Changes to Vermont’s higher education landscape on the horizon as Marlboro announces merger

By BENJY RENTON

COURTESY PHOTO
Located in southeastern Vermont, Marlboro College has announced plans to merge with Emerson College at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. Its $30 million in endowment and $10 million in real estate holdings will all be transferred to Emerson.

This past year has brought significant changes to the higher education landscape in Vermont, as Green Mountain College, College of St. Joseph and Southern Vermont College closed due to declining enrollment and financial issues. One more college has just announced changes to its operations — Marlboro College plans on giving its endowment and real estate assets to Emerson College in Boston.

This merger has been in the works since early 2019, according to a statement from Marlboro College. “The Board’s willingness to address all of these challenges now has meant that Marlboro, unlike our neighbors, has the resources to forge a partnership that ensures the continuation of our mission,” wrote Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley. Earlier in the fall, Marlboro  investigated the possibility of merging with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, but the deal fell through. In a campus memo, Laura Skandera Trombley, Bridgeport’s president, said that Marlboro’s “challenges are too great for us to proceed,” according to Inside Higher Ed.

The acquisition would mean that Marlboro’s 146 students would be admitted to Emerson, and its 24 tenured or tenure-track faculty members would be invited to teach at the school in Boston, which has 3,800 undergraduates and 633 graduate students.

“The Institute [for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies] will be renamed for Marlboro and will welcome existing Marlboro students and tenure-line and tenured Marlboro faculty who wish to continue their work at Emerson,” Quigley wrote to the Berkley Beacon, the student newspaper at Emerson.

In addition, Marlboro’s endowment and real estate holdings will be given to Emerson, valued at $30 million and $10 million respectively. For a school of its size, the endowment is considered to be healthy and the college will close virtually debt-free at the end of the 2019–2020 academic year.

“It is not a closure,” Quigley said in an interview with VTDigger earlier in the month, immediately following the announcement. “It is a transition of the Marlboro program to Emerson College.”

The transition of Marlboro College will leave an impact on the surrounding area, particularly on staff, due to its location in a town of around 1,000 in southern Vermont. 

“Marlboro is a rural community,” Tim Patterson told The Campus. Patterson formerly served as the Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Sterling College, an institution with 125 students in Craftsbury Common, Vermont.

“There are not a lot of jobs. It will be very challenging to find comparable employment unless some other organization comes in to fill this void.”

The fate of the Marlboro Music Festival, a retreat and concert series held every year on campus, remains unknown. Last year, administrators at the college signed a 99-year lease with the festival.

“It does leave staff and others — students and faculty who aren’t in a position to move to Boston — out in the cold,” Patterson said. “I hope that something will grow in the town of Marlboro.” Patterson speculated that students close to graduating would be willing to transfer to Boston, but those starting their college careers at Marlboro would be more reluctant to do so. “To go from a very rural hilltop campus in Vermont to Boston Common is a big cultural shift,” he said.

Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, graduated from Emerson in 1987 and pointed to the college’s location in the heart of Boston Common, close to the financial and theater districts. “My experience with Emerson is it’s one of the friendliest places on earth,” he said. “They’re always creative and always adapting to what they need to adapt.” Emerson’s academic offerings include strong journalism and creative writing programs, which led Tebbetts to a career in media and his role as the news director for WCAX in Burlington.

While this acquisition seems well on its way, some point to a potential turnaround of its closure by the Marlboro community, such as in the case of Hampshire College in Massachusetts with a fundraising campaign spearheaded by school leaders and alumni. Will Wootton, former president of Sterling and a 1972 graduate of Marlboro, encouraged the Marlboro community to consider revitalizing the school in a Brattleboro Reformer op-ed. “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,’” he wrote.

“There is the possibility that Marlboro alumni and groups who care about the school might rally and go through a process of establishing control of governance and changing course, but the more time passes, the less likely that becomes,” Patterson said.

The merger of Marlboro and Emerson is only one of a few higher education changes in Vermont in the past few weeks, with Southern Vermont College in Bennington signing a $4.9 million purchase agreement with New Hampshire-based Oliverian School. According to its website, Oliverian is a “hybrid school that combines the best of traditional, alternative, and therapeutic education.” Enrolling 50 students in grades 9–12, the school hopes to use the 371 acres that formerly comprised Southern Vermont College to expand its middle school offerings and add a college transition program. “We are thrilled by this opportunity to continue the legacy of education and community that SVC brought to this remarkable campus,” Oliverian’s CEO Will Laughlin said to the Bennington Banner. “We feel that our students and faculty would thrive here.” Before the sale is complete, there is a three-month due diligence period to investigate the feasibility of the school moving to Bennington.

For Vermont’s 18 colleges and universities, a decline in high school graduates and a rise in tuition rates have led to hardships, as some small schools have struggled to survive. “There is a real need for colleges to move swiftly to ensure their programs are relevant and attractive in today’s higher education marketplace,” Patterson said. “Just sheltering in place isn’t a viable strategy.”

Colleges continue to attract students with affordability. Last week, University of Vermont (UVM) President Suresh Garimella announced a tuition freeze for the 2020–21 school year, the first move of its kind in 40 years. Tuition costs are currently $41,280 for out-of-state students and $16,392 for in-state students and will remain the same next year. “Our most sacred obligation is to ensure the success of our students and that starts with access and affordability,” Garimella said, as reported in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper.

“The struggle is the population decline, and we’re trying to attract young people to come to school here and stay here,” Tebbetts said. “Vermonters can get a wonderful education in-state.”

In the near future, Patterson sees more innovative programming in Vermont’s higher education landscape. “I think we’ll see colleges partnering more with dual-enrollment programming in high schools, as well as other ways of building pathways between secondary and post-secondary education and between two- and four-year colleges,” he said.

The Campus will be publishing more on the aftermath of these recent college closures and changes to higher education landscape in future editions.

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