Letter: A shameful end for Marlboro

By T. Hunter Wilson, Former Marlboro College Faculty Member

T. Hunter Wilson served as a faculty member at Marlboro College for 47 years. 

The Marlboro College Board of Trustees is moving toward a shameful end. They have signed a Purchase and Sales agreement with the Democracy Builders Fund that will transfer ownership of the campus to DBF whether the deal with Emerson succeeds or fails. The hundreds of alumni and other supporters of the college will thus be deprived of any chance of rebuilding the college on Potash Hill, whatever happens with Emerson. DBF proposes to open a low-residency, mostly online, “early college” somewhat on the model of Simons Rock, but with its affiliated charter schools as feeder schools.

The Board proposes to lease back from DBF enough facilities to complete a teachout if the Emerson deal collapses, but even that is not guaranteed, only a negotiation “in good faith” to allow such a possibility. Very little else in this process has been conducted in what feels like “good faith” to all of us who have worked relentlessly for almost a year, without constructive response, to engage the trustees in an effort to reimagine and rebuild the rare institution that Marlboro College has been.

The announcement of the campus sale to DBF has been accompanied by a further blizzard of public relations puffery and whistling in the dark, accompanied once again by the absence of genuine openness about what is going on. The trustees and administration of the college continue to misrepresent both the history of their stewardship and their present actions, asserting once again that they have had no other choice and that their present actions assure a continuation of Marlboro College history and values. If the Board and administration had put half as much effort into working with the wider community to save the college as they have put into working with a consultant to close it, the results would be very different.

The College’s description of the sale disingenuously describes DBF as the non-profit founder of “Democracy Prep, a network of 20+ high-performing public schools throughout the U.S.” Democracy Prep describes itself as a network of charter schools (and if the chairman of the Board and the president don’t know the significance of that difference, they are embarrassingly ignorant of a pretty major debate about public education for the last thirty years).

Democracy Prep began with several charter schools in New York, where their idea of training students to be good citizens is for them to file silently in uniform from one room where someone is in charge to another room where someone else is in charge and to dole out demerits for talking out of turn or wearing the wrong shoes with the uniform. The organization then got a $21 million grant to expand nationally, where even before the pandemic, they began to run into trouble and acknowledged that they may not be able to fulfill the terms of their grant, finding themselves unable to open enough schools.

The model for charter schools disempowers teachers and disempowers students, in favor of administrators. Democracy Prep’s version is essentially “support the vote but do what you’re told.” Leaving aside the debate over the relative merits of charter schools and the rest of the public school system, it is dishonest to pretend that this is a continuation of Marlboro’s tradition, in which both the faculty and the students had actual authority. The trustees may salve their consciences with this nonsense, but in doing so they discredit the very institution they profess to have supported.

Democracy Builders has deeper problems, however. A few minutes’ research reveals that Democracy Builders and its offshoots have failed to file with the IRS their required tax documents for several years. DBF (the actual purchasing entity) lost its non-profit status for failure to file their federal tax forms for three years in a row, then had the status retroactively reinstated, and has now failed to file on time the required tax forms for 2017 and 2018. When they last filed, they had a trivial amount of money in the bank to support their grand plans for the Marlboro campus. No one will disclose the purchase price, but the obligations DBF assumes for maintenance of the campus alone is from $1-2 million a year, before they even start running a program.

Seth Andrew, the apparently charismatic spokesman for all this, claims to have been planning the envisioned Freedom College (one hopes quite distinct from Liberty University) for more than two years, but several of his comments suggest that his experience with charter schools has not really prepared him for starting a college. He suggested at one point that he hoped to transfer Marlboro’s accreditation to his new college, though that is not even remotely how accreditation works in higher education. The accrediting agency will require detailed financial, curricular, and staffing plans before even considering accreditation.

Andrew has further suggested that he intends students to fully fund tuition using Pell grants, but those are not even available for an institution that has not been accredited for at least three years. Is this another Bridgeport moment? The Board and members of the Task Force were persuaded by the president of UB that Bridgeport was Marlboro’s future. Yet it was obvious even to those with less information than the Board and Task Force had that that was an unworkable pipe dream, and it fell apart in about a month.

Andrew says that he has been looking at other campuses of failing small colleges in Vermont, but rejected them because they had already lost their accreditation or had too much debt and no endowment. Yet the accreditation of Marlboro’s program has nothing to do with what he might do, and the endowment is slated to disappear to Emerson. Or does he hope that the Emerson deal fails and that as the new owner of the campus, he can negotiate “in good faith” to transfer Marlboro’s endowment to his project? He has already suggested DBF as an alternative to the whole Emerson deal by saying that he might be willing to hire some of Marlboro’s faculty and staff, while cautioning that they should not expect the salaries they had at Marlboro (already comparatively low) and in any case might not have the skills that his own college might require.

At this stage, anyone who is at all interested in the survival of the extraordinary education and democratic experience that Marlboro College has provided for 75 years should write to the Vermont Attorney General and implore him to intervene. The Marlboro Board has cast its vote for dissolution and an irremediable loss.

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