Marlboro College looks ahead after merger talks fail

Marlboro College looks ahead after merger talks fail

College will resume quest for a new academic partner for a sustainable future, yet one that will protect a small school’s campus, values, and legacy, president says

MARLBORO — Just a few weeks after signing a letter of intent and mutually announcing high expectations for educational innovation and sustainability, Marlboro College and the University of Bridgeport said a proposed merger will not move forward.

The university has said that it walked away from the deal, but Marlboro, which had framed the merger cancellation as a mutual decision, also hinted at deep concerns about the fate of its campus.

“We realized that it was just at a certain point becoming too difficult,” Laura Skandera Trombley, president of the University of Bridgeport, told The Commons. “They're facing some real challenges, and we thought that it was time for us to exit."

In its prepared statement, the university said the “administration has come to believe that the merger would not be in the best interest of the institution and has decided to withdraw from further discussion.”

The two parties were unable to negotiate a memorandum of understanding that would have formalized the blending of the financially struggling, tiny liberal arts college in the Vermont hills and the far-larger, more diverse, and more career-oriented university on the seacoast of Connecticut.

Both parties, citing a nondisclosure agreement, were circumspect about the impasse, and Marlboro and U.B. issued separate press releases to their respective communities announcing the suspension of talks on Sept. 13.

According to Marlboro's public statement, “The two schools suspended negotiations, citing insurmountable barriers to developing a compelling financial and academic model that supported both institutional missions.”

“We're processing and regrouping,” said Marlboro's president, Kevin F.F. Quigley, who confirmed that the fiercely independent and idiosyncratic 73-year-old college would be looking for an arrangement similar to the one proposed this summer.

“We want to spend some time analyzing what worked, what didn't work so well, what we might do differently, who might we approach,” said Quigley, who noted that the school has already been “approached by other institutions that would like to have a conversation.”

Protecting the interests of a college and its town

According to Quigley, a lack of clarity about how the merger would preserve Marlboro's unique identity was part of the problem and contributed to the breakdown of the U.B. merger idea.

“We wanted to use our assets to ensure that the best of Marlboro endured,” he said. “We just felt that we never saw what the plan was, and that made us really uneasy and then skeptical that the merger between Marlboro and the University of Bridgeport would work in ways that we felt obligated to try to deliver for our students, our faculty, our alumni and our donors."

As part of Marlboro's original quest for a partnership - a process that took almost a year and involved weekly meetings of a task force that included trustees, alumni, staff, faculty, and current students - Quigley told The Commons in July that the college identified clear boundaries.

The committee insisted that any partnership should preserve the college's identity and the college's “pedagogy” (academic ethos, teaching methods, etc.). Members also identified the need to protect the positions of the school's staff, faculty, and students; preserve the college's focus on helping students build meaningful lives and careers; and preserve the college's campus.

Quigley also identified another stakeholder in the process: the town of Marlboro itself, and the people who live there who would suffer the “really devastating consequences” of a campus that was shuttered - consequences now being experienced by the townspeople of Poultney after this year's closure of Green Mountain College.

He described the “spiderwebs of connections between the college and the community.”

The town, roughly 41 square miles, has a population of 1,078, according to the municipal website. “And roughly 260 of us are connected to the college in some way,” he said.

“We've got our faculty who have children in school, and they're engaged with the school because their kids are there,” he added. Marlboro College's library is also open to the townspeople.

A closed Marlboro campus would have an enormous impact, Quigley said - not only economically, “but educationally, culturally, just in terms of the civic fabric of the town.”

What next for Marlboro?

The deal's collapse leaves Marlboro College back where it started: seeking a financially stable future and looking for another academic partner to make that sustainably possible.

And this time, the college must do so with the U.B. merger process front in the minds of an extended college community that was divided in its reactions to the change that would inevitably occur - and, in some cases, unflinching in criticism.

“Certainly we're going to have conversations with some of the institutions that came forward in the earlier process,” Quigley said. “We're trying to figure out what makes the best sense for Marlboro.”

Meanwhile, a group of 14 alumni currently working in higher education have sent an email to Marlboro faculty offering their support and expertise in potential future partnership explorations.

“We are overjoyed at the news that the merger will now not take place. We recognize that Marlboro's challenges still remain, and we want to express our solidarity and support,” they wrote.

“Marlboro was the place where we became scholars and teachers, the place we learned how to learn and teach, and the place that guides us as academic professionals, informing our ethics, ideals, and practices,” they added.

“We have expertise and experience which we believe could be useful to the College in navigating the tricky waters ahead,” they said, describing themselves as “energized and excited and ready to help. We have ideas and options and brainstorms ready to put at your service.”

Discussions among Marlboro alumni have been lively since the Marlboro/U.B. letter of intent in July, with some recurring themes on several groups online.

Though the college held five in-person and virtual town halls for alums and others, according to Meg Mott, a retired longtime faculty member who was hired to moderate four of them, a number of alumni have questioned whether Marlboro demonstrated enough transparency and sought enough alumni input in the process.

One challenge: a cornerstone of Marlboro's education is its model of participatory democracy, including decisions made in a school meeting.

That model has come up against the practicalities of commingling two schools into a new entity.

“We tried to be pretty transparent,” said Quigley, reflecting on the process. “But think about the reality. You're in very sensitive negotiations with another institution, dealing with highly confidential business proprietary information. That's not something you can negotiate as a broad community. It's just not possible.”

“I'm not being at all dismissive of the alumni,” said Mott, who still works with students at the college and teaches in the community. “But I think they have a very specific idea of what Marlboro should be.”

Yet, she said, “there hasn't been much interest in understanding how it is that it's a corporation under the state laws of Vermont, [that] the trustees have fiduciary interests, according to the state of Vermont.”

Those interests, she added, include “whether the place can survive or not.”

Mott observed that alumni “have been concerned and caring and everything else.”

But in general, she said, “in my humble opinion, [they] have never been interested in the business side, and what restrictions self-governance operates under.”

One active participant in online discussions on the future of Marlboro has been Joshua Farber, a longtime educator who teaches in the Springfield, Mass., public school system. Farber told The Commons that he had had high hopes for the merger, “because as a design, it [did] appear to address what I see as the larger cultural stresses that are making it harder and harder for small liberal arts schools to survive and thrive.”

Farber, who earned an undergraduate degree at Marlboro in 1997 and a graduate degree there the following year, said he was “disappointed that this was not the right merger, and that Marlboro could not make it work,” though he was heartened by his impression that the breakdown came as a result of the college's holding out for an agreement that would “preserve the essential values of Marlboro.”

Those values buck “a very large cultural trend away from discourse, and towards knowledge, as a purpose for being human,” he said.

“This itself pushes against what Marlboro does well, and why it exists,” said Farber.

Mott said a blending of two remarkably different higher-education cultures could have offered positive opportunities.

“Perhaps,” she asked, “were we to take the value of a liberal arts education and merge with an organization that's doing well because of pre-professional training, could we have a new generation of nurse practitioners, radiologists, dental hygienists, business majors - who also have studied some philosophy, and read Shakespeare?”

“Everybody's trying to figure this out as we go along,” Mott said. “It's not like there's a well-trodden path.”

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