MARLBORO—The Marlboro College Board of Trustees last week announced the sale of the campus to Democracy Builders, an educational nonprofit.
The ink is still drying on Democracy Builders’ plans for the property. Still, it appears that the Marlboro College campus will welcome students in September.
Democracy Builders’ founder Seth Andrew is in the process of launching Degrees of Freedom, a low-residency, two-year degree program. Students would split their time between on-campus programing, paid apprenticeships, and online classes.
The program still needs approval at the state level from the Office of the Attorney General and the Agency of Education. As the program’s home base, the Marlboro campus would welcome approximately 1,000 students per year.
A campus working group received multiple bids for the campus. It chose Democracy Builders’ proposal based on several criteria, explained Marlboro College President Kevin F.F. Quigley, who praised the prospective buyers’ vision for the campus as “a bold ambition.”
“I believe what Democracy Builders is providing is an innovative model focused on access and success for underserved populations,” Quigley said. “And I believe Democracy Builders has a really impressive track record and has the potential to have a major impact on the lives of its students who come here to Marlboro, and that’s what we’ve always aspired to.”
“So an alignment of mission and a bold ambition are things that really resonate with me and resonate with the Marlboro alumni community,” he said.
According to its website, Democracy Builders focuses on creating educational programs designed to support disenfranchised communities.
The organization, whose mission is “to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship,” has launched multiple programs since 2005, including Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of charter schools.
Other programs include Washington Leadership Academy, Alumni Revolution, The Arena Summit, VoteAmerica, CivicsNation, Blackstone Valley Prep, Virtual Reality in Education, Liberian Education & Achievement Resource Network (LEARN), The Global Fund for Emerging Scholars, and Harlem-Seoul.
A deal a long time in the making
Like several small liberal arts colleges in New England, Marlboro College had no immunity to declining enrollments and the loss of revenues.
Last year, the school announced a merger with Emerson College in Boston, where the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College will ostensibly adapt and preserve Marlboro College’s academic programming and philosophy.
An estimated 20 members of the Marlboro faculty, as well as some current students, will transfer to Emerson as part of the agreement.
Emerson, however, didn’t want the Marlboro campus.
Late last year, Marlboro’s Board of Trustees created the campus working group and charged it with finding a new owner. The alumni, staff, faculty, representatives from the town of Marlboro, and former board members comprised the group and developed a series of criteria that would help request proposals and shape a decision process for a recommendation.
According to Quigley, the criteria included:
• Respect for what Marlboro College has achieved pedagogically for seven decades.
• Commitments to elements of the school’s practice and preservation of some of the land. Marlboro College set up an ecological reserve three years ago on the property, according to Quigley.
• Access for Marlboro’s alumni community and other neighboring communities to the campus and its trails.
Democracy Builders “ticked all those boxes,” a fact that Quigley found “really remarkable,” he said.
“Through the bid process, we didn’t accept the highest bid,” he said. “We accepted a low bid because they [Democracy Builders] fulfilled the criteria identified by our community participatory campus working group,” he said.
According to Quigley, the campus costs between $1 million and $1.5 million a year to maintain.
Alumna, former trustee, and state Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, co-chair of the campus working group, acknowledged the sadness that she felt at Marlboro’s closing. She also noted that several community members had contacted her with concerns about Democracy Builders’ connections to charter schools.
“I am so deeply saddened that Marlboro College is leaving Vermont,” she said. Coffey said she moved her family back to Vermont to “live in the beautiful circle of the college.”
She said she came to the campus working group with “a pretty heavy heart.”
“We were never charged with saving Marlboro College; we all kind of had to accept that was not our work, that we were charged with figuring out the future,” Coffey said. “But my hope is that we all can come together and give a warm welcome to this new group that will be part of our community, because I think there is so much possibility here.”
Coffey said she supports public dollars going to public schools. At the same time, she didn’t see the Degrees of Freedom in the same context as most charter schools in part because its program offers a college degree.
Regarding community concerns that Democracy Builders works with charter schools, Quigley said, “This isn’t really a sea we swim in, and I know people have strong views about it. I’d look at what Seth has said about charter schools and their particular niche.”
Quigley said that Democracy Builders’ charter schools “are funded with public resources and they have an enviable record of success.”
In Quigley’s opinion, the organization has solved some of the issues that Marlboro College wrestled with, such as recruitment and financing.
“Democracy Builders has both the [student] pipeline and a revenue source attached to it,” Quigley said. “Their mission and their ambition is really compelling.”
He did not comment on how much Democracy Builders bid on the campus. He said Marlboro and Democracy Builders are waiting to disclose financial details after the property is transferred.
Quigley expects the new owners will take control of the campus quickly.
“So, we’ve signed the contract for sale last week and our expectation is that Democracy Builders and Marlboro College will close on the campus by the middle of June,” he said.
Quigley said that when the college sought a new partner, it did so with the intention to have “the best of Marlboro endure.”
“And if you look at the magnitudes of the finances and resources involved, I would say that the Emerson transaction is a significant multiple of the campus just in dollar terms,” he said.
The library’s special collections and archives will move to various institutions, with most of them going to the University of Vermont.
In a press release, the school noted that the Marlboro College archives collection contains a variety of materials, including college catalogs and handbooks, The Citizen student newspaper, Potash Hill alumni magazine, yearbooks, scrapbooks, and historical college ephemera.
Documents from the college’s early history and recordings from campus events include concerts featuring notable musicians such as Blanche Moyse and speakers like Loren Pope and Saul Bellow.
The collection also includes oral histories of alumni from the college’s first few graduating classes, faculty and alumni publications, and photographs of campus life dating to the mid-1940s.
More than 2,500 Plans of Concentration — Marlboro College’s signature academic requirement — submitted by graduating students and spanning from the early 1950s to present day will also remain on campus.
According to a press release, UVM will become the new home for the Kipling Collection, which includes documents, publications, and photographs relating to Rudyard Kipling’s years in Vermont (1892–1896).
The collection also includes documents and other primary source materials that were stored in a Brattleboro bank vault for nearly 100 years, apparently left behind when the Kiplings departed Vermont in 1896.
The John Kenneth and Catherine Atwater Galbraith Library Collection has found a new home at the Levy Economic Institute of Bard College in New York State.
According to the couple’s son, former Ambassador and Vermont State Senator Peter Galbraith, the Levy Economic Institute teaches progressive economics and is where his father — a storied economist, diplomat, professor, and author of more than 40 books and hundreds of essays — received his first honorary degree.
Galbraith, then a trustee of the college, and his two brothers donated the collection to Marlboro in 2009. At the time, then–Library Director James Fein described the donation of the 3,000-book collection as “pretty much a coup.”
The books “were the backdrop of many events, from a meeting with Senator John F. Kennedy to a home stay of [Pakistan] Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose portrait was taken with these books in the background,” Galbraith told The Commons.
“I’m sad [the collection] is leaving Marlboro,” Galbraith said. “But at least it’s found a home."
Transition in motion
“I know our community is most focused on the issue of the campus,” Quigley said. “But from the overall college’s perspective, the key part of this transaction is the preservation of our academic programs at what’s going to be the newly renamed Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.”
“Yes, a big mouthful, but accurate,” he said. “That’s a key part of the transaction.”
For its part, “Emerson College is pleased that progress is being made toward the completion of the alliance, which the two institutions have worked hard to develop over the last several months,” its president, Lee Pelton, said in a statement.
“To that end, the Marlboro and Emerson college boards have both recently approved a provisional agreement to form the alliance,” Pelton added. “These developments are a significant achievement for both college communities, and the schools now enter a period of due diligence that is expected to lead to a final agreement, as planned, by July 1.”
As the two colleges hash out the details of the next chapter, the Marlboro Music Festival, which uses the campus in the summer, has confirmed that it will continue to use the campus for future festival. The organization signed a 99-year lease with Marlboro College in 2019.
“We are glad that another educational organization will be assuming ownership of the campus,” festival board chair and president Christopher Serkin wrote in an email. “We look forward to getting to know Democracy Builders and to beginning what we hope and expect will be a productive and collegial relationship.”
Citing the festival’s “rich 70-year history and deep roots on the campus,” Serkin said the long-term lease “ensures an equally rich future.”
“The Marlboro campus and community are our home, and we welcome Seth Andrew and his organization with their progressive and humanistic mission,” he wrote.
As the campus enters a new phase, Quigley feels the “key is to appreciate that an innovative, life-changing, educational program that will be a resource for our community in lots of ways will endure.”
“Look at other college campuses around us,” he pointed out, alluding to the demise of small colleges like Green Mountain College in Poultney or Burlington College and the near-death experiences of schools like Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.”
One can say that the academic model of the presumptive next steward of Potash Hill is untested, Quigley said.
His response to the internal debate? “I’d say, yeah — it’s untested, like lots of innovations are untested until they’re implemented.”
“But there’s a solid foundation of successful experience that they’re building on,” he added. “And there’s a real niche there, too, around the transition between high school and college where far too many students fall by the wayside.”