Voices from Potash Hill
A student blows dish soap bubbles on the Marlboro Dining Hall lawn.

Voices from Potash Hill

Members of the Marlboro College community offer perspectives on the college’s planned merger with Emerson College

Emma Thacker

'I came to Marlboro College because I thought it was beautiful'

Emma Thacker gave Marlboro College's commencement speech in 2014. She worked with Kate Ratcliff, Gloria Biamonte, and Geraldine Pittman de Batlle in American Studies and Literature. Her Plan was “an exploration of the charged intersections of memory, commemoration, race, and history in the United States, with a focus on selected novels by Faulkner and Morrison and media representations of the Civil Rights Movement.”

* * *

We traverse various academic paths, but the spaces we share quietly bring us together.

I came to Marlboro because I thought it was beautiful. I visited for the first time on a snowy, cold day in February and fell in love with the buildings, their roofs caked with snow, the trees covered in icicles, the students walking paths slippery with slush. I loved how small and humbled I felt standing on this hill, just one among many here in southern Vermont.

I continue to feel overwhelmed by the beauty of Marlboro, Vermont. There are mornings when I stand on South Road, looking at the mountains in the distance, and it is so unbelievably gorgeous that I can't do anything for a moment but stare in awe of the place that I go to school. The undeveloped landscape - so rare, and so precious.

And then there are the spaces that we all occupy that are beautiful because we all pass through them at one time or another. There is the dining hall, where students, faculty, and staff congregate for meals, for Town Meeting, for events like the annual President's Ball. I can't imagine that any one of you hasn't spent time sipping a cup of tea or coffee, gazing out the window at people walking down from Dalrymple after class, anticipating a wave of people to suddenly enter what has been an otherwise quiet space.

There is the “OP hill,” where we sit, engaging in conversation, napping in the sun, playing with whatever dog sits outside the Outdoor Program for the day. The library balcony, which possesses, arguably, the best view on campus. The library itself, where students spend countless hours poring over books, trading ideas, and pulling dreaded and celebrated all-nighters. Dalrymple, where most of us will have at least one or two classes, where many of us sat in our orals, completed our Plans of Concentration. And, of course, the woods that surround us - the landmarks like the stone circle and the tree houses and the trails to be walked or skied in the winter.

This is what we share. This choice to live on a beautiful little hill in the middle of nowhere, the spaces that we return to day after day.

I've found myself forgetting how much I love Marlboro's landscape. And although my life has become enriched in so many ways since my first days here, it is the beauty of Marlboro that remains the most consistent and overwhelming part of my experience here.

Nelli Sargsyan

A 'vibrant creative and intellectual life' at Emerson

Nelli Sargsyan is a professor of anthropology at Marlboro College who received tenure in December. “These are just the things that come to the forefront for me right now, after a semester that was emotionally difficult and academically nourishing thanks to intellectually bright and creative students,” she writes. In responding to our questions, she noted, “My answers do not do justice to the richness of my experience at Marlboro.”

* * *

To be a professor at Marlboro in my experience has meant having full autonomy over your own curriculum and being meaningfully engaged with students and colleagues, both faculty and staff.

It has meant reflecting deeply on pedagogy both individually as well as with colleagues. It has meant creatively dreaming with students and learning from them. It has meant being involved in making curricular decisions with colleagues that foster and support students' academic growth.

It has meant sharing meals and laughter with students and colleagues. It has meant collecting cigarette butts and planting garlic on work days.

It has meant looking forward to going open studio days at the end of each semester to witness the amazing creativity of ours students in visual and performing arts. It has meant going to all theater and dance performances on campus. It has meant collaborating with students and colleagues.

It has meant so much more, but perhaps this gives you a glimpse of it.

* * *

Since I joined the College, there were many reimagining sessions and process over the years. And according to my colleagues who had been there long before me, this was the case even before I arrived. It was difficult to be in a job that I loved knowing from the beginning about the financial difficulties and low enrollment, which meant that I did not have a sense that my job was secure.

I am not sure that I can look back at the 4.5 years that I have been at the College and say, “If we did this thing we would be able to continue operating as Marlboro College on the Potash Hill.” At the same time, I am not sure if this is a useful exercise.

I started working at Marlboro with an acute sense of instability and constant engagement in activities directed at tackling these issues. And this has been going on in different ways: some of us have been working on assessment practices, some of us on curricular issues, some of us with the Admissions team, and so on.

The first event in which I participated once I was hired at Marlboro was called Advance, the purpose of which was to work on and come up with ways that would allow us to do things differently so that we are better able to attract students to increase our enrollment, since our financial situation is directly connected to the enrollment, including presentations on enrollment at Marlboro and our peer institutions over the years.

The most difficult thing for me about the time period after the Emerson announcement was the fact that so many parties were writing and speaking about us at the College without necessarily speaking to us that I felt I couldn't have the space to go through my own process of grieving, nor could we (the College community) do this collectively, since we had to respond to the constant (and often inaccurate) commentary or requests to comment.

While we will maintain our faculty community at Emerson, the community of staff, faculty, and students currently on Potash Hill will be dispersed, since our colleagues who are staff members will lose their jobs and we won't be together on our beloved Potash Hill. And this deeply saddens me.

I am part of the working group. It consists of Marlboro and Emerson faculty and focuses on faculty and curricular issues to then make recommendations to the strategic options task force at Marlboro and our respective boards of trustees to take into account when they make the final agreement between our two institutions.

In our first joint working group meeting, we started with identifying shared values and pedagogical practices that have been important for us at our respective institutions that we would like to preserve.

Besides individual faculty choices, we have started thinking and talking about liberal arts education that the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson can provide to best serve our Marlboro students who decide to go to Emerson, Emerson students who are interested in performing arts and communication, and students interested in designing their own academic trajectory, thus enriching all students' academic experience.

Besides no longer working on a rural campus within a small academic community, the way we work with students on their Plan of Concentration through individual tutorials will change. Another change: Our studio arts students on the Marlboro campus have studios, which currently seems to be a challenge on the Emerson campus.

But our new Emerson colleagues are wonderful. I think we share many communal and pedagogical values. Many of them expressed excitement about working together and strengthening and deepening the liberal arts there.

There also seem to be exciting possibilities. For example, I was happy to find out about Emerson Prison Initiative, which allows faculty to teach students who are incarcerated. Experience Lab at Emerson is another valuable opportunity that allows faculty and students to engage in meaningful work with community partners.

Students and faculty will be able to partake in the vibrant creative and intellectual life at Emerson and in the greater Boston area.

The thing is, the Marlboro College campus on Potash Hill is still open. The spring 2020 semester will conclude with a graduation ceremony for the class of 2020 in May. My colleagues who are staff members will be on campus until the end of June. So I do not think of Marlboro College campus on Potash Hill in the past tense.

When that happens, I will carry the creativity and unencumbered imaginative ways of thinking about curriculum, teaching, and learning, taking a genuine interest in students and colleagues and what they do, excitement about collaborative work, and the knowledge and skills I learned as a result of these collaborations.

Randy George

'Being different was both Marlboro's strength and its weakness'

Randy George, a member of Marlboro College's alumni council, graduated from Marlboro in 1993, with a Plan in theater. He worked in the kitchen while at Marlboro and it was that experience that set him on the professional path that he has pursued. He has owned and operated Red Hen Baking Co. in Middlesex since founding it in 1999. He and his wife, Liza Cain, live in Moretown with their two teenage daughters.

* * *

There are so many factors that have brought Marlboro to this point - most of them external, in my opinion.

As I see it, Marlboro was always out of step with the mainstream. We keep hearing about how fewer students are interested in going to rural colleges and how few colleges are more rural than Marlboro. It's also small, of course. That, combined with the community governance philosophy, makes the whole college experience at Marlboro about more than just academics. But Marlboro is also very challenging academically. It forces students to discover who they are.

As T. Wilson, literature professor emeritus, likes to say, “Marlboro is hard.” He likes to use this as a selling point, but it can also be a deterrent. Marlboro always struggled with a higher-than-normal attrition rate. Although I always saw that as an inevitable consequence of being a school that was pretty easy to get into but much harder to graduate from, it was a continual marketing challenge.

Being different was both Marlboro's strength and its weakness. For many years, Marlboro was able to find just enough students for whom all of this was just right. As the number of students pursuing liberal arts - particularly at rural schools in the Northeast - has dwindled, so have Marlboro's enrollment numbers.

The other critical factor is that there have been fewer and fewer incoming students who have the ability to pay what a Marlboro education costs. In recent years, the college has had to lean heavily on wealthy donors as well as their sizable (for a school of this size) but dwindling endowment. As we hear a lot about the growing income inequality in our country, I wonder if this issue (which is not unique to Marlboro) is a symptom of that.

* * *

As for what Marlboro College means to me and what the changes there mean for higher education, Marlboro is remarkable to me simply because of the number of people I know whose lives were radically changed by their experience there.

Many people who have excelled at Marlboro did not know that they were interested in intellectual pursuits until they came to the college - or maybe they had never lived in a community where everyone was valued.

I have so many friends who have gone on to careers in all kinds of different fields after finding their path at Marlboro. The college has never specialized in a particular area or two - one could get an exceptional education in fields as varied as art, music, theater, the natural and social sciences, literature, religion, American Studies, and more.

Consequently, this little school on a hill in the Vermont countryside has produced an impressive list of people doing remarkable work in everything from education to international development to writing to philosophy - and sometimes even business.

Marlboro really has no equivalent that I know of. So to think that this magical place will likely be no more is exceedingly sad to me.

* * *

I am well aware that the end of the story of Marlboro College in Vermont is better than that of so many other schools that have closed in recent years. Nonetheless, it is my feeling that most if not all of the unique and special magic that has defined Marlboro will be lost forever in this alliance with Emerson.

If the Emerson deal is sealed, I will be glad that many Marlboro professors will still have jobs in higher ed and will have received a raise. I will be glad that some students will find exciting opportunities at Emerson. But this community, which includes 70-some staff members and several non-tenured faculty, won't be preserved.

I actually have more hope that the campus can be repurposed for use as a different kind of educational institution with its own vibrant community than I do that the small group of professors and students that move to Emerson will re-create the Marlboro community there.

I differ from many of my fellow alums when it comes to my feelings about if this could have been prevented. I think that Marlboro has, by its own admission, historically done a very poor job of engaging its alumni community. I also think that Marlboro has long struggled with how to effectively market its uniqueness. But my take on things is that none of this - and nothing that I have seen proposed - could have significantly forestalled and ultimately prevented this crisis.

There is a growing movement afoot to slow down or cancel the Emerson deal and make a serious run at keeping Marlboro independent. Quite honestly, I find that there is something really inspiring about the enthusiasm coming from these alumni, emeriti professors, and at least one former administrator. I feel torn between the reasoned arguments coming from people working on Potash Hill that have been grappling with Marlboro's challenges for years and the idealism of this group that believes that Marlboro can weather the storm.

The whole argument is starting to shape up like an epic debate between those who have decided that hard realities need to be accepted and those who feel that the inability to see another path represents a lack of imagination and vision.

I am joining my fellow alumni council members in calling on the board of trustees and administration to allow Will Wootton to take a look “behind the curtain” and, most likely, give us a view of what it would look like if Marlboro stayed on Potash Hill. One reason that I think this is important is that Marlboro has an unusually passionate group of intelligent and experienced community members that have been left out of the process of finding a way for the college to survive.

One of the unfortunate aspects of communications coming out of Marlboro in the last several years has been that things have been portrayed as being just fine ... until all of a sudden, they weren't. I think that in order for the Marlboro community to feel heard in all of this, we need to go through this process of looking at what an option other than merger or closure would look like.

Jenny Ramstetter

'Marlboro has been a part of me'

Jennifer (Jenny) Ramstetter is a 1981 graduate of Marlboro who returned to the college as a professor of biology in 1989 after she received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I was a student at Marlboro from 1977 to 1981 and a graduate student missing Marlboro every day from 1982 to 1989,” she writes.

* * *

Several things stand out to me as my best experiences as a professor at Marlboro. One is the learning that I've been a part of as a faculty member - learning from my students and my colleagues. With each course and tutorial I've gained new knowledge and perspectives. Each semester, students ask questions I've never thought of and bring new ideas to class.

Another remarkable experience has been the freedom to create a curriculum with colleagues that is influenced by our students and particularly to co-teach with fellow faculty sometimes in fields far from biology. I am also grateful to have been here in a time when racial and ethnic diversity among students has increased as well as efforts to bring greater diversity to our faculty and staff.

Not surprisingly, losing Marlboro College on Potash Hill has been my most difficult experience at Marlboro, and it hasn't even happened yet.

Just this fall, I worked with several new remarkable students, and it pains me to think of them not finishing at Marlboro, where they've found their new intellectual and spiritual home, much as I did as an 18-year old.

In the spring, I'll be co-teaching a new interdisciplinary course on global migrations with Rituparna Mitra, a writing and literature professor who began to teach at Marlboro in 2018, and we both lament that it will be the first and only time we teach the course on Potash Hill.

Of course, Marlboro is not perfect, and many would argue that it has systemic flaws. I certainly know that some of my fellow faculty members, staff, and students over the years have had difficulties, some of which have caused them to leave the college.

But most days over the years I've walked on campus by the fire pond in the mornings, stopped for coffee in the dining hall, and then headed to the Science Building very happy to be among extraordinary colleagues - faculty, students, and staff. I'm sure it's exceptional to say that of a job you've held for 31 years. And to get paid for studying and teaching about the natural environment and being surrounded by those who also love to learn and teach is extraordinary, too.

For all of my adult life, Marlboro has been a part of me and a place I've lived in or longed for, so it's hard to fathom taking memories with me to a different place. I live 3.5 miles from campus, so perhaps I will be blessed or cursed to be nearby and see the campus in various forms and to witness transformations. Perhaps I will always imagine that a current rendition of the campus is just temporary and will return to my beloved college shortly?

If we had succeeded in getting the concept of Marlboro known and accepted on a national level starting in the '90s, we might be in a different position.

* * *

Just last June, I traveled for admissions with Fumio Sugihara, our insightful dean of admissions and financial aid, for a panel on science in the liberal arts for independent counselors. To prepare, I looked back over 40 years of science students and highlighted some of them and the work they did at Marlboro and what they are doing now.

I chose a remarkable series of students who did interesting and impressive things at Marlboro and are now physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals; ecologists and conservation biologists; public-health officials; physicists and computer scientists; and teachers and mathematicians. I told the audience that I didn't cherry-pick the examples; rather, I spent hours agonizing over who and what I was leaving out.

Did the world know that Marlboro produced remarkable graduates? Not well enough or widely enough. But I don't think my presentation of Marlboro students particularly wowed the crowd. For most of the counselors' clients, a small liberal arts college in the woods of Vermont would remain an unlikely place to study science and mathematics and computer science.

In a conversation this fall with a person who knows the college well in different contexts, the individual shared with me the belief that the college has been unwilling to innovate over the years. We held onto the vision of small, liberal arts education on the hill (which many know the world needs desperately). However, perhaps the only way to do that is with the support of other, innovative endeavors.

On the financial end, we would have had to move away from a policy of providing such enormous financial aid. This notion was always hard for me to accept over the years when students nationwide have crushing college debt and many students would not be able to come to Marlboro without significant aid. I still believe in need-blind admissions (is that even a phrase anymore?) and meeting all unmet need. I am sure that my views are fantastical from the view of admissions and financial aid professionals.

In retrospect, I think it would have taken tremendous resources to adequately support the college.

* * *

I think the way Marlboro could have survived on the hill would have been through a) securing an endowment of around $200 million, b) downsizing and economizing and securing an appropriate endowment to see us through downsizing and further dips in enrollment, or c) innovating and either combining our liberal arts model with other, more-prosperous ideas or shifting to another educational model entirely (in which case we would not have succeeded in continuing Marlboro).

Perhaps we've tried elements of these ideas over the decades, but we have not had the resources to sustain them or the will to innovate successfully.

Sadly, I don't have any proposals that would achieve a, b, or c.

Dan Toomey

'There was then, as there is now, a special pride in being Marlboro'

Dan Toomey is a Robert Frost scholar and an associate professor at Landmark College, where he has taught since the college's first years. He is a 1979 graduate of Marlboro College, from which his father also graduated, in 1953, after serving in Korea at the end of World War II. Toomey has written many articles about Marlboro's early years, including pieces on Robert Frost's role in the college's founding and Frost's interest in education. In reflecting on this work over the years as an unofficial historian of Marlboro College, a role that he has also played at Landmark College, Toomey observed that his interest “has always been in the College's pre-history and early history, its origins and then its infancy.”

* * *

I'm better at writing about ideas and people than I am about money, buildings, and programs; I think this is the reason the school's early history and pre-history so intrigue me. When I was a student the faculty voluntarily took an across-the-board pay cut. I remember that; it didn't register as a big deal at the time.

I've always seen Marlboro College in a rear-view mirror, so the elegiacal tone is - well, it's just there. I am more interested in my father's time there than my own.

It seems to me that every college - or most, anyway - paint a history of themselves as one of continuity through change. Marlboro has been no different in that regard, but very different in others.

Marlboro was a GI Bill college in that the majority of the early students had served in the military and were enrolled at Marlboro under the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944.

The early denizens of Potash Hill - even those who hadn't served in the Second World War - were uniquely shaped by the times in which they lived, when they learned to improvise, to sacrifice, and to work together toward a common goal for the betterment of all.

The early Marlboro College was, to a large degree, created out of these ideals at a time in history when they were so imbued in our culture that they were - in many places, but not all - taken for granted.

The year Marlboro was incorporated, my father was stationed at the 38th parallel in Korea, a 17-year-old rifleman in the Seventh Infantry Division, charged with overseeing the Japanese surrender. His unit was undersupplied - short on ammunition, winter clothing, and food. The black market had siphoned off so much of the best things to eat, leaving only canned asparagus, which my father subsequently lived off for the better part of a year. (Upon leaving the army, he never touched asparagus - even fresh asparagus - for the rest of his life.)

He enrolled at Marlboro in the fall of 1949 and adapted easily to the academics and the work routine, helping to lay a new foundation under the Culbertson Room (the ell off of Dalrymple that initially served as the College's library) and with other students helping dig the Fire Pond. (The soil to be removed was loosened with dynamite, which you could purchase then in Brattleboro if you had a valid driver's license.)

If Walter Hendricks knew you had a skill, he'd ask you to use it, liability be damned. There was one demolition expert among the student body. His penchant for throwing lighted dynamite sticks out the window of his car on trips to Brattleboro (trips made to purchase more dynamite, I suppose) earned him a distinct notoriety. And most of the early students did have skills that could be put to immediate use.

George Richards '51, once told me, “We all had tool boxes.” Bruce Bohrmann '52 told of losing power for three days in midwinter. The Marlboro students chopped wood to stay warm and studied by kerosene lamps. When the electricity came back on, they learned over the radio that students at Princeton were on strike from classes. The reason: their maid service had been discontinued.

There was then, as there is now, a special pride in being Marlboro.

I have no question that American culture has become increasingly materialistic and money-driven over the 70 years of Marlboro's existence, and the high regard for improvisation and sacrifice, which got our country through the war and which could be argued are forms of everyday heroism, are valued more narrowly today. They are values at odds with materialism. They are largely gone from Marlboro's culture, too, of course.

But what is still there is something more important: community working together toward a common goal. And there is heroism in that. The spirit is still there.

* * *

I have always regarded Marlboro College as profoundly traditional. People look puzzled when I say this, I think in part because they confuse “traditional” with “conventional.” These are not the synonyms. Most progressive education is traditional, not conventional, in that it is a return to ancient roots: the tutorial, Socratic dialectic, a focus on the individual student.

What formed the core of Walter Hendricks' educational vision was his experience as an undergraduate at Amherst College, and more particularly his experience there as a student of Robert Frost. What convinced him that the ideal could be realized was his experience as English Department Chair at Biarritz American University.

At the core of Professor Roland Boyden's educational vision was his experience as a teacher at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. (Cynthia Boyden said to me once, “Roland was always trying to make Marlboro more like Black Mountain.”) At the core of President Tom Ragle's educational vision was his experience as an undergraduate in the classics program at Harvard College, followed by his time at Oxford, both programs allowing opportunity for intensive one-on-one work with professors.

By the early 1960s, in my view, these varying but similar ideals had converged into a single broad educational philosophy that laid the foundation for the Plan of Concentration. The Clear Writing Requirement, the idea of Professor T. Wilson, came later after the comprehensive examination was eliminated as a requirement for entering the final two years at the College.

* * *

What are usually thought of as Tomas O'Crohan's most famous words, “Nuair a bhionn muid imithe ni beheidh a leiteid din naris” (translated from the Irish: “When we are gone, the like of us will never be again”) express how I remember the early teachers and students at Marlboro, but most particularly how I remember Roland Boyden.

I can't liken him to anyone else I have ever known because there is so little in our contemporary context with which to explain him. He was a man of his times there is no question, but he was unique even then.

Now I guess the words speak to me for all of Marlboro.

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