Open Letter from Marlboro College Board of Trustees
To the Marlboro Community on and off the Hill,
We write today to provide an update on recent events and discuss plans for moving ahead.
On December 14, more than 75 people gathered in Ragle Hall to share their views on the potential merger of Marlboro and Emerson and provide an opportunity for community members to offer comments directly to the trustees. Those in attendance included alumni, Marlboro town residents, retired faculty, along with a few current faculty and students. More than 20 individuals had the opportunity to speak. This event, recorded by Andy Reischmann, is available on BCTV’s website and will be aired on community Brattleboro Community TV later this week.
Some speakers who are not currently on the Hill expressed dissatisfaction with the partnership process, suggested that Marlboro can and should make it on its own, and shared strong feelings about the loss of staff positions and the rural campus. Some speakers currently living and working on the campus expressed that although making it on our own was everyone’s preferred option, it was not a viable option given our circumstances, and that the merger with Emerson that retains our identity and pedagogy through support of our faculty and students was an option far better than closure. We deeply appreciate everyone’s efforts in coming to Marlboro to share their views, and recognize that regardless of our different opinions about the best way forward, everyone is motivated by a desire to preserve the treasure that is Marlboro.
The trustees, representing alumni, parents and members of the greater Marlboro community, share the same deep love for Marlboro and an appreciation for its unique, irreplaceable model of education and community governance. We have experienced first hand the lifelong impact that a Marlboro education has on its students (ourselves, our children, our colleagues and friends), and have been working furiously for the past four years to find a path forward that would allow Marlboro to continue as a stand-alone institution. The failed Bridgeport merger that would have kept the campus open proved too good to be true. Alas, and with great sadness, we ultimately reached the conclusion that there wasn’t any viable option that would allow the College to remain on Potash Hill.
As is well known, Marlboro has not been alone in suffering from declines in enrollment for the last decade. Small, rural, liberal arts colleges have struggled to attract students from a shrinking pool of applicants, particularly in the Northeast US, in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Between declining enrollment and increases in financial aid, colleges like Marlboro face annual budget deficits that are unsustainable, despite significant efforts to turn things around. Despite many recent efforts, including innovative scholarships, new and more targeted marketing, a new website, and a reimagined curriculum (the Marlboro Promise), Marlboro still struggles to make ends meet. We have been forced to draw from our endowment each year at an alarming rate to cover operating expenses. Despite recent success at increasing inquiries and applications under new leadership in the Admissions department, we still saw a decline in deposits for the incoming 2019-20 class.
Given the spate of recent closures, our accreditors have been increasingly vigilant about what is considered sustainable. In each of the five decades that Marlboro has been accredited we have been required to provide increasingly extensive reporting about our enrollment and finances. More recently, although our academic program continues to receive high marks, we have been required to submit reports annually since 2015. Based on those reports, we were placed on a notice of concern in 2017 relating to our finances and enrollment, and were strongly encouraged to pursue a partnership strategy to address our enrollment and financial issues. Although NECHE, our accreditors, accepted our five-year report that was based on our accreditor’s understanding that we are actively pursuing the Emerson merger. Some institutions that have resisted change have closed their doors without providing any way for students to complete their degrees and for faculty to continue to teach. Based on continued efforts over many years to stem the enrollment decline, an extensive analysis, and advice from EY-Parthenon, one of the pre-eminent higher education consulting firms, the trustees concluded continuation as a small, rural, liberal arts college was not sustainable.
The trustees believe that acting now, before the endowment is exhausted and options become extremely limited, is the most appropriate way to protect the interests of the students, faculty and Marlboro community. We are hopeful that the campus working group will facilitate proposals for future use of the campus that will enable our beloved Potash Hill to find new life.
There have been concerns that the process of making this decision was not participatory, and was not communicated effectively to the Marlboro community. The board of trustees is responsible for the overall supervision of Marlboro affairs. It has a fiduciary obligation to take actions in the best interest of Marlboro. In November 2018, the board performed its responsibility by creating the Strategic Options Task Force to make recommendations concerning the future of the college.The SOTF is comprised of representatives of the faculty, student body and trustees, and senior staff regularly participated in its meetings. Faculty, students, staff, and trustees were all given regular updates at faculty meetings, college Town Meetings, and staff meetings. Some information was not shareable as it would have jeopardized the confidentiality required in negotiating potential partnership agreements.
After the December 14 public forum, the Board met to discuss the efforts relating to the Marlboro-Emerson merger and on other matters. Each of the working groups. (finance, faculty, student, governance, and campus) provided an update. The Board also approved a severance package for staff and provided tenure to Nelli Sargsyan, professor of anthropology.
One reason for the good momentum on these working groups is the frequent interaction between Emerson and Marlboro. In the period since our November 6 announcement that Marlboro College was working towards a merger with Emerson College, students and faculty have visited Emerson’s Boston campus, the Marlboro working groups have engaged Emerson personnel and Emerson administrators have made several visits to Marlboro to start piecing together how Marlboro’s legacy and pedagogy can find a home in the Marlboro Institute of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies.
At the recent public forum, community members challenged the trustees to provide more information supporting the board’s decision to merge with Emerson. The college will be responding to this request for more information soon.
In closing, we cannot express strongly enough our gratitude for the many tireless hours of work the Strategic Options Task Force has devoted to exploring all of Marlboro’s options over the past year. We are also heartened by the warm reception by Emerson President Lee Pelton and his many colleagues who have made every effort to accommodate Marlboro’s people and pedagogy in the institute that will bear our name. Although our decision has not been a popular one among alumni and other constituents outside the campus community—and we understand this—we are unwavering in our support for the promising future of Marlboro at Emerson College.
We will provide an update on these matters early in the New Year.
Until then with warm holiday wishes from Potash Hill,
The Marlboro Board of Trustees