Marlboro professors face difficult decisions as merger looms

After 32 years of teaching at Marlboro, Jim Mahoney accepted a faculty position at Bennington College in Vermont. Photo: Jim Mahoney/Courtesy

After 32 years of teaching at Marlboro, Jim Mahoney accepted a faculty position at Bennington College in Vermont. Photo: Jim Mahoney/Courtesy

By Maxwell Carter, State House Reporter

Marlboro Professor Jim Mahoney watched his world fall apart as the proposed Emerson-Marlboro merger progressed over the past few months, forcing him to count his blessings and prepare for life after the potential closure of the Vermont campus.

“For many of us it’s not just a school closing,” Mahoney said in a phone interview with The Beacon. “It’s our community, our center for a very long time… so it’s very hard.”

Emerson guaranteed positions for all tenured and tenure-track professors, according to the presidents of both schools, and faculty are now deciding what their next steps will be. Mahoney is one of two Marlboro professors who have made their decision. The rest have until the May merger deadline to decide whether they’ll take Emerson’s offer.

After 32 years, Mahoney decided not to join his Marlboro colleagues in attempting to redesign the school in Boston. As painful as this process has been for him, he told The Beacon his decision was pretty straightforward.

“I did talk to some of the Emerson people and explored what it would be like to go there, but teaching at Emerson would have been very different, for me anyways, than teaching at [Marlboro]” Mahoney said. “Emerson’s not offering any science majors, so it would have been mostly supporting introductory and general education requirement work with classes of 30 or 40 students, teaching introductory code.”

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At 60 years old, with no plans of moving out of his house, he accepted an offer to join the Fall 2020 faculty at Bennington College. Bennington is an hour away versus the nearly two hour drive to Emerson, plus Mahoney said the Vermont college is expanding their computer science program.

Aside from the difference in commute and his field of study not being offered as a major at Emerson, he said there were stark institutional differences between the two merging schools for him and other professors to consider. Mahoney explained that the larger class sizes, less interdisciplinary work, more general education requirements, and Emerson’s downtown urban campus versus Marlboro’s rural one, all seem to counter what the Vermont institution was known for.

“People are working hard to take as much as they can of some of the Marlboro ideals with them, but we all know it’s going to be a very different place with a very different set of constraints,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney joined the faculty at the small college as a physics professor when his wife found an ad in the newspaper in 1988—the year after he completed his PhD at MIT. He and his wife found exactly what they were looking for in the rural school and the tight-knit community. Fifteen years later, he migrated to the computer science department and cultivated an interdisciplinary experience exemplary of Marlboro’s ethos by working with students and professors in every discipline, from dance to physics, on graduate-level projects. His daughters, now 30 and 34, grew up on Potash Hill and are alumnae of the school.

Mahoney is the only professor who has committed elsewhere for now and said he does so without any hard feelings toward the administration or his colleagues carrying out the merger.

Nearly 23 other professors, tenured or tenure-track, are still working with the school on creating a smooth transition, according to Marlboro President Kevin Quigley.

He spoke optimistically in an interview with The Beacon about the rest of his colleagues’ ability to take on the school’s reopening in Boston.

“There are currently 23 Marlboro tenure and tenure-track faculty who are developing courses for the Fall at Emerson, in coordination with the department chairs and deans,” Quigley said.

Quigley did admit, however, that there is difficulty in bridging the gap between Marlboro and Emerson’s ideals.

Aside from class sizes, professors will also have less autonomy over their curriculums and students will have less control over their course of study. Nevertheless, Quigley believes reemerging as part of a larger school is the best way forward for Marlboro, and an opportunity for Emerson as well.

“There is an effort to bring some of our ethos and our pedagogic and cultural practices to what will be renamed The Marlboro Institute,” Quigley said. “I think that’s a really exciting process as you bring these two cultures and ethoses together, and are ready to create something new.”

Jaime Tanner, a science professor at Marlboro for over a decade, has long been active in Marlboro’s unique self-governance structure and is on the task force coordinating the Marlboro Institute’s curriculum. She said the Vermont campus closing is especially difficult for her because it was integral to her teaching.

“For me personally, it was pretty devastating because this place is really special and I love it, but I also teach biology and environmental studies,” Tanner said in a phone interview. “I use the forest around our buildings as an extended classroom.”

She is committed to coming to Boston, however, if the merger is indeed finalized by the expected May deadline. The emotions are bittersweet, but Tanner told The Beacon she’s excited to continue working with her colleagues and seeing students who started at Marlboro finish their degrees.

“I have a family, and at least for the first year, it’s going to involve some lifestyle changes, but… this whole endeavor only works if Marlboro faculty commit to going and bringing what we can,” Tanner said. “I was hoping to retire here, and it’s really sad that I won’t be able to, but I’m going to try as hard as I can to bring as much as I can with me to Emerson.”