeBlanc.

Wootton had requested the opportunity to let him lead an independent review of the college’s finances, to be completed in less than two weeks.

He proposed to review “financial spreadsheets and projections, any analysis of the impact of downsizing on student life, academic integrity, and admissions and retention expectations,” in order to confirm the trustees’ assertion that there is “no credible alternative” to closing the campus.

Wootton, who served as president of Sterling College, which averages from 100 to 125 students, in northern Vermont from 2006 to 2012, has written widely about the challenges very small colleges face in the current environment for higher education, and he has worked as a consultant for colleges navigating these issues.

Those who felt disbelief that the college was closing or had suspicions about what they termed “a lack of transparency” in the college’s financial information saw Wootton’s request as a last hope. His one-page memo was widely circulated and presented to the board of trustees at the December 14 meeting by Adrian Segar, a former faculty member at the college.

The 600-member Marlboro College Alumni Association has come out in support of Wootton’s challenge. In a Jan. 6 email letter, it called on the Board of Trustees “to accept his offer to look over the same data shared with the Strategic Options Task Force, the four institutions who expressed willingness to partner with Marlboro, and any other pertinent information Will identifies as needed inputs to his process.” A petition written by alumna Amy Tudor is circulating in conjunction with the endorsement.

Segar and T. Hunter Wilson, a professor emeritus at the college, had earlier criticized the merger and argued for an independent examination of Marlboro’s situation. They called for Marlboro’s current president, Kevin Quigley, to step down.

In an interview with The Commons, Wootton said that without seeing more detailed financial information, it was impossible to know whether alternative scenarios might provide Marlboro continued life on its Vermont campus.

Wootton’s perspective is that of a radical retrenchment strategy — one that would entail cutting faculty, staff, and programming in the service of matching the college’s overhead to its current enrollment. He believes such an undertaking could be possible but that it is impossible to tell without seeing the college’s internal financial data.

The question of whether such a radical turnaround would require as significant a change in Marlboro as the move to Boston remains, but Wootton pointed out that the college’s endowment and the value of the buildings would still be there if the effort to save the college on Potash were not to succeed.

These efforts have given some alums and other community members hope for prolonging the discussion about finding solutions for the college to stay open.

But the trustees’ letter made it clear that these hopes would not be answered.

The letter was accompanied by the posting on Marlboro’s website of financial information, including audited financial statements from 2015 to 2019, along with publicly available information, including its annual nonprofit corporate filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

The trustees also released the response of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) to Marlboro’s most recent accreditation report.

In December, the accrediting agency accepted Marlboro’s plan to merge with Emerson and warned that it would take “more serious public action” if the college reverses course and tries to stay open in Vermont without a partner.

The NECHE letter made clear two points: first, that Marlboro would risk its accreditation if it tries to enroll a new class on the Potash Hill campus, and second, that the only acceptable alternative to the Emerson agreement would be a “teach-out,” a scenario in which no new students would be admitted but those continuing at Marlboro would finish their studies there.

The board of trustees’ answer to Wootton’s “challenge” seems definitive at this point, although it is possible that efforts by him and others may reopen the conversation. The reality is that it may be too late. There will almost certainly be more talk about whether some alternative to closure on Potash Hill is possible, but it would take a powerful shift within the board of trustees for any efforts to gain real traction.

Unless things change, remaining questions have more to do with whether the agreement will hold and how it will work, as well as what will happen to the campus once Marlboro leaves it.

Questions of what will happen for staff, the disposition of the campus, or what the impact of the closing will be on the town of Marlboro, all will play out in the coming weeks and months. Marlboro College continues to have working groups focused on these questions, as it does on preparation for the journey to Emerson’s campus in Boston.

A tipping point

President Kevin Quigley took office in 2015, when the college showed a $634,345 operating deficit despite being bolstered in part by more than $6 million in contributions at the end of Ellen McCulloch-Lovell’s previous nine years as president. The college’s student enrollment was about 170 at the time, down from a high of about 350 in 2005.

The following year, the college received half as much in donations and ran a deficit of almost $3 million.

Despite various efforts to boost enrollment, like the Renaissance Scholars program that created buzz about its efforts to give a scholarship to one student from each of the 50 states, the college continued to run an operating deficit of several million dollars. The college was forced to dip more deeply into its endowment to cover operating costs and provide financial aid.

An attempted merger with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut fell through after several weeks of discussions following the announcement in July that the two colleges would be pursuing an agreement. Of a number of insitutitions that had expressed interest at Marlboro’s overtures for collaboration, the university was the only one that had any interest in the campus.

If it takes effect, the Emerson merger will bring current students and faculty to Boston and meet postsecondary standards for preserving the interests of enrolled students and tenured faculty when any college closes.

The handwriting on the wall

Those opposed to Marlboro’s merger with Emerson suggested that they had not given up.

Wootton said that efforts to line up support for a review of operational data and the potential for alternative scenarios to Marlboro’s closure were still ongoing.

In an interview with The Commons, Segar rejected the claim that Marlboro’s release of financial information met skeptics’ challenge of transparency, calling the release of already-public documents a magic act of “blue smoke and mirrors.”

Segar said that those seeking to delay the merger until an independent analysis has been done are continuing their work. He alluded to background conversations still proceeding among those behind the opposition to the closure of Marlboro’s campus.

In an opinion piece published in the Brattleboro Reformer on Dec. 28, Segar wrote that “privately the trustees are apparently ready to accept Will’s offer.”

Segar said that in a Dec. 18 communication to alumna Becca Boyden, a daughter of one of Marlboro’s early faculty and seminal figure at the college, Board of Trustees Chairman Dick Saudek wrote: “We’ll see if Will or anyone else can come up with a plan that’s financially sound and passes muster with our accreditors.”

The Commons was unsuccessful in its attempts to reach Saudek.

Segar emphasized that the financial documents released by the college offer no opportunity to do the sort of fine-grained analysis and strategic financial planning that an intimate knowledge of operating costs and revenues would allow [see sidebar].

He — and others, posting in Marlboro alumni Facebook groups — emphasized that without being able to run different financial and strategic scenarios, it would be impossible to trust the assertion that a college with more than $40 million in assets and little debt would have no choice but to shut its doors.

A powerful curriculum, a tough sell

From its founding, Marlboro held steadfast to core values, including community self-governance, a sort of hard-scrabble rural Vermont self-reliance, and an ethos of sacrifice among those who worked to build and sustain the college.

In many ways, the college has austerity in its organizational DNA.

One of the most important elements of Marlboro’s ethos and its pedagogy lies in a quote that its founding president, Walter Hendricks, often used: the ideal college was “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”

The quote is attributed to James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, about Hopkins, the president of Williams College for 35 years and with whom Garfield had studied.

The idea of a student, a teacher, a log to sit on, and a book was woven into the heart of Marlboro’s philosophy. Socratic dialogue and a close connection between students and their teachers, without much else in the way, always was central to the college’s mission.

By the end of the 1960s, the college had settled on the core of its educational model: a student-driven Plan of Concentration in the junior and senior years, along with a Clear Writing Requirement. These signature programs were situated within a self-governing community that was spartan in its amenities and often pressed for funds.

It was a powerful curriculum for those who could complete it, and Marlboro’s placement of students into graduate school was always high for such a small school. Plans of Concentration were evaluated by outside readers and often received high marks, sometimes with recommendations that the work should be published.

The educational program never wavered over the years, but it created challenges for the business model of the college. Marlboro’s enrollment was never robust, but it also was constrained from serving more than about 325 students.

There was an implicit reliance at the college on a certain level of attrition. As many as 90 students might enter in the first year, but graduating classes were usually much smaller.

That means many students who matriculated at Marlboro College never completed a degree, either transferring elsewhere or ending their studies without completing the Plan.

The staffing model promised a 5:1 faculty-to-student ratio, and the opportunities for individual connection are what many graduates remember best. At the same time, the program’s rigor and expectation for independent scholarship did not work for every student who attended.

Marlboro’s model won the college a positive mention in Loren Pope’s guidebook, Colleges that Change Lives, originally published in 1996. The college began enjoying a lot of publicity in the 1990s and early years of the 2000s, including a cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But the Marlboro education also increasingly became a hard sell over the last decade.

As the number of potential students decreased as a result of a decline in birth rates 18 years earlier, demographics changed and the pressure for college students to engage in pre-career studies increased after the Great Recession of 2008, Marlboro found difficulty in drawing students to its campus.

Where Marlboro was once one of just a few colleges offering alternative educational experiences, now most colleges have special programs and offer opportunities for honors degrees, self-directed courses of study, and internships and other experiential learning.

“Innovation” is a buzzword in higher education now, and being first to market was no guarantee of Marlboro’s success.

What might have been?

In educational terms, there is no question of the value of the experiment in higher education that Marlboro provided for more than seven decades on a hillside in Windham County.

Anyone familiar with the evolution of postsecondary education over the period since World War II will mourn its loss, as the higher education industry continues to consolidate and adapt to a radically different time from the one in which Marlboro was founded.

In the outpouring of conversation, analysis, and mourning within the Marlboro community [“Voices from Potash Hill,” page C5], there is a deeply threaded sense that what the college had was unique and worth preserving — and also that it was always a fragile enterprise, perhaps in some ways doomed by its steadfast adherence to a model of education that no longer fits the contemporary age.

In various discussions, some have questioned whether Marlboro might have adapted its programs to be more attractive to potential students in a new age, or whether it might have done a better job in marketing or in husbanding its resources.

In recent weeks, Marlboro’s official Facebook page as well as one started independently by alumni have been filled with ideas about how to save the college. Many of these involve innovations already common in higher education, such as distance-learning options and a focus on employment-oriented curricular offerings.

“There are so many factors that have brought Marlboro to this point — most of them external, in my opinion,” wrote Randy George, a 1993 graduate and member of Marlboro’s Alumni Council, in response to a request for comment from The Commons.

“As I see it, Marlboro was always out of step with the mainstream. We keep hearing about how fewer students are interested in going to rural colleges and few colleges are more rural than Marlboro. It’s also small, of course. That, combined with the community governance philosophy, makes the whole college experience at Marlboro about more than just academics.”

“But Marlboro is also very challenging academically,” he wrote. “Marlboro always struggled with a higher than normal attrition rate. Although I always saw that as an inevitable consequence of being a school that was pretty easy to get into but much harder to graduate from, it was a continual marketing challenge. Being different was both Marlboro’s strength and its weakness.”

The things we love

What persists in memory will survive. The college’s history, meaning, and legacy have already been well-documented, and it is certain that its history will continue to be written.

Marlboro was a unique experiment in higher education, birthed by a brilliant but eccentric serial founder of colleges, Walter Hendricks, whose friendship with Robert Frost lent the college respectability and helped to shape its ethos.

The great American poet was a friend of Hendricks and agreed to let his name be used as a member of the board of trustees in the early years. Frost helped to dedicate Marlboro College.

There are many legendary figures from Marlboro’s early years. Still, Robert Frost’s austere and accurate New England vision may capture the college’s spirit most closely, and offer a eulogy.

One of the poems that influenced Hendricks was “The Road Not Taken,” which he heard read by the college president when he attended Amherst College.

The familiar poem talks about the choice made when “two roads diverge in a narrow wood,” and ends with the speaker saying that he “took the road less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”

Any student who attended Marlboro in its seven decades had taken the road less traveled by.

Critical opinion on what the ending of Frost’s poem signifies is divided: Is the speaker proud of the choice, or is it one they have come to regret?

Frost also wrote, in “Hyla Brook,” that “We love the things we love for what they are.”

There is no question that those who have loved Marlboro over the years, and there are so many of them, would echo that perfect iambic line.

Whether that love will find a way to sustain the college through more years on Potash Hill seems unlikely now — though still uncertain.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #543 (Wednesday, January 8, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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