Wootton: An open letter to the Marlboro College community

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It was surprising and immediately disturbing to wake up one morning and learn of Marlboro's intention to move to Boston, not lock, stock, and barrel just the stock. But why was I surprised, having watched the slow, painful crumbling of the college over the past five or more years?

Because the deal with Emerson is a really, really good one for Emerson. For Marlboro, it's terrible. Astonishingly so. On the upside, some 24 faculty jobs (are preserved), but those jobs are in Boston. On the downside, shipping those 24 jobs to Boston will cost some 60 other people — administrators and non-tenured faculty members — their jobs, in Vermont.

And the cost will include the assured shuttering — the literal, physical abandonment — of a 70-year-old academic institution of distinction, to be sold on the auction block, proceeds to Boston, while Marlboro's ideas, its curriculum, and its mission are left anchorless.

It's like giving up while there's still fight left in you. Like selling off the whole herd, torching the house and moving to Florida. I take Emerson President Lee Pelton at his word, when he told an Insidehighered.com reporter that by next fall, "Marlboro will not exist."

With the board of trustees and its leadership apparently unified and unanimous, and the faculty compromised, what choices are left for everyone else?

Two, at least. Do nothing, or do nothing effective, and watch the distillation of Marlboro. Or, bring the current negotiations with Emerson to a stop, and then help rebuild the College.

Activism on part of an articulate alumni body is essential, but alone not enough. The concerns of townsfolk, as they see their property values shrink, will mean little to the process underway. Windham County will not care, nor will the State of Vermont.

If you want to stop what is happening, do what other colleges-almost-closed-by-a-trustee-vote have done. First, you need serious pressure employed by senior faculty members who petition the board of trustees and say, essentially, "We are not going! We're not closing!" Senior faculty are vital because at the tenured and tenure track level faculty have power. Staff, evidentially and historically, have little or none.

Of even greater importance, big current donors, and the families of those who have made restricted gifts to Marlboro's endowment, to its scholarships, its buildings, libraries, and labs must willing to step up and say, "No, that's not what this gift was intended for. It was for Marlboro College."

These initiatives and perhaps others like them would lead to calls to the Attorney General's Office and to estate and family lawyers, all of which would lead to delay, postponement, even abandonment, giving the College time — through a narrow window — to reform itself.

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The proffered deal's principle component is the Marlboro faculty's seamless shift to Boston. There is nothing coincidental about this; indeed, it would make more sense for Emerson to choose its own faculty for the new Institute. It's worth understanding that everything here is being driven by consultants. There a history to it, ever since the open disruptiveness that was Antioch College's closure in 2008.

Ever wakeful, the consultants and advisers who predominate in many higher education administrations have figured out techniques for boards and presidents "transitioning" and "seeking a new future," whereby broken institutions can slip away almost noiselessly, minimizing any unpleasantness, releasing boards of the difficult choices they face, and attempting to minimize lawsuits and protests from people or groups who have power. (Antioch's, of course, is ultimately a success story: it reopened in 2011 without accreditation, and three years later earned it back and is today pushing along pretty well.)

Sweetbriar College is another example of an institution whose trustees attempted to close and whose alumni, faculty, and donors objected. Turned out it wasn't critically injured after all, and is today on a widening road.

So in Marlboro's case, where the board of trustees has succumbed to consultants and their own leadership, defanging the tenured faculty with job guarantees is merely a technique to smooth the deal, to make things happen quickly and easily, without too much angst.

But say the faculty, or enough of them, did revolt, and influential donors and their families did intervene, claiming, rightly, their gifts of perpetuity were given to the reality, place, and idea of Marlboro College, in Marlboro, Vermont. What would happen if then Marlboro decided to live, instead of die?

What should be employed over a period of years, now would have to happen at an accelerated pace: The college would "retrench" and "right-size," seeking to become the college it actually is, a college of 125-150 students, but with an appropriately-sized faculty and administration, and a balanced budget. The curriculum would undergo dramatic change, as would student life. Without these sorts of dynamic changes in place or in the works, and supportable financial projections indicating viability produced, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges will not be persuaded and the college's accreditation would be further endangered, if not revoked.

All of it difficult, or painful, or risky, or all of that together.

But Marlboro College would be there, alive, getting stronger, and looking to the future.

Either way, go to Boston or stay at home and tough it out, jobs are lost, careers interrupted, and life remains uncertain.

Will Wootton is a 1972 graduate of Marlboro and a former president of Sterling College (2006-2012) in Craftsbuty Common.


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