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The Marlboro College campus has been sold to Democracy Builders Fund.

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College’s assets disperse from Potash Hill

Marlboro College campus sold after contentious process, with academic program now in the hands of Emerson College

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

MARLBORO—After a long, often acrimonious, process of negotiation that included bitter opposition from alumni and former faculty and staff, Marlboro College no longer is a college in Marlboro.

On July 21, the school’s campus was sold to Democracy Builders Fund, and two days later, the college’s trustees announced that the transfer of Marlboro’s programming, assets, and endowment to Emerson College in Boston was complete.

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office announced that it would not intervene in either transaction after scrutinizing both proposals.

Democracy Builders, a self-described nonprofit educational incubator organization, says it plans to open Degrees of Freedom, a college transition program for underserved students on the hillside.

The sale was in every meaningful way a prerequisite for Marlboro’s transfer of its assets to Emerson College. The deal includes the opportunity for Marlboro students to transfer there and for tenured and tenure-track faculty to take up positions in a new Marlboro Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

Marlboro College’s agreement to transfer its assets to Emerson was contingent on the sale, and once the attorney general took a pass, the college transferred what remains of its endowment to Emerson.

The endowment had been as high as $40 million at one point, but the college had tapped endowment funds to cover operating costs in recent years.

The merger agreement pegged the total sum of assets to be transferred at slightly more than $20 million.

What’s a campus worth?

The 500-acre campus had been valued as high as $10 million at one point, and the buildings and improvements to the land since Marlboro College started in 1946 in a few farm buildings certainly represented investments greater than that sum.

But, in the end, Democracy Builders, which was founded by Seth Andrew, got the campus at what critics charged was a fire-sale price.

The organization assumed the obligation of a $1.5 million loan to the Marlboro Music Festival, which has a 99-year lease to use the campus in the summer, and paid $225,000 in cash.

Andrew has been under attack from past faculty and students at Democracy Prep, a charter school network he founded in 2005. Accusations against him of racist practices, along with concerns about his plans and whether he had a sustainable business model for the new enterprise, took much of the focus in recent weeks.

Alumni angered

The price of the sale of the campus added to the anger that already existed within the Marlboro alumni community. One Marlboro alum put up a poll on Facebook asking people to vote whether Marlboro had died of natural causes or been murdered. The latter received more votes.

To operate Marlboro’s campus currently costs more than $1 million a year, according to statements from its outgoing president, Kevin F.F. Quigley, contributing to a structural operating deficit of millions of dollars for more than a decade.

While the size of its endowment was unusually large for such a small college, it had not been able to achieve a balanced budget in most of the past 20 years without relying on donor funds, and in recent years had to raid the endowment just to make ends meet.

A full forensic accounting for what went wrong financially at Marlboro will take some time, and it certainly extends back before the current administration.

The college had a balanced operating budget and had retired its debt in 1996. It had just embarked on a 50th anniversary capital campaign, which brought in many major donors in the following years.

There are a lot of different analyses of what went wrong. Because of the “echo-boom” surge in student demographics, Marlboro was nearly over-enrolled for a brief period between 2006 and 2008. But in recent years, attracting students was nearly impossible without huge discounting of tuition — and different strategies to build enrollment did not pan out even with these subsidies.

Even with its large endowment, the financial situation at Marlboro was so dire that, by 2019, the college was warned by the New England Commission of Higher Education that it would lose its accreditation unless it came up with a merger or developed a plan to “teach out” its current students without accepting any new ones.

The handwriting was on the wall by last fall but, for many alumni, it came as a surprise. One of the sources of anger and criticism within the larger Marlboro community is that people felt they did not know how dire the college’s straits were and, if they had known, they could have done something about it.

At the same time, anyone paying attention knew that the college was in deep trouble as early as 2010, and Marlboro is just the latest in a series of private colleges that have folded in Vermont in the past few years.

A futile effort last winter by a group of alumni sought to force Marlboro’s Board of Trustees and administration to allow Will Wootton, who had been vice president of development under two presidents, to conduct a fiscal analysis in service of retrenchment.

In recent months, attention within the alumni community focused on putting pressure on the attorney general to deny the sale of the campus to Democracy Builders, but the range of considerations for denying approval of a private transaction is small, and none of them applied in this case.

In the meantime, Black N Brown at DP, a group of alumni, former teachers, and other stakeholders in the Democracy Prep schools, emerged to shine a spotlight on Andrew, a white man whose educational entrepreneurship has predominantly served communities of color. Several members of the Marlboro community have taken active roles in amplifying these voices.

The Marlboro Select Board orchestrated two special meetings via Zoom, designed to bring some of these issues into the light. Andrew and his design team attended the more recent meeting.

The hours-long marathon included raw testimony from former students, a confrontation with a resident who publicly disparaged Andrew, and an anonymous meeting attendee who recognized the voice of one of the then-anonymous Black N Brown members and named her in the public Zoom chat transcript.

That woman has since published an essay on Medium under her name, Lindsay Bailey.

Moving forward

In a letter to the community announcing the final Emerson College transaction, Marlboro’s board of trustees argued that Emerson would be a good new home for Marlboro’s interdisciplinary liberal arts model, and that Democracy Builders would be a good heir and steward of the Potash Hill campus.

“We believe Democracy Builders will continue Marlboro traditions and bring valuable new jobs and opportunities to the Marlboro community and the State of Vermont,” the board wrote.

Degrees of Freedom has told The Commons that it will make college affordable for a demographic of students who would not be able to afford or attend traditional models of residential college degree programs. Most of these students would be students of color, Andrew has said.

The program so far has been described only in vague outline by Degrees of Freedom. As outlined, the program would offer flexible and distance learning options to rolling groups of students who would cycle through the campus for short residency intervals. The rapid turnover will allow the campus to serve far more students, making it economically viable even at lower tuition, he has said.

Andrew originally told The Commons in May, after the purchase-and-sale agreement had been signed, that the new program on the campus would launch in September. Earlier this month, the program team said a 2022 rollout is more likely, with smaller cohorts of students “beta testing” throughout the intervening months.

Requiem for a college

Marlboro College isn’t quite gone, legally; the college remains a corporate entity. Trustees have retained an accounting firm, Verdolino & Lowey, P.C., based in Foxboro, Mass., to wind down the college’s business affairs. According to the college website, operations will cease entirely by Aug. 15.

Despite assurances by the board, anger within the Marlboro community continued unabated on the college’s alumni Facebook page, and for most people posting or making comments it was clear that the death of the college was felt in deep, personal ways.

For some others, with long and deep associations that extend back to the founding of the college on hillside farm land, the sense of loss was not simply personal but harkened to a deeper sense of loss in American culture of the virtues of the liberal arts, independent study, self-governance, and an ethos of shared labor within spartan conditions.

In a consoling letter to Marlboro alumni, Tom Ragle, who had been president of the college from 1958 to 1981, wrote eloquently of the sense of loss he shared with so many people who had found a home in Marlboro College and loved it fiercely. He also asked that his readers think more deeply about the meaning of the loss.

“Mourning is inevitable and important,” he wrote. “My great concern at the moment, however, is not the past, not the painful loss of Marlboro, but the future, the future of liberal learning in our nation.”

“We must see that liberal learning survives,” he wrote.

An associate professor at Landmark College and a scholar of Robert Frost’s work, Dan Toomey is a 1979 Marlboro graduate and something of an unofficial historian of the college, with many pieces that have appeared in Marlboro alumni magazine, Potash Hill, over the years. His father was one of Marlboro’s first graduates, a World War II vet who attended on the G.I. Bill.

“I am as heartbroken as anyone else. I am not angry, just heartbroken,” Toomey told The Commons.

In an article published last week in Potash Hill, Toomey wrote of what the college had meant to him.

“In the days and years to come, if someone asks what I learned when I was a student at Marlboro College, I will say that I was taught to be humble and kind, that I was taught to be free in giving and tolerant and accepting of those different from me,” Toomey wrote. “I was also taught to speak honestly and to treat people fairly, and to see humor as a means of coping with things outside my control.

“I will say that I developed such a passion for learning that I have come to regard it as tantamount to breathing,” Toomey wrote. “That I was taught these things over breakfast and in seminar classes, while shoveling snow and while scrubbing the Dining Hall floor, in the serenity of the surrounding woods and in the quiet of the library.

“I will say that in the time I was a student, I was only beginning to understand these things, but as I grew older, that understanding deepened. And I will say that I am still working through all that I was given on that beautiful Vermont hillside, and with each emerging realization comes more cause for gratitude.

“Then, if the person says to me, ‘That must have been a very special place,’ I will reply, ‘Believe me, it was.’”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #572 (Wednesday, July 29, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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