Turmoil over racism allegations toward Marlboro College buyer continues after Emerson finalizes merger

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Media: Jakob Menendez

A view of part of the old Marlboro College campus.

The Marlboro community raised more questions about the allegations of racism against Democracy Builders, the organization that purchased the Marlboro College campus, in a town meeting held Monday—the same day the Vermont Attorney General approved the campus sale

The decision from the Vermont AG marked the end of Emerson’s involvement in the deal. Emerson will receive $20.25 million, 57 students, and 18 professors from Marlboro. In turn, Emerson will rename the Institute of Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies after Marlboro, and all of the money received in the Marlboro deal will be spent within the Institute.

Marlboro President Kevin Quigley confirmed the completion of the sale and Asset Transfer Agreement in an email to the Marlboro community on Thursday.

The Marlboro College Board of Trustees, in a statement released on Tuesday, said they are “deeply uncomfortable” with the allegations against Democracy Builders but that the contract with the group is “a binding legal agreement.” A statement on the Marlboro website said the board is doing “everything in our power to encourage a positive and constructive learning environment for all students who come to Degrees of Freedom.” 

“We acknowledge and regret the anguish that the campus sale to Democracy Builders has caused to so many of Marlboro’s community, including many of our trustees,” the statement reads. “Our campus is loved not only for its quiet beauty but because for generations it has been a place where students’ learning and growth have been nurtured through their active contribution to the academic and campus life of the College, based on a fundamental belief that learning is best fostered through unleashing the inherent curiosity that lives within each of us.”

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The statement comes on the heels of a number of hurdles for Marlboro’s closure. In early June, a collective called Black N Brown at DP started posting anonymous accounts of neglect and mistreatement from former staff, students, and faculty at Democracy Prep, a New York City-based charter school network created by Democracy Builders, on social media. Seth Andrew, who founded both organizations, was the subject of many of the posts, which detailed alleged discrimination, abuse, and malpractice. 

“Andrew lacks the integrity that it requires to run programs like a college,” an anonymous member of the collective said in a June 9 Marlboro Town Meeting. “And his lack of integrity reflects poorly on Marlboro’s reputation, as well as the community as a whole, and should be a huge red flag.”

Emerson groups have also voiced opposition to the sale. Emerson College Student Union and Protesting Oppression With Education Reform have both made social media posts urging students to sign a petition that asks for the sale to be canceled.

Democracy Builders intends to create a hybrid post-secondary model on the Potash Hill campus called “Degrees of Freedom,” a largely online program that would start in the eleventh grade and award students an associate’s degree after four years.

Andrew and his supporters appeared in full force at Monday’s Marlboro Town Meeting. The Zoom meeting had a nearly two-hour public comment period and over 150 participants before Democracy Builders addressed some of the allegations and gave a brief presentation on the Degrees of Freedom program. 

In his brief remarks during the meeting, Andrew said each of the more than 20 schools Democracy Builders is involved in is tailored to the local community. 

“In each context we build schools, the model for education has been adjusted to the local context for each individual community, while preserving certain core values, and those are the core values that we plan to bring to the Degrees of Freedom program,” Andrew said. “Obviously, there is a contextual difference between each of those places and Marlboro.” 

Several Marlboro townspeople expressed their hesitancy about the Democracy Builders team.

“Both the non-anonymous and the anonymous testimony we’ve received from former and current students and faculty at Democracy Prep gave us grave concerns about how you will run your new Degrees of Freedom program at the Marlboro College campus,” Lissa Harris, a Marlboro school board member and a founding member of the Coalition for Black and Brown students in Marlboro said. “We will not allow black and brown bodies to be subject to the same ‘no excuses’ education model that has plagued Democracy Prep, and we demand accountability [from Democracy Builders].”

Harris laid out nine requests the Coalition compiled to ensure Degrees of Freedom is an equitable experience for students. They include, among other things, that two Marlboro residents be on the Degrees of Freedom board, that the student and faculty handbook for the program be made public, and that yearly monetary reparations be paid to the Black N Brown at DP collective to distribute as they see fit.

Kia Morris, a former Vermont state representative who quit the legislature in 2018 due to racial harassment, said she spoke on behalf of community members and state officials. 

“Those solutions that are meant to be liberatory for us, need to be developed by us,” she said during the meeting, directing her comments at Andrew and the Degrees of Freedom team. “This is why you are experiencing the backlash that you’re experiencing right now, because the community members who are most impacted, the folks that actually live in this state, are the ones who are getting arrested protesting your kind of actions. The people who are out there. grinding themselves to the bone, parents who do not have the time and the capacity to continually fight against these systems, but are doing so for the very survival of their youth.”

Morris said she intends to support the students, faculty, and staff at Degrees of Freedom, regardless of the success of the program.

“I wish everyone that chooses to be involved with this institution to know that there are many in the state who will stand behind you and help support you when they fall short on the promises that they’re purporting to deliver,” Morris said

Andrew, who is white, said the opposition to Democracy Builders from the Marlboro community is not something the organization has ever experienced before.

“This is the first white community where we’ve ever built a school, and the pushback that we’re receiving is new and unique, and it is unpleasant and unexpected,” he said. “Because after having two meetings with the elected school board, one meeting with the Selectboard, as well as offering to speak with the local press outlets and everyone else, we’re still being told that we haven’t engaged enough.”

According to 2018 Census data, the town of Marlboro, which has a population of 1,230, is 93.6 percent white.

Andrew has declined repeated requests for an interview or comment from The Beacon.

Andrew said he is open to working with the community after the sale is complete, but his first impressions have been less than optimal.

“This has not been a particularly welcoming process,” he said. “Members of our staff have been on the campus and have not been treated with the level of respect and dignity that they deserve. I’m not defensive of myself in this conversation at all, I’m fair game, I’m a public figure. I’m extremely defensive, however, of my family and my staff who have taken the brunt of this.”

A majority of the planning to bring Degrees of Freedom to the former Marlboro campus is being done by a team that does not include Andrew himself, he said.

“The team is doing the hard work and the team—that includes our board and includes their staff—have just been going out full steam ahead to try to get open in September, and they have been sort of doing incredibly hard work, of which I’m wildly proud,” he said.

Later in the meeting, director of recruitment for Degrees of Freedom and former Democracy Prep teacher Chandell Stone contradicted Andrew and said the Degrees of Freedom program would not be opening until 2021, to give them time to gain proper accreditation through the Vermont State Board of Education.

Andrew went on to say Degrees of Freedom will have a President and leadership when it opens, but he does not envision holding that position himself. He also said the Degrees of Freedom team has interviewed over 200 Vermont residents interested in jobs within the program.

“What we’re trying to do with Degrees of Freedom is build a new institution, an anti-racist institution,” Andrew said. “One that has learned from the mistakes that we’ve made, one that has a staff and leadership primarily of color, one that has a student body primarily of color and one that is designed from the very beginning with the voices who want to speak up about how to build this institution to be better.”