Will Wootton’s Letter to the Vermont Attorney General

March 26, 2020

T.J. Donovan
Attorney General
State of Vermont
109 State Street
Montpelier, VT 05609

Dear Sir:

My name is Will Wootton, and I write to you over deep concerns I have regarding the upcoming closing of Marlboro College and the transfer to Emerson College in Boston of Marlboro’s endowed funds of some $40 million and the proceeds from the sale of the campus, approximately $10 million.

I write as a 1972 Marlboro graduate, a 19-year senior level employee at Marlboro, and as a former president of another small, rural Vermont College, Sterling College, in Craftsbury Common, where I served from 2006 to 2012. And for the past few months I have been actively participating in one of the numerous, essentially leaderless groups opposing the College’s closure, in this case called “Ibelieveinmarlborocollege.org.”

To the current Board of Trustees, who feel there is no other choice for the College but closure, the reason for this deal as opposed to some other deal or concerted effort seems to be that some number of tenured faculty will move to Emerson at the same rank and better pay. No one knows how many faculty. Other than that, everyone loses their job. Windham County loses a major financial and cultural asset. The State of Vermont loses its fifth small, rural college. And higher education in America becomes just a bit more homogenized than it is already.

As someone who has written articles on the struggles and closures of small Vermont Colleges in the Chronicle of Higher Education, VTBusiness magazine, and other venues, it is of interest to me that Marlboro is failing for the same exact reasons that brought down Burlington College, St. Joe’s, Green Mountain, and Southern Vermont College, all now shuttered. All of them laid the blame on “demographics” – meaning they could not attract enough students to pay their bills. Then they ran out of money.

But that’s not it, at all. Small colleges close because of long and short term leadership failures on the part of boards of trustees and the presidents they select. They do not take action when action is needed. They are change adverse. They seek growth over strength. They can see the writing on the wall, but somehow are unable to read it, to understand it.

But Marlboro, at this point, is different. Not unique, but different from its now disappeared institutional colleagues.

Sweet Briar College, in Virginia, and nearby Hampshire College, in Northampton, MA are two other small colleges whose trustees attempted to close them – just as Marlboro’s is trying to close their college – but whose communities rose up and protested and turned things around. Now both these institutions are rebuilding themselves, right-sizing, creating new curricula, and seeking a future.

Why these places but not Vermont’s shuttered four? One critical reason, maybe the only critical reason, is that Sweet Briar and Hampshire were in possession of significant endowments. Sweet Briar about $70 million, and Hampshire about $60 million. A base, a foundation upon which to reset and rebuild. And they are.

Marlboro’s endowment reached as much as $50 million on a corpus of something over $30 million. That’s a lot of money for a college of 300, now reduced to 125 students. The endowment, too, I understand is much, much reduced.

So what’s left? A foundational endowment, a dedicated rural community in the town of Marlboro, a significant lessee and companion in the Marlboro Music Festival, a body of alumni and friends who recently pledged nearly $300,000 to support a sustainable Marlboro, and a cadre of former faculty and even some current faculty ready to get back to work, if the College can remain where it belongs, in Marlboro, Vermont.

But time is short. Only the tenured faculty, compromised with the promise of future employment, and current trustees have legal standing. Trustees opposed to the merger all resigned, mistakenly they understand now, losing their votes and standing.

So I, who believes the College deserves a chance to use its resources to downsize and rebuild, focus on the Marlboro Board, their actions, motives, and influences, have questions:

  1. Will Board Chairman Richard Saudek explain how he has remained on the Board for more than 20 years, when the College’s bylaws (most recently adopted in 2019) limit terms to a total of 12 years?
  2. How does former Chairman Dean Nicyper explain similarly long tenure on the Board?
  3. President Quigley claims the College “raised” $5 million dollars last year, while Richard Saudek told me and others that “the alumni never really stepped up.” Will the Board provide an analysis of that impressive fundraising? Were all donors knowledgeable of the impending closure? Were some of those gifts – especially Trustee gifts – aimed at supporting the closure?
  4. Despite repeatedly claiming, without a scrap of evidence, that the College had “thoroughly examined” the option of downsizing and rebuilding the College, will the Board justify its months-long steadfast refusal to open their downsizing examinations and process to independent scrutiny?

Further, will the Board explain its interpretation of its fiduciary responsibility, in light of the strange resistance to exhibiting evidence of even a brief study of the downsizing option?

Further still, will the board share its most recent report to NECHE, in which it apparently gave the Council the impression, but no evidence, that downsizing had been studied and rejected?

  1. Will the Board’s leadership assure the College community and the State of Vermont that Board member Donna Heiland – a former executive employee at Emerson and associate of Emerson President Pelton, has recused herself from voting on all measures regarding the “merger” with Emerson?
  2. Finally, will the Board account for and justify the decade-long misapplication of funds to donor-driven building programs, consultancies, one-off scholarship initiatives, and other ineffectual half-measures as admissions shrank year after year, student retention declined, and the President received annual bonuses?

To me, Sir, Marlboro’s decline, replete with missteps and missed opportunities, is evidence of poor institutional management and planning and fiscal recklessness, which includes hiring two presidents each without an iota of higher education administration experience, the reliance on high-end consultancies who, basically, have no experience in how small colleges operate, and relying on its endowment to repeatedly balance a budget and bail the College out of trouble, but only until the following year.

Never addressed or explored was genuine institutional change. Instead, they adhered to an educational and administrative model crashing all around them, even while witnessing the closures among their fellow Vermont institutions.

These aren’t the folks who should close Marlboro College.

The College should be given the chance to right itself.

Given that chance, it will either succeed or fail. If it fails, there will still be a significant endowment – on a per student basis exceeding those at Sweet Briar and Hampshire. The campus will still be valued at $10 million dollars. And there will be plenty of institutions, perhaps Vermont institutions, that would find such a place and community desirable.

Instead, the current Board has taken the most radical solution to the conundrum they themselves created, instead of the most conservative: downsize, restructure, rebuild.

There’s an entire community of Marlboro citizens, Windham County friends, friends and alumni across the nation, and former faculty ready to support Marlboro. So it’s important, at least, that the Board address these questions as to their leadership and their responsibilities to hire and fire presidents, and assure the viability and integrity of their College.

Thank you for your attention,

Will Wootton

%d bloggers like this: