Marlboro: Hand the baton to alumni

We don’t have to look forward and create the future of this campus from scratch — not when alumni have been exploring many options to preserve Marlboro College

MARLBORO — I really don't know whose terrible idea it was. There was no chance I would ever be accepted into Middlebury, Colby, Smith, or Wellesley. If it was my idea, I wish there'd been someone around who'd known the ins and outs of need-blind admissions and could have saved my parents the application fees.

I was an engaged student in high school. Our school in Maine was small - a little under 300 students. Parents in the area scraped out a living digging clams, lobstering, tipping balsam to sell to the two wreath-making companies.

On college-fair day at our school, I asked the rep from Colby, “If two students apply that present exactly alike, except for financial need, would you accept the one who could pay or the one who needed help?” He must have been new, because he told me honestly they'd accept the one who could pay.

I was the one who couldn't, and with no other options, I attended the “safe school,” University of Maine at Farmington. It had the same check-the-boxes routine nature of high school.

I used the resources at UMF's career-center office to find Marlboro College.

I perked up at the idea of designing my own studies. And I perked at the course titles. I could take English 201 at UMF, but I could study “Language and Power” at Marlboro.

My mother brought me to Marlboro for a visit. We missed the college entirely and continued on down Moss Hollow Road. We'd never driven on a dirt road in a mud season. We somehow made it back up that hill and, finally, I interviewed with Jenny Ramstetter.

The tuition was still a reach, and I had learned not to get my hopes up. But I was accepted. And I was offered a financial-aid package that included a $14,000 grant.

The sensation of holding that letter with that information has never left me. I was both invited and supported.

* * *

There was a lot of adjustment ahead of me.

Some systems were years behind. At Marlboro College in 1995, we had no individual phones, just one pay phone in the hall, and email was only just becoming available. Those two factors made it hard to connect with prospective employers or off-campus collaborators of any kind.

There was the Vermont winter darkness, no different from Maine's. But without evening sports or the rays from streetlights at UMF, the sky was heavier as I faced being with myself for the first time.

I wouldn't necessarily want to repeat the experience, but I grew into my own power and capabilities.

It wasn't just about creating a contemplative garden in the forest that I completed as my Plan of Concentration. It was about the process of working against, through, or around impediments. It was about holding a project, sensing its holes, and anticipating the questions no one had asked yet.

I didn't tailor my studies to specific employment outcomes; rather, I combined environmental studies, writing, and art into a base of knowledge and skills that made me employable.

* * *

While I see and honor the impact of the turbulent recent news at Marlboro College on its current staff, faculty, and students, I feel heartbreak most acutely for an unknown eighth-grade student somewhere in this country.

That student like me won't look at city schools, won't be accepted into Emerson College, or won't find the institute that Marlboro will become. And even if they do, they won't be offered a make-it-or-break-it grant, as Emerson offers yet another great education for traditional students of means.

We can expand the net to more accurately represent the voiceless populations that Marlboro has accepted: the students who struggle with mental health, the students who learn differently, the students abandoned by their families.

Marlboro College's mission and educational approach are more important and relevant than ever. It has been quietly carrying out supported, self-directed learning since the 1940s. It is already providing the prescription for much that ails our world.

As more and more children are no longer responding to authoritarian approaches, or are neurologically unable to, self-directed education (as at Marlboro) has been a successful approach to guiding these populations to reach their potential.

I understand the accreditation pressure, the demographic problems, the economies of scale, the dynamics of disruptive innovations. I have the sense that the people who have been struggling against these forces for more than 10 years have had the fight burned out of them.

And yet, I cannot let the image of that eighth-grader fade.

* * *

The current momentum has landed us in a constricted box where only two options are considered viable: a partnership or closure.

That doesn't have to be the case.

Other ideas are already being floated for use of the campus. In less than 10 days since the Emerson–Marlboro announcement, the Marlboro Elementary school board began exploring moving to the campus. Others have proposed Nordic centers or some kind of an art-destination facility,

Tourism and retreat centers could be rich and vibrant auxiliary experiences, but none of the above will replace the role the college plays in the town of Marlboro, Windham County, and the greater region.

But we don't have to look forward and create the future of this campus from scratch - not when alumni have been exploring many options to preserve Marlboro College.

We alums largely had no idea that the situation was so dire. We were in no way asked to help at the level that help was needed. Everything I saw painted a sufficiently rosy picture of Marlboro's health.

Now that the world knows of Marlboro's situation, what can our larger community do?

What if members of the Marlboro College community who thinks this deserves a fresh outside look hold the innovative answers, much like what happened in 1969, when students successfully re-envisioned campus governance, adding many student seats to various processes, including new hiring and admission decisions?

When I've found myself boxed into a spot with no good options, I've discovered the box is usually created by my thinking, not the problem.

And we must think outside this box.

The voices are varied, with many taking the college's administration at their word and thinking that faculty do support the merger.

We shouldn't make those assumptions. We know some faculty who signed the statement in support of the Marlboro-Emerson deal didn't want to, and that some faculty are very broken.

The current steering groups and management teams have done tremendous work, resulting in programs like Renaissance Scholars, Reimaging Marlboro, and others. We applaud you.

But if those in power have given up and need to walk away, so be it. We honor and support the enormity of the task you worked on.

We are grateful and ready to take the baton and carry the load from here. Don't destroy the place-based, life-altering educational opportunity for those who will come after you. Hand this heart-centered institution off to the next baton bearers.

Reader, it will be in your hands. If you have suffered through sleepless nights or tears over this proposed closure, pledge $1,000 or $3,000 or the amount at which it feels a little bit hard.

So be ready. When a plan coalesces, prepare yourself to donate, if you can.

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