For months now, I have watched and worked with others to engage like-minded individuals in support of the continued operation of Marlboro College with some success. Much to my amazement, many think that saving Marlboro is a lost cause— I know it is not. I was deeply involved with the Save Hampshire College movement. Why? Because I understood the importance of offering alternative educational opportunities to students interested in a smaller, more flexible learning environment.
After having been part of the effort that succeeded in changing the administration and direction of Hampshire College, giving it a strong chance for continued operation into the future, I heard about what was happening at Marlboro College.
Marlboro and Hampshire have a number of things in common. Their campuses are located in rural New England. They recruit students interested in working closely with professors on an educational path that culminates in an independent area of study. And both colleges are praised for their uniqueness in the higher education landscape.
Marlboro boasts of its uniqueness: "It begins with a promise and ends with a plan." The "guarantee" to make all incoming students, no matter what they study, graduate with the skills they need for a successful life. Yet, the president and board of trustees have all but resigned themselves to a so-called "merger" with Emerson College that protects little of the Marlboro College promise.
From my perspective, this "merger" is the easy way out for the board of trustees that oversaw a poorly managed institution for years. A plan to sell the campus valued at $10 million, expected to be considered by the board of trustees in just days to come, together with giving away Marlboro's $30 million endowment, would present Emerson with a $40 million paycheck protection program to provide career extensions to tenure and tenure-track faculty (all other employees will lose their jobs).
So why, when many Marlboro students want to continue their education in Vermont, donors are willing to donate with a sound re-envisioning plan in place, and the college has a significant endowment in the bank, wouldn't the board of trustees use this period of time to install new leadership to right the ship?
Marlboro College is perfectly situated, in this coronavirus time, with its rural setting and brand new dorm to allow for appropriate distancing to attract students driven to crafting their own educational path.
I believe the retention of institutions like Marlboro College is the bulwark against the increased standardization, homogenization, and commodification of higher education in America.
And I know from experience that if there is the will, there is a way to save Marlboro College. It has been done before. Even Emerson College survived a similar situation in the 1950s. Sweet Briar College in Virginia was saved too. At Hampshire, I helped organize events such as teach-outs, meetings, a campus-wide event, and a talk by Lili Leonard, who wrote her dissertation about the saving of Sweet Briar College.
From this experience, I learned how board members and a senior administration that contained intelligent, well-meaning individuals who were successful in other fields, could make the wrong decisions about a college in trouble. Small, insular groups, fearing that honest talk about the institution's finances might scare away donors and prospective students, work behind the scenes to hatch weak plans under the auspices of a "merger." "Merger," though, is just another word for extinction, because with further analysis, their plans were found to be pipe dreams and the ethos of the original institution would have disappeared.
So, let's use Hampshire College and Sweet Briar College as the examples of success where the wider community of stakeholders came together and forged a direction that allowed these institutions to survive through a combination of new leadership, wider inclusion, better fundraising, marketing, and re-envisioning its future.
If you want to join this effort, go to www.IBelieveInmarlboroCollege.org
Jonathon Podolsky is an active participant in I Believe in Marlboro College and Mobilize Marlboro, and is an alumnus of Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is an event planner and community organizer, and lives in Northampton, Mass.