Challenge to Marlboro College Board of Trustees seeks alternate solution to merger


Chris Van Buskirk

Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley looks on as a speaker addresses an audience of Marlboro College students, alumni, and residents on Dec. 14, 2019.

By Parker Purifoy, Emerson '21

MARLBORO, Vt.—Former Marlboro College administrative staffer, Will Wootton, challenged the Marlboro Board of Trustees to give him and a small group of senior Marlboro staff four days to examine the college’s financial data to find alternative solutions to merging with Emerson College.

Wootton delivered this challenge at an emergency Board of Trustees meeting Saturday in the form of a letter that was read aloud by former faculty member Adrian Segar. The request came as alumni, students, and Marlboro residents urged the Board for more transparency and creative thinking while administrators stressed the importance of the Emerson deal.

“It has been stated publicly and reaffirmed repeatedly by the College Board of Trustees and the administrative leadership that there is no alternative for Marlboro but the Emerson solution,” he wrote in the statement read by Seger. “I have not seen that evidence, or lack of it. Thus, in the spirit of ‘show me don’t tell me’ I hereby challenge the Marlboro College Board of Trustees—in the name of integrity, honesty, forthrightness, and fair dealing—to a contest of administrative plans and projections.”   

In his statement, Wootton asks the Board to give him and his team four days, a space to work on campus, and access to all financial records and documents that were used to decide on a merger with Emerson. In return, Wootton promised a report within seven days showing how the small Vermont college could accept a class of 2024 in the fall and then work to rebuild.

Wootton wrote that he and the unnamed senior administrators would retire if they find the numbers support the conclusion that the only path forward is the merger. 

Wootton graduated from Marlboro in 1972 and worked in the administration from 1983 to 2002, working under two different college presidents. Wootton went on to serve as president of Sterling College from 2006-2012. 

Marlboro Chief Advancement Officer Rennie Washburn previously told The Beacon that the small liberal arts college would require about $200 million to stay open in perpetuity. Chair of the Marlboro Board of Trustees Richard Saudek said at the meeting that the institution would have a deficit of $11.9 million in 2019.

Marlboro Professor of Film and Video Studies Brad Heck advocated for more representation in the decision-making process and stated that with the current deal, Marlboro’s culture would essentially vanish at Emerson.

“If 20 faulty go into a giant host of over 200 faculty, we are not preserving our pedagogy, we are a virus trying to infect a host with a lot of antibodies,” he said to a round of applause from the audience. 

Head Selectperson Charlie Hickman stood almost completely in opposition to the various alumni voices calling for an alternate solution, saying during the public meeting that the community needs to accept the merger and focus their efforts on helping the students and staff.

“I would much rather graduate from Emerson with Emerson on my degree with faculty members that I know and that I have worked with, in a place that’s foreign to me that to be the last ever graduating class of Marlboro College,” they said.  “I don’t think we’re a virus in a big pond. I think that we are a strong coalition of students, and we can bring so much love and light and democracy to Emerson. And I would much rather do that than fight with ourselves in this place because it is exhausting.”

After the meeting, Marlboro President Kevin Quigley said the community’s passion and commitment to the college stood out to him the most. The president of the Vermont institution declined to speak at the meeting after some audience members called on him to do so. 

“There is a difficulty in having this kind of conversation, because part of the conversation is so driven by, by emotion and a sense of commitment to the values and practices and the set of circumstances when we believe fundamentally require a new solution,” he said. “I was mindful of our time and my views on this, I think, are very clear.”

Quigley said he’s been clear that he still believes Emerson is the best option for them and said he is confident the deal will go to completion.

In a letter to Quigley, Emerson President M. Lee Pelton wrote that he has observed the closure of small New England Colleges.

“Unfortunately, some of the institutions who have resisted change have closed their doors without providing a way forward for students to complete their degrees and for faculty to continue to teach,” he wrote. “Others have taken steps to preserve their legacy and support their students and faculty through alliances with other colleges and universities. A French philosopher once quipped that “the future is not what it used to be.” This is undoubtedly true. There are those who see the future and hide from it; there are others who see the future and run from it; and then there are those who see the future and run towards it.”

Both colleges announced the merger in simultaneous Nov. 7 town halls. As a part of the proposed deal, Marlboro will donate its $30 million endowment and its real estate, valued at more than $10 million, to Emerson’s Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies program. The proposed deal fueled anxiety and immediately raised questions about the future of the campus atop Potash Hill and the legacy of the 73-year-old institution.

The program will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. In return, Emerson offered space for all of Marlboro’s 151 students and 24 tenure and tenure-track faculty. Marlboro’s students and faculty can choose whether they want to come to Emerson at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. Those who choose to come to Emerson will join the liberal arts and interdisciplinary studies program with the same tuition rate they currently pay at Marlboro.

Both institutions formed working groups to hammer out various aspects of the deal. Pelton told faculty council on Dec. 12 that the working groups should complete their tasks by Feb. 14 and the college’s respective board of trustees should finalize the deal by July 1.


Updated Dec. 12: This article was updated to include comments from Head Selectperson Charlie Hickman, Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley, and Emerson College President M. Lee Pelton. 

Correction Dec. 12: A previous version of this article misspelled Adrian Segar and Will Wootton’s names and incorrectly quoted Wootton’s letter. The article has been updated to reflect the correct spellings and quote. 

Editor’s note: The previous corrected version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of former Marlboro administrative staffer Will Wootton. The story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling. The Beacon regrets this error.