Sharoan Cohen: Time to hit the pause button on Marlboro College

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In late May, the Marlboro College Board of Trustees announced the sale of the campus in Marlboro, Vt. to Democracy Builders, a charter school incubator. This transaction may be finalized mid-June unless Attorney General T.J. Donovan intervenes; the sale of the campus is necessary to complete the closure of this small Vermont college. All assets, archives, and its valuable collections will be dispersed despite alumni opposition and donor intent.

Faculty emeritus, alumni, neighbors, and supporters of the college immediately spoke out in opposition and were swiftly silenced, while Town Meeting remained devoid of discussions regarding the future of the college; contrary to a community defined by self-governance, open dialogue, and equal voice. Offers of support from alumni were unilaterally dismissed, while an increasingly fatal narrative undermined the community and adeptly kept critical voices echoing in the woods where none could hear.

Instead of engaging in an inclusive process that respected Marlboro College's effect on its community and higher education, with EY-Parthenon (consulting firm) at the helm, it became like a war game of division, coloring alumni ambassadors wishing to preserve the college as emotional interlopers. The campus sale and dissolution of the college is a direct result of leadership that compromised the integrity of the community by depleting the endowment, investing in irrelevant branding, and unnecessary infrastructure projects regardless of mounting operational costs. Leadership actively severed connections with the broader community by ignoring alumni and failing to uphold the self-governing and democratic community intrinsic to the college. The removal of Marlboro College from Vermont under these circumstances is unnecessary.

The sale of the campus to Democracy Builders is yet another odd twist in the series of the irresponsible and destructive decisions in the chain of events continuing to leave out the local community who are deeply connected to the college, with serious questions in the wake of this acrimonious process. The legally required IRS 990 forms have not been filed since 2016 for either Democracy Builders or the Democracy Builders Fund (DBF). The IRS previously revoked DBF's 501c3 status.

This transaction seems to be taking advantage of Vermont's status as one of the very few states without a charter school law. Charter schools target students and divert funding away from local public schools, on average without better long term outcomes for their students. This is not in the best interest of Vermont nor the local community; besides being intrinsically problematic in a world already steeped in racial bias and economic inequity, Democracy Builders seems to be hiding behind laws that perpetuate the deep inequities in educational funding.

My guiding questions remain: Are the Board of Trustees and current president capable of conducting the business of preserving Marlboro College? Are they demonstrating appropriate due diligence by dissolving the institution they are charged to preserve? Has this process exemplified the founding tenets of the college, self-governance, and equal voice? Do their decisions reflect the community values of the town of Marlboro and this state? Does it preserve the self-guided approach to education where living and learning are inextricably tied, allowing students to delve deeply into a sense of self, purpose, citizenship, interdisciplinary work, and lifelong learning? I do not believe they have and am not alone in my concern.

The top-down decision making is as antithetical to the core of Marlboro, as is the idea that the college's essence could be preserved on the crowded banks of the Charles River. I urge those interested in saving Marlboro College to contact their elected officials, in particular Vermont's attorney general, who can pause this transaction long enough for legitimate scrutiny. To learn more see details at www.IBelieveInMarlboroCollege.org

Sharoan Cohen, a 1994 Marlboro College alumna, lives on Peaks Island, Maine.

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