A chat with Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley


Jakob Menendez

Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley sat down with The Beacon to discuss the Emerson-Marlboro merger. Jakob Menendez / Beacon Staff

By Andrew Brinker, Senior Investigative Reporter

Kevin Quigley first arrived on Marlboro College’s campus in winter 2014 after leaving Bangkok, Thailand just two days earlier. Now, he is in his fifth, and likely final year as president of the college.

Quigley had an illustrious career prior to his tenure at Marlboro. Immediately preceding his work at the college, he served as the country director for the Peace Corps in Thailand. Before that, Quigley did extensive work in public policy, working as the Legislative Director for former U.S. Sen. John Heinz and as a budget examiner for the White House Office of Management, among other experiences.

As president of Marlboro College, Quigley is a central figure in the tentative merger deal negotiations between Emerson and Marlboro. The Beacon sat down with him to hear his thoughts on the merger, what led us here, and where he’s headed next.

The Beacon: It’s been a week since the announcement, how do you feel?

Quigley: It’s been an extremely emotional week on Potash Hill, our name for Marlboro on this campus, as our community has come to confront its circumstances and to realize a new possibility that’s going to involve some significant choices.

It’s also a moment of grief for our pending loss around campus and colleagues, but I feel a growing sense of optimism that our community, particularly our faculty, and students, see the remarkable opportunities associated with this partnership with Emerson. So that’s probably long-winded but a combination of recognition and grief and optimism about the path ahead.

And my expectation is, as our working groups, particularly in the collaborative phase, begin to come together, both communities will see commonalities with each other and the potential to do something truly remarkable in liberal arts education will be noteworthy nationally.

The Beacon: Why was a merger the best option?

Quigley: This has been a long deliberative process involving an exploration of the three options all institutions have: go it alone, find a partner, or close. And despite some considerable successes, going it alone through what we call the reimagining, it became clear to us in the last year we couldn’t make it on our own. And finding a partner who respects our values, shares our practice and our commitment to progressive student-centered liberal arts education was key and far preferable to the outcome that nobody wants—closure.

The Beacon: What were the financial problems that led you here?

Quigley: Marlboro’s financial problems are essentially two-fold and they’re interrelated. Not enough students, leading to a student tuition income decline. Those factors generated persistent operating deficits. Marlboro, despite those challenges around enrollment and finances, has a decent balance sheet because of our large endowment relative to our student population, which gives us the luxury to have a deliberative process to find a partner.

And in my view, Emerson, among all the almost 80 potential partners, is by far the best partner.

The Beacon: When did you know that a merger was the best option?

Quigley: It’s hard for all of us to think the college you love and you’re committed to may not be able to make it on it on its own. So for me, this is really an epiphany that I’ve had over the last couple of years. And then part of it is to, when you have that kind of insight or understanding, bring your community along—initially your trustees, and then over time your faculty and staff, and students, and alumni, and townspeople, and colleagues, and other institutions. And then some way says it’s a marathon, and like a marathon, we’ve still got a long way to go to have that kind of outcome that meets our objectives and I think also will help Emerson meet some of its objectives and advance its mission in important ways.

The Beacon: Why is Emerson the right fit?

Quigley: Success is often conditioned on the alignment of mission and cultural fit. And as we’ve been learning about Emerson, we feel that there’s a great alignment of mission and purpose and we anticipate that there’s going to be a good cultural fit. And, importantly, there’s a program that looks on the surface very similar to ours. And that’s the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, that among all the different partners, that seems to be the most proximate to what we do here at Marlboro.

The Beacon: After the merger with the University of Bridgeport fell through, the deal with Emerson came about very quickly. What was the rush?

Quigley: We feel the urgency of time. We know that that this was a very important first step but there are many other steps and we want to maximize our leverage. And we realize that our leverage, our standing, our endowment, erodes every day, and better to find an opportunity now than six months, a year from now where in all likelihood our position will be weakened.

The Beacon: Do you feel like you’ve done a good job as president here?

Quigley: I think the proof will be in the pudding. Let’s see if we can get over the goal line. And then we can talk again. This is a work in progress so there’s a lot more work to be done. And in all cases you get a lot of opinions about that, then they will range enormously.

But I can say I do think I’ve done the best I possibly could.

The Beacon: Why did you come to Marlboro?

Quigley: I was compelled by its mission and purpose and location. My life’s work has been around expanding educational opportunities. I’m a strong advocate for experiential learning, student-centered learning, and my academic work relates to Marlboro very well—the community governance and building of democratic citizens.

The Beacon: What makes this place so special?

Quigley: I think a lot of it goes to our history and the focus on being what I think of as passionate, rugged intellectuals who want to pursue their own interests and be supported by professors who act as facilitators and co-learners, and the learning exercise and that academic model aligns with our community governance model. 

The Beacon: What’s next for you?

Quigley: No idea. I’m open to suggestions.