It has a somewhat familiar ring, but chances are, few area residents have heard about the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies.
That’s what will remain of Marlboro College soon if a planned merger with Boston’s Emerson College becomes reality. The economics of small, private colleges have been trending badly for some time, and Marlboro’s president and trustees have seen it coming.
Fearing the demise of the college — as has happened to other, similar-sized colleges in recent years — they’ve sought to partner with a larger institution. Earlier this year, officials flirted with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, but that relationship failed to gel. At the time, Marlboro officials said they’d explored more than 100 potential partners before settling on Bridgeport, which has an enrollment of more than 5,000 students. The Brattleboro Reformer reported enrollment this year at Marlboro College is about 150 students, down significantly from its peak of 356 students in 2005.
Officials touted the Bridgeport merger as a good fit because that university is known for its STEM focus, while Marlboro’s forte is liberal arts. Students would have been able to study at either campus. It didn’t happen, with Marlboro announcing in September the deal had fallen through.
Facing the pressure of a likely eventual loss of accreditation due to its waning financial outlook, the president and trustees at Marlboro announced the new deal last week. In a posting on the college website, they said: “The challenges facing small liberal arts colleges are acute and will only intensify in the coming years. … Given our severe financial challenges, coupled with difficult trends in higher education, the Marlboro trustees believe that an alliance with Emerson is the best opportunity to secure and sustain Marlboro’s legacy far into the future.”
Under the terms of the current plan, Marlboro College will give Emerson its more than $30 million endowment, and real estate holdings that are appraised at more than $10 million, according to a news release from Emerson. Importantly, while Emerson would take possession of the campus in Marlboro, it appears the college may well cease to exist there tangibly. Emerson appears likely to seek a buyer for the property, though Marlboro College officials say they hope to work with Emerson to navigate the future of that campus.
However that plays out, the bulk of what is known as Marlboro College is likely headed for Boston. Emerson will “welcome existing Marlboro students and tenure-line and tenured Marlboro faculty” who want to transfer to Boston under the agreement. The “Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies” would be the college’s legacy as it’s absorbed by Emerson.
The 73-year-old college on Potash Hill has long been a key player in the southern Vermont town west of Brattleboro. It’s played host to Marlboro Music for 69 years, and officials of that organization say their lease remains in place and the annual summer festival will continue. That’s good news for the town. Bad news is that even if a couple of dozen faculty move to Emerson, roughly 50 other staffers will be out of jobs. The economic boost to the community of those 150 students will disappear, as will local contracting for services, materials, etc., that a college — even a small one — depends upon from the community.
Further, the presence of a college has a cumulative effect on the nature of the community. Smart, young students arrive and, after four years, some choose to remain. Faculty are drawn to the area and settle in, raising their families and becoming enmeshed with surrounding towns.
We’ve often noted the many benefits to Keene of playing host to Keene State College. It enhances the city in myriad ways beyond an infusion of young consumers/tenants and the real estate implications of faculty and staff settling here. Culturally, intellectually and in other ways, a college lifts the level of discourse and adds to the public exchange of ideas and information.
Marlboro College leaders may portray this deal as a way to keep the “legacy” of the college alive. It was undoubtedly a tough decision to make and may well be the best they could have done. But Marlboro and Windham County will surely be poorer for it.