Marlboro, Wootton at odds over details of ‘challenge’

As alumni ponder further moves to delay formalizing agreement with Emerson College, college prepares for closure

MARLBORO — Since a former administrator's challenge to re-examine Marlboro College's decision to merge with Emerson College was brought forward to an open meeting on the campus on Dec. 16, it has been the mainstay of discussions within the college's alumni community about how to forestall closure of the college.

Now that period has ended - with the college claiming to have accepted the offer and with former Vice President Will Wootton insisting that the trustees did not meet his terms.

A petition signed by more than 900 alumni supporting “the Wootton challenge” was brought to Marlboro's trustee meeting on Jan. 15.

In a response that was both conciliatory and definitive, Marlboro trustees made it clear that they welcomed Wootton's advice and would listen to what he had to say, and that they had already made copious financials already available on the college website.

They also said that because of short-staffing in administrative offices, they could not grant Wootton's request to have Marlboro staff work with him and his team while he examined potential opportunities, if any, for a severe retrenchment that would allow the college to survive on Potash Hill.

Instead, they offered him access to a trustee should he have specific questions while he examined the potential for retrenchment options.

It was clear that the trustees had delivered a final response. One person familiar with the discussions said trustees were “hopeful but not fully confident” the final letter “puts the Wootton challenge to rest.”

In an interview with The Commons, Wootton said that while he had not thought of withdrawing the challenge, it was a dead letter.

“They just don't want to save the college,” said Wootton. “They're not going to do it. So we'll gather our forces, and there are these alumni groups, and we'll see what to do next.”

Randy George, a member of Marlboro's Alumni Council, said in an email that the council would no longer seek to push Wootton's initiative, but that it still hoped to slow the process down so there could be more discussion before the merger is finalized.

George said that the council was seeking to have an open, mutual dialogue with Marlboro's campus community before the board's next meeting on Feb. 8, when it is scheduled to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Emerson. He expressed the hope that each side could understand the other, and that alumni ideas about preserving the campus might be heard.

“I am not under the illusion that it would solve all of the problems,” wrote George, “but since I truly believe that everyone on campus cares deeply about Marlboro, hearing directly from some of these people and understanding what has been looked at and tried would be really helpful for the community.”

“No matter what happens, Marlboro is in for profound changes,” wrote George. “Everyone seems to have accepted that.”

The day before The Commons went to press, a long letter was published in the Berkeley Beacon, Emerson College's student newspaper, signed by 19 former faculty, nine former staff, and 14 academic alumni, individuals currently working as professors at other colleges.

The letter laid out a long case for Marlboro's value and questioned the ways in which decisions made in the past 20 years had caused the college to lose touch with its core nature.

“Marlboro community members - including retired faculty - are ready to work on a new future for Marlboro,” the letter said. “Are there really no alternative plans for this 'alternative' college? What is required to keep the institution alive and then rebuild it with those willing to commit to that work?”

“Why close the doors on a remarkable, effective institution at a moment when it is more than ever an exceptional place in American higher education,” the letter writers asked. “Give Marlboro a chance to find a way forward.”

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What impact these new initiatives by alumni and former staff and faculty would have remains unclear.

What has become clear, however, is the nature of the divide between those fighting to keep the college open, almost none of whom are currently affiliated with the college, and those for whom the move to Emerson represents continuity of employment and studies, albeit in a new environment.

Many individuals within the Marlboro community have noted the way in which response to the merger has divided those currently on the campus who are resigned to the move to Emerson and trying to make the best of things, and those who remember the college with a fierce affection and can't imagine it being gone.

On social media where alumni are active, the reaction to the path toward the Emerson merger has been divided.

Many angry participants have looked for ways to continue the conversation. Further steps were proposed and discussed, from silent protests to financial model-building activities independent of the Wootton challenge. One alum posted a meme “Occupy Marlboro.”

Others took note of the college's dire financial circumstances and the fact that any retrenchment scenario would have to involve deep cuts in operating expenses and changes to the educational model.

Long discussions ensued, covering various ways in which Marlboro's endowment might be retained and its campus used for other institutions or activities that would continue to benefit Windham County.

“I think the alumni on these pages are at a true disadvantage when it comes to suggestions for radical change,” wrote Rebecca Boyden, the daughter of one of Marlboro's founders, Roland Boyden, in a Facebook post.

“Hence the safe haven of 'Will Wootton has the answer' groundswell,” she continued.

“Those of us who would, or do, advocate for the serious compromises that would be necessary to keep Marlboro on the hill, are accused of being selfish, nostalgic and unsympathetic to the 'true' stakeholders, the faculty and students who may have an option they prefer with the Emerson proposal.”

“Clearly, this is the huge question [that] divides us: Do you use the endowment and campus to retrench and build a smaller, and perhaps better, sustainable, Marlboro, or do you use those assets to move some of the current faculty and students to a less risky environment?” Boyden wrote.

“Although the sentiment is everywhere (including the Board of Trustees) for keeping the college in Marlboro, there seem to be very few voices from the current campus folk for the hard choice, for retrenchment,” she wrote. “If there are more, they are not speaking out.”

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A simple look at Marlboro's financial picture makes it clear how hard the choices would be if the college were to try to remain open on its Vermont campus.

Indeed, Wootton himself has acknowledged that bringing the budget into balance would require extraordinary cuts in faculty, staff, and services, and that even with those cuts it would still be necessary to raise significant funds to cover the transition to a leaner program model in order to keep the endowment intact. Changes in the program itself would almost certainly be required.

The college has consistently had a structural operating deficit of several million dollars for more than a decade - a loss made up by major gifts from donors and, more recently, by using endowment funds in a fashion that the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), the organization that manages Marlboro's accreditation, deems unsustainable.

Each of the five presidents in its history had to grapple with tough financial questions, often from the first day they took office.

When Kevin Quigley was hired in the spring of 2015, Marlboro was projecting a fall enrollment of 215, but by the time he took office in July that number had fallen to 170, meaning a further decline in the college's financial position of at least $1 million before he took office.

Despite record annual-fund giving that averaged more than $2 million per year over the following four years, major donors who had been subsidizing the college stepped back, and the college began raiding its endowment.

The college rebranded itself as offering “the Marlboro Promise” and conducted major admissions initiatives, but enrollment continued to fluctuate in the mid-100s, and Marlboro was forced to discount its tuition as high as 67 percent.

“Understanding that the Chinese character for crisis is also the character for opportunity,” Quigley told The Commons. “I saw Marlboro's enrollment and finances as an opportunity, but unfortunately the challenges were much bigger than either I or anyone else understood."

NECHE requires that a college demonstrate the financial resources required to stay open for four years before it enrolls a new first-year class. It stated in a Dec. 14 letter that Marlboro's options are either to execute the Emerson merger or else engage in a “three-year teachout” of currently enrolled students, using endowment funds to pay for it.

According to its audited financial statements, Marlboro received less than $2 million in tuition revenues and fees in the 2019 fiscal year, a sum less than 20 percent of its operating revenues, which included more than $4 million in contributions and $3 million from endowment funds released from donor restrictions.

Last year, operating expenses were $13 million, and despite the infusion of $7 million in donor contributions and endowment cash, the college still ran a $2 million deficit.

In even the best-case retrenchment scenario, operating expenses would have to be cut by several million dollars, and probably more. And still there would be no assurance that Marlboro would survive.

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Meanwhile, as the college prepares to open its doors for the spring semester, it is also preparing for closure and the transition to Emerson.

Memorabilia is being sorted, boxes packed, portraits of former presidents returned to their families. Working groups continue in discussing ideas for future uses of the campus and in collaborative conversations with colleagues at Emerson as preparations are made for a new fall semester in Boston.

Students have been assured by the college that their financial situation will be kept whole by Marlboro, including for housing costs, which are higher in Boston. Students who choose not to go to Emerson have the option under a transfer agreement to attend Bennington College, Castleton University, or St. Michael's College in Winooski, all chosen because they are in Vermont, or the College of the Atlantic in Maine.

The Emerson merger itself is by no means a done deal. There still is a lot to work out between the two colleges.

Given Marlboro's nature as a community organized around openness and frank community dialogue, it seems certain that further discussion will take place. Although the Wootton chapter has ended, the story has not been finished yet.

Still, the ending is in sight. What happens next may be an open guess, but no one seriously involved in the discussion thinks that Marlboro can survive in its present form on Potash Hill.

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