MARLBORO — A former Marlboro College administrator has challenged the school's Board of Trustees to give him - and a “small team” that would include senior college staff - access to the struggling school's financial data.
Trustees have promised a formal response to a proposal from Will Wootton, who served as vice president for institutional advancement at Marlboro for 19 years, that would result in a new alternative to the plan on the table bringing Marlboro's students, faculty, and educational philosophy to Emerson College in Boston.
The offer came during a public comment portion of an emergency Board of Trustees meeting Dec. 14, which filled Ragle Hall with alumni and current members of the college community.
Wootton, of Craftsbury Common, could not attend the meeting. The statement was read by former faculty member Adrian Segar.
“It has been stated publicly and reaffirmed repeatedly by the College Board of Trustees and the administrative leadership that there is no alternative for Marlboro but the Emerson solution,” Wootton wrote. “I have not seen that evidence, or lack of it.”
“Thus, in the spirit of 'show me don't tell me' I hereby challenge the Marlboro College Board of Trustees - in the name of integrity, honesty, forthrightness, and fair dealing - to a contest of administrative plans and projections.”
In his statement, Wootton asks the board to give him and his team four days, a space to work on campus, and access to all financial records and documents that were used to decide on a merger with Emerson.
In return, Wooten promised a report within seven days showing how the small Vermont college could accept a class of 2024 in the fall and then work to rebuild.
If Wootton and his team do not find a feasible solution in those numbers, he wrote, he and the unnamed senior administrators would “instead [...] acknowledge and confirm the 'no credible evidence' and retire.”
Wootton graduated from Marlboro College in 1972 and worked in the administration from 1983 to 2002, working under two college presidents. He went on to serve as president of Sterling College from 2006 to 2012.
Other speakers emphasized the lack of consistency in the numbers used in building the public argument for why Marlboro College would be unsustainable without some sort of academic partnership.
“The alumni were told in April that other small colleges were closing, but Marlboro was not on that path,” Professor Emeritus T. Wilson said. “And we've just heard that we need $120 million, we've been told $20 million, we've been told $50 million, we've been told $200 million.”
“Those are orders of magnitude apart,” he continued. “And if we don't even know how much money we need, then there isn't a clear plan.”
'Passion and commitment'
During the meeting, alumni, students, and area residents urged the trustees for more transparency and creative thinking, while some administrators, trustees, and faculty stressed the importance of the emerging deal.
The deal, set to become official in July 2020, would move vestiges of the college to Boston. It would preserve tenure-track faculty jobs and welcome the college's student body.
Professor of Film and Video Studies Brad Heck advocated for more representation in the decision-making process and stated that with the current deal, Marlboro's culture - cited by Saudek and other proponents of the deal as an aspect far more important to preserve than the physical campus - would essentially vanish at Emerson.
“If 20 faculty go into a giant host of over 200 faculty, we are not preserving our pedagogy, we are a virus trying to infect a host with a lot of antibodies,” he said to a round of applause from the audience.
“I don't think we're a virus in a big pond,” countered Head Selectperson Charlie Hickman, who stood almost completely in opposition to the various alumni and student voices calling for an alternate solution.
“I think that we are a strong coalition of students, and we can bring so much love and light and democracy to Emerson. And I would much rather do that than fight with ourselves in this place because it is exhausting,” Hickman said, urging members of the community to accept the merger and focus their efforts on helping the students and staff.
“I would much rather graduate from Emerson with Emerson on my degree with faculty members that I know and that I have worked with, in a place that's foreign to me, than to be the last ever graduating class of Marlboro College,” they said.
After the meeting, Marlboro President Kevin Quigley said the community's passion and commitment to the college stood out to him the most.
He declined to speak at the meeting after some audience members called on him to do so.
“There is a difficulty in having this kind of conversation, because part of the conversation is so driven by emotion and a sense of commitment to the values and practices and the set of circumstances when we believe fundamentally require a new solution,” he said. “I was mindful of our time and my views on this, I think, are very clear.”
Quigley said he's been clear that he still believes Emerson is the best option for Marlboro and said he is confident the deal will go to completion.
Segar and Wilson are also spearheading a movement to resist what they have characterized as a giveaway of Marlboro's assets to Emerson. Segar later clarified in a text exchange that he and Wilson are not likely to be among the “small team” that Wootton referenced.
“Will told me he would assemble his own team. T. and I would be happy to help, of course, but I suspect he'll want people with pertinent education institution administration experience,” Segar said.
On Dec. 16, trustees issued a public letter that acknowledged the offer and promised a response “soon,” while resolutely defending the Emerson plan.
The letter characterized criticism of the proposal as coming from “speakers who are not currently on [Potash] Hill,” noting years of futile effort to reverse the trend of declining student enrollments and support from other speakers “currently living and working on the campus.”
“Although our decision has not been a popular one among alumni and other constituents outside the campus community - and we understand this - we are unwavering in our support for the promising future of Marlboro at Emerson College,” the trustees wrote.