What we know and what we don’t about the Emerson-Marlboro merger

By Andrew Brinker, Belen Dumont, Tomas Gonzalez, and Jacob Seitz

Emerson is slated to acquire Marlboro College in approximately a year, but many questions still remain about the future of the community after the merger. To paint a better picture of this, The Beacon sat down with both universities’ presidents.

President M. Lee Pelton said Emerson began talks with Marlboro in the first week of October after Marlboro’s previous merger with University of Bridgeport fell through in September.

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In a phone interview, Pelton stressed the need to develop a detailed delineation of the acquisition agreement by mid-spring through two working groups—one from each college—which will discuss how Marlboro plans to integrate with Emerson. The two groups will come together and develop a draft of the agreement which will be passed to lawyers who will develop a legally binding document for both parties to view and approve.

Pelton said he didn’t know at the moment and did not wish to speculate on how many faculty members would be joining join Emerson, but said Marlboro’s endowment will fund the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, including the Individually Designed Interdisciplinary Program.

“Students can come here beginning in the fall and have a circular experience that’s very similar to the one they have, and faculty can come here and teach very much in the same way they’re teaching now, so the endowment will fund the faculty teaching in the institute,” Pelton said.

Pelton said Marlboro’s 24 tenured or tenure-track faculty could potentially transfer to Emerson.

“It seems clear to me that the faculty will teach more than the IDIP and the question is where will they teach and what will they teach,” Pelton said. “Those are questions that will have to be sorted out by the working group.”

The view from Vermont

Marlboro College’s Board of Trustees began searching for a partnership to preserve Marlboro’s mission and legacy in early 2019, according to a November statement from the 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,” President Kevin Quigley wrote in the statement. 

The college resides in the quiet town of Marlboro, home to 1,171 residents. With 150 undergraduate students, the college makes up almost 13 percent of the town’s population.

“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. 

The colleges decided to merge due to their similar missions to promote liberal arts and civic engagement. 

“The Emerson campus offers a robust portfolio of student services and engagement opportunities in a creative and collaborative environment, as well as a strong and tangible commitment to equity and inclusion,” Quigley wrote. 

Marlboro students transferring along with the college will retain their current tuition cost unless they decide to transfer into another major or study on another campus away from Boston. 

Marlboro offered their full support to students who decide to transfer elsewhere. 

“Our positions will be eliminated, and we’re working very hard to find ways to support the staff who will lose their positions here,” Quigley said in an interview with The Beacon. 

The Vermont college plans to develop a process that will provide support to the staff, both financially and with finding new jobs, according to Quigley.

Marlboro College is the fourth liberal arts college in Vermont to close this year

Quigley’s letter also states that both colleges will create working groups to finalize details in the agreement. 

“We are committed to working with Emerson to discuss the future of the Marlboro campus, including the role of the Marlboro Music Festival, which we hope will continue to provide substantial benefits for the town of Marlboro and southern Vermont more broadly,” the statement reads. 

Marlboro will move their academic programs to Emerson’s Boston campus by July 1, 2020. 

How did we get here?

A Marlboro trustee who previously worked under Pelton introduced Pelton to Quigley in 2017. The trustee saw a number of similarities in the cultures and academics of the two colleges.

It was then that Quigly first proposed a prospective collaboration between Marlboro and Emerson. Quigley said Pelton was initially indifferent to the idea.

“Lee [Pelton] was tough,” Quigley said in an interview with The Beacon. “He kept saying no because he looked at our enrollment, he looked at our finances. He loves our mission, he loves what we do, [but] he kept saying no.”

Two years later, in July 2019, Marlboro announced that they had tentatively agreed to a merger deal with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, effectively ending the possibility of a collaboration with Emerson. A group on Marlboro’s campus has been trying to find a merger for years, according to Quigley.

On Sept. 13, just two months after the initial agreement was made, the schools suspended talks, citing an inability to develop and agree upon a financial and academic model that supported both institutions. Marlboro announced that they would continue to pursue collaborations with other colleges.

Quigley immediately reached out to Pelton, once again asking if a collaboration between the colleges would be possible. This time, he gave Pelton access to Marlboro’s detailed financial records.

The presidents met on Oct. 8. 

“He said, ‘Kevin, I’ve looked at it, and I’m worried about your finances and enrollment,’” Quigley said. 

Pelton also expressed concern over acquiring more real estate, telling Quigley that Emerson already owns a large amount.

Quigley then proposed removing Marlboro’s campus from a potential deal and instead sending the college’s students to Emerson, a prospect that interested Pelton.

The two presidents then met again on Oct. 11, and on Oct. 14 a deal began to materialize as a formal timeline was established.

On Oct. 24, Pelton and Quigley began to solidify formal terms for the deal.

“We moved pretty quickly from there to board approval on both ends,” Quigley said.

Marlboro’s board officially approved the merger on Saturday.

What’s left to learn?

Pelton did not immediately detail plans for Marlboro’s physical campus other than providing an appraised value. Quigley said that he hopes the campus does not go uninhabited.

“I’m confident that, unlike some of our neighbors, this campus isn’t going to lay dormant for a decade or forever, because we have this partnership with the music festival, and this is their home too,” Quigley said.

Despite this statement from Quigley, the future of the Marlboro campus remains uncertain.

The physical Marlboro campus is not the only part of the deal that remains uncertain.

In his speech on Wednesday, President Pelton did not give specifics about housing for the approximately 130 possible students that Emerson would accrue next semester. Marlboro College students pay about $13,000 per year for room and board, while Emerson students pay about $17,000. 

Neither President Pelton nor President Quigley spoke to The Beacon about how Marlboro students would transfer their credits.

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