Open letter on Marlboro College: Working for a new future

The news of a decision to close Marlboro College came suddenly and blindsided people at the college now and in the larger community of Marlboro alumni, retired faculty and staff, and supporters of this unusual institution. It is shocking to think that the hard-won endowment and assets of Marlboro will be handed over to a totally unrelated institution, leaving only a name on a building and memories of a place on a Vermont hilltop. 

Why kill an institution? Financial challenges and demographic patterns are relevant to all educational institutions, but they are not the measure of them and should not mark the end of them. Institutions are hard to create and once destroyed, very hard to rebuild. Society depends on institutions as frameworks and spaces for many generations. Institutions do not belong solely to the current occupants; they cast a longer shadow and they hold promise for future occupants. There are many pressures on colleges today, but they need to be resisted, not accommodated. 

Marlboro has always been an unusual college, exceptionally small, exceptionally well-regarded, and always a little on the edge financially. It offers a rare combination of “classic” educational principles and a willingness to take risks — on students, on new ideas, and on a democratic community. Marlboro has had an extraordinary impact on those who have studied there, who have taught there, and who have staffed the campus community. Its impact is wildly disproportionate to its size. “A college unlike any other” was one marketing phrase some time ago. Should rare mean extinct? 

Marlboro is rooted in intellectual traditions and it is also rooted in place. “Town and gown” relations are crucial to a college’s success. The Vermont community hosting Marlboro has been tolerant, supportive, and engaged all along. The community of Marlboro has grown with the college, the college with the community. Marlboro has traditionally attracted students, faculty, and staff who want to live in Vermont, work in a small community, respond to the demands of a rural life. Recent news reports record the appeal of such a place to millennials, who wish to leave the city behind. As one demographic pattern changes, so does another. In an age of internet and climate change, rural life is being engaged by a new generation. Marlboro has never needed a lot of people. It still doesn’t.

The recasting of the college over time along more conventional lines has weakened its established appeal. Marlboro was built by, intended for, and kept its vitality through a largely self-selecting population including students with the desire to become independent-minded, self-reliant, resourceful, and engaged in an active community. The admission director at one point said that Marlboro could recruit most of its students by word-of-mouth and educators’ referrals — and that, in fact, it did. Outside examiners were consistently impressed by Marlboro; educators chose to send their children. 

Marlboro has suffered from leadership following such conventional thinking. Senior administration has grown in power, with a narrowing of information flow, of participation in decision-making, and of shared experience of the campus life. The faculty and students have become observers, employees, or “clientele,” rather than co-owners of a participatory institution. So it is not surprising to find acquiescence in the face of this latest, and most catastrophic, piece of presidential decision-making.   

Alumni have responded with much greater vigor. That speaks volumes. Upon hearing of the situation at Marlboro, alumni went to work to build new networking to help enrollment, to revive and invigorate the old Alumni Council, to increase engagement with the college. Many alums have spoken up in opposition to the proposed “mergers” this fall. There are highly credentialed alumni in academic and university administrative careers who are willing to return to the college to help revive Marlboro’s traditional strengths, both academic and participatory (including past leaders of Town Meeting governance). 

The resources of an institution are built over time, and Marlboro’s assets are the product of years of investment by faculty, staff, students, alumni, board members and other donors. Twenty years ago, Marlboro’s endowment was something like $4 million; now it is more than 10 times that: where did the money come from? How were the contributions — by labor or cash — intended to be used? Surely not as a bank account to buy out employees, but, rather, as investments to sustain a valued institution. 

Alumni have spoken up for Marlboro, and spoken of its “transformative” effect on their lives. 

Marlboro community members — including retired faculty — are ready to work on a new future for Marlboro. Are there really no alternative plans for this “alternative” college?  What is required to keep the institution alive and then rebuild it with those willing to commit to that work? 

Why close the doors on a remarkable, effective institution at a moment when it is more than ever an exceptional place in American higher education? 

Give Marlboro a chance to find a way forward. 

Signatories (in alphabetical order): 

Former Faculty

Michael Boylen—Marlboro Faculty Member (1980-2010) 
Geoff Brown—Professor of Theatre (1961-1995)
Jay Craven—Emeritus Professor of Film (1990-2017) and Creator of Movies from Marlboro
Amy W. Grillo, Ed.D—Associate Professor of the Practice, Education Studies, Center for Pedagogical Innovation, Wesleyan University, Former Marlboro faculty and Dean of Students (1996-2001)
John Hayes—Dean of Faculty at Marlboro for 12 years; faculty member for 30 years. Later Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Pacific University, for 9 years, then Emeritus Dean. Founder of its low-residency MFA in writing program. Founder of Pacific’s Center for a Sustainable Society
Carol Hendrickson—Professor of Anthropology (1989-2015) Emerita, former Dean of Faculty, World Studies Director
Dana Holby—Professor Emerita of Dance, Head of Dance (1981-2006)
Dana Howell—Professor Emerita of Cultural History (1985-2016), director of the World Studies Program (1990-1995) and Marlboro Asia Project
Jerry Levy— Professor of sociology for 38 years
Timothy Little – Marlboro alumnus, Marlboro faculty member for 37 years, Director of Admissions for 6 years, Dean of Students for 3 years, Head Selectperson and frequent Town Meeting moderator, and Alumni Representative to the Board of Trustees
Joe Mazur—Professor Emeritus, Marlboro Faculty for 30 years (1972-2002)
Lou Nelson, in memory of Paul D. Nelson, Professor of Theatre Emeritus (1978-2013)
Cathy Osman—Professor Emerita, Visual Arts (1997-2017)
Lynette Rummel—Professor of Politics (1993-2018) Emerita, World Studies Director 
Tim Segar—Professor Emeritus of Sculpture (1998-2018) 
T. Hunter Wilson — Marlboro faculty for 47 years, former Dean of Faculty and Acting Dean of Faculty, former Co-Director of the World Studies Program (twice), representative to the Board many times
Rev. Dr. James E. (Jet) Thomas, AB, STB, THM, MA, PHD—Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Dean of Faculty (1973-2001)
Neal Weiner, Professor of Philosophy (1970-2007)
Marj Wright, ’80 and Malcom Wright, ’62, Faculty (1970-1980)

Former Staff

Rebecca Bartlett ’79—Marlboro College Bookstore Manager (2000-2016)
Bruce Cole ‘59 and Barbara Cole ’59—Marlboro College bookstore staff and former faculty
Lucy Gratwick—Marlboro College Bookstore Manager (late 1980s-’90s)
Randy Lee Knaggs—alumnus, Director of Outdoor Programs (1988-2017)
Megan MacArthur Littlehales—Staff (2000-2015)
Nancy Leach—Director of Admissions and Director of PR and Publications (1980-1987)
Dianna Noyes ’80—former Marlboro College staff member
Sunny (Sharon) Tappan ’77—Marlboro College receptionist (1995-2016)
Hilly van Loon, ’62—Alumni Director and Editor of Potash Hill (1973-1983), Director of Advising (1987-2000)
Piet van Loon ’63—Business Manager
Mary H. White, Library Director (2000-2007)

Alumni Academics

Justin Adkins ’08, MS ’15—Former visiting professor of sociology at Marlboro (2016), Associate Dean of Students, Allegheny College 
Skye Harvest Allen ’02—PhD University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, JD Loyola University Chicago
Cary Barney ’80—Director, Department of Fine and Performing Arts, Saint Louis University, Madrid
Kelly Bergstrand ’02, PhD
Rhett Bowlin ’93, Director, Higher Education Support Program and Africa Climate Change Adaptation Initiative, Open Society Foundations, 1994-2012
John Coakley ’02—PhD University of Wisconsin. At Marlboro: Head Selectperson, Curriculum Committee, Strategic Planning Committee, and many others
Christian J. Churchill, ’91—PhD Brandeis University (sociology) Professor of Sociology, St. Thomas Aquinas College: 2001-2019, Director, Psychoanalytic Training Institute of Contemporary Freudian Society of New York: 2019-present. At Marlboro: Head Selectperson, Alumni Trustee (2006-2009)
Jonathan Franklin ’03—PhD Dalhousie Univ (2015), former visiting professor of physics at Marlboro (2008-2009), now research associate at Harvard University (2015-present)
Valerie Gager ’89—PhD University of Birmingham (1991), former visiting professor of literature at Marlboro (1991-1992)
Emily Graves ’04—Instructor, Louisiana State University
Katherine Hollander ’02—MA (poetry) and PhD (history) Boston University. At Marlboro: Committee on Faculty, Student Representative to the Trustees, Community Court
Anne Carmichael Ledvina ’90—Associate director, Sklenar Center for International Programs, Birmingham-Southern College, Alabama
Loretta J. Mickley ’79—MS University of Illinois at Chicago (chemistry), PhD University of Chicago (geophysical sciences), now Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University (2011-present) 
Kimberly L. Mills ’89, PhD University of Chicago 
Carol A. Murphy ’85. Business and Community Relations Manager, National Center for Choreography, The University of Akron
Peter H. Niewiarowski, ’84—Professor of Biology, Principle Investigator, Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center, University of Akron
Lisa M. Richardson ’84—Associate Professor and Director of MSW Field Education at a midwestern private university

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