The following paragraphs are designed to clarify some of the issues in dispute in the discussions of the college’s past, present, and future. They are offered from a point of view, but nonetheless with every effort to make them as accurate as possible. If you believe that facts in these statements are incorrect, by all means let us know.
We share with many others a great frustration with how Marlboro College has arrived at this juncture. We are well aware of the demographic and cultural changes that challenge Marlboro and a great many other liberal arts institutions. We also believe that the national tendency to undermine faculty authority and independence (hardly any colleges or universities now operate with anywhere near a majority of faculty in tenured or even tenure-track positions) and the associated scorn in our culture and politics for critical thinking and liberal arts disciplines have contributed mightily to the disastrous political conditions that now threaten our very democracy. The values of fair intellectual discourse and civility that are embedded in liberal arts colleges and universities have also sustained our polity, and we see all around us what happens when they disappear, replaced by the exercise of raw power and economic interests apparently prepared to sacrifice our collective future for individual profit in the present. So we do not view Marlboro’s problems in isolation.
Nonetheless, we believe that this did not have to happen and that the current leadership particularly the president and the Board has made it happen through failure of imagination, failure of consultation both within and without, limitation of information even to those who must finally decide, etc. We believe we understand the issues here pretty well: a stubborn decline in enrollment, a disastrous discount rate, an unsustainable endowment draw, a consequent threat to our accreditation. We are aware that the president has been keenly focused on, and urging everyone else’s focus toward, the demographic issues and the problems facing the liberal arts generally. Those are not under our control, but the ones delineated above are subject at least to our influence. It is precisely the failure of imagination, passion, and faith in the community that characterize the present administration, its willingness to focus relentlessly on the limitations that are not within our control, rather than the possibilities that are, that has brought us to this closure. Granting that the faculty in particular might have been more forceful in asserting some of the reforms and resisting some of the stupidities along the way, the faculty has been more prescient and more engaged than the administration, only to be ignored or actively resisted.
We believe that Marlboro College could almost certainly have been saved and may yet be, with new leadership, renewing faculty engagement in admissions and administration, significant restructuring and reduction of staff, establishing the college as a work college, and an imaginative and comprehensive fund-raising effort. We are under no illusions that the college will survive exactly as it has been (at whatever point you choose to remember it) nor that survival will be easy. But we do think Marlboro represents something rare in higher education and that its loss is not just the loss of “another college.”
Some trustees have asserted that the alumni have not been engaged.
The Alumni Association and its representation on the Board were allowed to lapse, so that when this crisis emerged, no effective way remained for concerned alumni to make their voices heard. The role of the Alumni Director is perceived as to deflect criticism, to defend the administration, rather than to convey or mediate alumni concerns.
The alumni have this year formed an “interdependent” Marlboro College Alumni Association, https://www.marlborocollegealumniassociation.com/ which is official but which will also persist if the college ceases. When the UB merger collapsed, a group of alumni immediately began working with Admissions and with Development to recruit students for Marlboro and to encourage alumni fund-raising. Those alumni were given no warning that their efforts would soon be rendered beside the point by the oncoming merger/closure.
The Board has claimed that the alumni knew or should have known how dire the situation was.
The April 2019 newsletter from the college to alumni stated, “You have probably have heard about the closure of some of our peer institutions. While this is worthy of much concern for the state of higher education in the USA and we are super sorry to see these institutions go, rest assured that Marlboro is currently not on that path.” More recently, the Board has asserted that the college could not be more frank with alumni while trying to recruit new students, as if misleading alumni were justified by the “necessity” of misleading prospective students.
Some on the Board have complained that the alumni have not donated generously in the past and cannot be counted on to do so in the future.
The new, self-starting Marlboro College Alumni Association (MCAA), when it received the college’s list of 5000 alumni, found that the list has not been professionally maintained: only about half of those on the list, even from the ‘90s and 2000s, listed email addresses at all, and many of those are incorrect or inactive. Many of the physical addresses are years out of date, often their home addresses when they were students. Any fund-raising efforts based on such a list were doomed before they began. The MCAA’s list of 600 already gets a larger response than the college’s much larger list.
Was such neglect based on an assumption that alumni who came to Marlboro poor would remain poor, that very few alumni have prospered on the strength of a Marlboro education? Such an assumption is consistent with the failure, noted by faculty for years, of the college web site to feature representative alumni success stories for prospective students and their parents.
The Board claims that “innovative scholarships” (the Renaissance Scholarships, offering free tuition to one student from each state with a strong academic record and a history of community engagement) were a constructive effort to rebuild enrollment.
Giving away something for free is not an effective way to convince people of its value. Criteria for the scholarships were modified over the summer without Faculty approval, and when some of the Ren Scholars were apparently having academic difficulty, the Faculty requested and never received a report on the performance of the Ren Scholars as a group (individuals were not identified as Ren Scholars, though some self-identified). The program also contributed dramatically to the rise in the discount rate (currently over 70%), both directly and because the knowledge that some students, even those who could pay, were paying no tuition raised the expectation for discounts. The whole Renaissance Scholarship program was unfunded, so that it came straight off the bottom line.
The Board or individual trustees have felt “attacked” by the criticism, when they believe they have worked very hard and in good faith over at least the last six years to preserve the college in the face of extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
It cannot be pleasant to feel that the Board’s genuine effort, while recognized by most, is nonetheless unappreciated by many. However, a great many of those outside the Board find that we are hardly dealing with the Board at all, but with a strategy and set of responses more shaped by undisclosed agreements with Emerson and EY Parthenon. Despite the December 14th open meeting, the Board and most individual trustees have not engaged in genuine dialog with the broader college community. They have for the most part answered specific requests or arguments, if at all, only in very general terms. The official statements from the Board, whether written by the Board or not, have asserted repeatedly that, for instance, this is a merger, although Emerson continues to describe it as a gift to Emerson, and Marlboro will cease to exist except as a name on a program. The statements have repeatedly characterized the release of documents as an adequate response to Will Wootton’s proposal, although it is not, and it has become clear that most of the Board believes that some agreement they have with Emerson prevents their genuinely accepting, though the Board has never acknowledged that, either. They have repeatedly claimed that the “merger” will preserve some DNA or essence of Marlboro, while not defining what that essence might be.
It is noteworthy that the best single source of information about the issues between Marlboro and Emerson is not the Marlboro College web site, but the Marlboro pages of The Berkeley Beacon web site, which includes not only the official word, but also letters, petitions, and commentary critical of the deal and its process. It is an embarrassment to Marlboro’s history of open debate and inclusive process that a statement from a thousand alumni and friends and a letter from dozens of former faculty and alumni do not appear on our own web site, but only on The Beacon’s.
The Board is responsible to the State and to NECHE for oversight of the administration of the college.
The Board has neglected this responsibility in important details. They have been informed, repeatedly, of circumstances in which the president has misled the Faculty, the Town Meeting, and the Board itself on matters of governance and finance. When the president abruptly and without following Board-approved policy terminated the phased retirement policy, purportedly to save money, the Board accepted the action without seeing until months later, if ever, plausible estimates of how money would be saved or how much. If the Board has taken action in consequence, they have not then made certain that appropriate corrective changes have followed. Administrative actions have appeared arbitrary and disruptive, both within the staff and to those working with staff. The administration, apparently with the acquiescence of the Board, has undermined the historical governance structure of the college.
The Board and administration have characterized the letter from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) (https://www.marlboro.edu/live/files/275-neche-letter-december- 19-2019) as requiring the merger with Emerson or a “teachout” followed by closure.
The letter is based very substantially on the report to NECHE from the college. While the College’s report has not been made public, the NECHE letter makes clear that the report itself is the source of the judgment that the College must merge or move toward closure. NECHE’s job is not to find or propose solutions to college problems, but to identify the problems and approve or disapprove the solutions colleges propose. The college report apparently “details the work of the Strategic Options Task Force to explore viable options for the College’s future,” and the Board has repeatedly characterized the Task Force as “exploring all of Marlboro’s options.” Neither the work of the Task Force nor the description of its work to NECHE has been made public, but nothing that has been made public describes a serious consideration of retrenchment and rebuilding, implying that the college has misled NECHE about the range of options it has considered seriously.
NECHE works effectively with colleges when they present strong leadership, effective fundraising, and a persuasive plan for independence, curriculum, and graduating current students. Marlboro is free to formulate a different plan and submit it to NECHE to maintain its accreditation, as Hampshire has done.
With the collapse of the UB merger, the Board said that there were “attractive strategic partnerships that the task force is considering. These conversations with potential partners are governed by confidentiality restrictions that prevent the task force from providing any details to the Marlboro community. They will share information when the disclosure of that information does not jeopardize serious consideration of a possible partnership.”
The Board has shared no such information with the Marlboro community, and they evidently interpret any disclosure of details prior to finalization of the “partnership” as jeopardizing serious consideration. Thus, although the NECHE letter refers to a term sheet that “already establishes the key financial and due diligence terms for the final agreement” and says “that a timetable has been established that includes the convening of working groups that will conclude their work by February 2020, completion of the final merger agreement in May 2020 and implementation of the merger beginning on July 1, 2020,” neither the Board nor Emerson has publicly disclosed even the existence of the term sheet, let alone its terms.
Both the Board and individual trustees refer to the Emerson merger as preserving “Marlboro’s DNA.”
Describing the merger in this way avoids having to describe what might actually be preserved. Even current faculty members expecting to transfer to Emerson do not think anything particular to Marlboro will be preserved: no Plans, no tutorials, no Faculty governance, no Town Meeting, no Vermont campus. Even the president of Emerson can see what will be lost: “we recognize that Marlboro’s curricular and pedagogic experiences are profoundly linked to and influenced by the Vermont rural landscape. Its setting is the raison d’être – the animating spirit that brings to life, in full measure, the teaching and learning that takes place on Potash Hill.” He goes on to claim that Emerson will preserve Marlboro’s promise, but that can be true only by draining it of all specificity. The DNA of Marlboro “preserved” at Emerson is only the DNA that it shares with hundreds of very different liberal arts institutions, not the DNA that has distinguished Marlboro as a uniquely valuable college.
The term sheet.
A term sheet is an outline of preliminary terms of a business agreement, a guide to what is to be negotiated and agreed upon before a final agreement. It provides only guidelines to the issues that need resolution, though it may indicate likely or desired outcomes. They are usually non- binding.
The Board has not publicly acknowledged the existence of a term sheet, let alone what all of its terms might be. Nonetheless, NECHE refers in their letter of 19 December to a term sheet, and the announced broad outlines of the deal (Emerson gets all of the assets and takes on such of our students and tenured and tenure-track faculty as may wish to go) are the sorts of things that a
term sheet would describe. Such broad outlines leave many questions to further negotiations, and additional questions often arise as the negotiations proceed, which is why they can’t be binding. For instance, the question of whether faculty will have the facilities they need to teach what they have been teaching or whether they will be required to adjust their teaching to the lack of facilities appears to have been left open. The expectation that Emerson will receive the value of the campus but not the responsibility for it has left the college, the town, and even the state to figure out a use, and a buyer, for the campus and its buildings. The Board won’t say what else the term sheet defines and what else the negotiations cover.
The exclusivity agreement.
The Board has acted in ways that are explicable only by the presence of some binding agreement with Emerson not to consider other options and not to tell anyone about the agreement. Some members of the Board, including the chairman, have suggested some such agreement without acknowledging specifically what limitations it imposes. The scope of those limitations appears subject to differing interpretations within the Board, but no public statement from them has acknowledged such an agreement as the reason for their refusal to alternatives, in particular their rejection of Will Wootton’s proposal. At the same time, the assertion by the administration of some sort of limiting agreement has been used to suppress discussion of alternatives on campus. The effect is that the Board has ceded to Emerson and Emerson’s interpretation of the agreement the capacity to exercise the Board’s own fiduciary responsibility to the institution.
In general, exclusivity agreements in acquisitions, which is what this “merger” really is, are designed to protect the buyer (Emerson in this case) from the seller (Marlboro in this case) dealing with a different possible buyer while the buyer is undertaking its due diligence. Several things in the Emerson-Marlboro deal make an exclusivity arrangement peculiar. First, Emerson has virtually nothing at stake here; all of the value of Marlboro College will be transferred to Emerson. There’s no “purchase.” The “cost” to Emerson is the transfer of Marlboro faculty, but that “cost” is actually part of the value. Second, there is no third party here, no different possible buyer. The Board is accepting that somehow they are no longer allowed to consider an alternative possibility of Marlboro continuing as an independent college. To see how ridiculous this is, would the Board believe it would have to turn down a gift of $200 million to endowment, the highest amount they have said would assure the survival of the college on the present model? Would they be obligated to turn that down because they have a preliminary agreement with Emerson? Of course not.
Stopping the merger.
The efforts to save the college have sometimes been characterized as stopping the merger, as if stopping the merger was the point. We are under no illusions that stopping the merger in and of itself would save the college, though we do reject the idea that if the merger fails for any reason whatever, the college must simply close. Initially there was some hope that the merger might be altered in such a way that the Marlboro College campus might be kept alive, but it has long been
clear that Emerson is not interested in that. So we are also under no illusions that a plausible reconfiguration of the college as an independent institution will of necessity stop the merger.
There are assuredly risks. Marlboro College has been at some risk of closing for most of its existence, and no realistic independent path is likely to change that, certainly not immediately. The aim is to articulate a changed, renewed, and, at least initially, smaller college that may be able to survive. It will take the same sort of devotion and imagination that has kept the college going through thick and thin for over seventy years.
It should be clear that the merger does not create an assured future for Emerson either, nor for those who transfer there. Emerson has substantial debt and more real estate property than their resources can readily maintain. Its curriculum is more conventional and thus more readily absorbed by another institution.
Is the deal with Emerson a fragile thing?
The question is worth asking, given the role the threat or danger of Emerson’s withdrawal has played in much of the discussion both within the college and in the broader community. Faculty were under quite significant pressure from colleagues to sign onto the original Statement from the Faculty in November, and the Dean at least one occasion shouted down skeptics in Faculty Meeting. Students and alumni alike have been urged not to critique the deal out of loyalty to their faculty or former faculty. Townspeople have similarly felt torn between their friendships with faculty and resistance to the communal loss. Members of the Board have been more specific in their charges that critics were endangering the deal than they have been in their responses to critiques of both process and substance.
It is hard to imagine that Emerson would ultimately reject the deal over criticism (mostly directed, after all, at our own Board) and a bit of mixed publicity. They gain $30-$40 million in endowment at a single whack and take on somewhere between a dozen and twenty seasoned faculty dedicated to successful independent study and a few students. A few things might end the deal. Unlikely as it seems right now, our Board might decide that the deal sacrifices too much for too little and undertake a much more serious exploration of alternatives. If a single trustee were to feel sufficiently dissatisfied with the process or the deal itself, he or she could sue at least to slow the process. They would be supported in such an effort by former trustees who left feeling that not enough was being done. A second possibility is that enough donors might choose not to release restrictions on their gifts to Marlboro to make them readily transferable to Emerson and to Emerson’s purposes. Some donors have certainly expressed frustration at not having been appropriately consulted, and The Berkeley Beacon found that “Marlboro has yet to file requests to un-restrict nearly $40 million in restricted assets” as of the end of January. A third possibility is that Emerson will not want to take possession of the campus without a buyer firmly in place. From the outset, the president has said that the deal became possible only when keeping the campus was “taken off the table.” Emerson does not want to own the campus and the responsibility for maintaining it to the standards required by the Music School lease, and the college can hardly divest itself of all its monetary assets while holding onto a giant obligation.
The Faculty statement on the merger (on this site: https://www.marlboro.edu/community/news/what-is-next-for-marlboro/updates/ ), passed back in November, supported the “exploration” of the merger and, while mourning the loss of Marlboro College, declared that no other path seemed open. All but a very few faculty signed onto the statement, even some who were and remain pretty skeptical.
The statement asserts that the college “is no longer sustainable without an unprecedented infusion of money to our endowment.” This assertion assumes that the institutional costs are substantially inflexible, that no combination of cutting costs, effective fund-raising, programmatic change, and cooperative agreements would preserve the college in its essential elements. No evidence has been offered that this is true, and even the estimates of the “unprecedented infusion of money to our endowment” have varied by orders of magnitude.
The faculty statement goes on to say that “we have two choices: either begin the process for closing soon after this current year or make a choice to preserve as much as possible of our progressive, interdisciplinary, student-directed educational model.” This binary assertion is what the administration presented to NECHE and to the Board as well, and it implies an examination of alternatives that simply has not taken place. Look at the broad-ranging and inclusive process under way with the Campus Working Group to come up with uses and programs for the campus when most of the faculty (and the endowment) moves to Emerson, and compare that with the obscure and opaque process that arrived at the decision to “merge.” Moreover, what the statement presents as a choice between two things is in fact a choice between two ways of closing the college, one of which results in the transfer of all the college assets to Emerson.
Who will go to Emerson and what will they do?
It is so far difficult to know what decisions individuals will make. Nonetheless a substantial number of the 24 faculty eligible to go clearly have misgivings ranging from mild to serious, and one has already found a position at Bennington instead. The Emerson people our faculty have met have been largely welcoming and impressive individually. Emerson’s institutional conception of the “liberal arts” has less to do with how subjects are taught and how they are formed into an integrated program than with meeting a prescriptive set of requirements in a range of courses, distinctly not our model.
Six of those eligible are tenure-track, with no assurance whatever that they will ever be granted Emerson’s tenure, based on quite different criteria (much more on research than on teaching) from those in effect here. They must immediately focus on becoming more Emerson than the Emerson tenure-track teachers they will be competing with. Another six are within (some well within) ten years of retirement, and at least one does not intend to stay beyond the time it takes to graduate remaining Plan students. That leaves eleven faculty to “keep [Marlboro’s] legacy alive” amid a faculty of 180.
All this is quite apart from the question of what Marlboro faculty will do there. The faculty in Theater and Dance will probably fit in well with existing programs, though not as part of the Institute. Most Social Science faculty and Humanities faculty will presumably fit into the Institute. The five remaining Natural Science faculty will presumably be assigned to the Institute, but with neither labs nor an interest in establishing them, what they will be able to teach is very much in question. (See http://marlboromonitor.com/2020/02/marlboro-professors- face-difficult-decisions-as-merger-looms/) The faculty in the Visual Arts, with, as yet, no studio spaces, are similarly uncertain of what their roles might be.
It seems most likely that those near retirement will hold on until they retire, but that many others will spend much of their time looking for jobs more in keeping with their experience and interests. All of this assumes that Emerson is in fact seriously interested in keeping our faculty once Marlboro ceases to exist and the endowment has transferred. Their administrative model, within which classes and schedules are assigned by department heads, could easily be used to prune away even our tenured faculty, much as Bridgeport’s ability to require Marlboro faculty to teach in Bridgeport could have been. It is worth remembering that, before the UB deal collapsed, the president of Bridgeport deeply impressed faculty and trustees alike with her appreciation of Marlboro’s educational model. One may hope for good faith, but one must consider what is possible.
The short version has been that Marlboro students will be able to transfer to Emerson at the same tuition that they pay at Marlboro.
The short version is hedged in a variety of ways. Students already on Plan will be able to finish their Plans, though it’s not clear how or whether the concept of Plan tutorials, particularly critical for seniors, will be accommodated. The tuition protection disappears if “they transfer into another major or study on another campus outside of Boston,” and it seems unclear what transferring to “another major” will mean for freshmen and sophomores. More recently, Marlboro students have reportedly been told that they will be subject to Emerson’s 3.5% tuition increase for next year.
After Marlboro students sought to have their room and board expenses at Emerson subsidized (they are over $5000 higher than Marlboro’s), some were told that money for that would have to come from the funds for staff severance payments. That was outrageous enough that a fund- raising effort on their behalf has apparently met the need without setting students and staff interests at odds. At the same time, the college has recognized that Emerson is sufficiently not Marlboro so that our students may well prefer other options, notably the other colleges (Bennington, College of the Atlantic, St. Joseph’s, Hampshire, and Castleton) that have signed transfer agreements with the Marlboro.
Who will go where among the students is even less certain that which individual faculty will go, given that there are more options. In this circumstance, Emerson looks to benefit even more if our students go elsewhere.