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'A Really Beautiful Community': Marlboro College Prepares To Close Its Doors

A college student standing in front of a window.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Anna Morrissey, a senior at Marlboro College, said as more small liberal arts colleges like Marlboro close, students like her will have fewer options in pursuing the type of education she says is most beneficial.

Ever since Marlboro College announced last week that it would likely be closing its campus in Windham County, both the college community and people who live in the small town have been coming to grips with the news.

The Marlboro College board said that after years of declining enrollment the school would be giving its approximately $30 million endowment, as well as its 366-acre campus, to Emerson College. In exchange, Emerson would accept all Marlboro students and tenured faculty on its Boston campus.

The schools are looking to finalize the arrangement by July 1, 2020. If the deal goes through, a new program will start at Emerson called the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies.

More from VPR — Planned Merger Between Marlboro And Emerson Collegse Would Close Vermont Campus [Nov. 6]

The rumors about Marlboro College closing have been swirling around the campus, and around the town of Marlboro, for a few years now — especially with enrollment down and other small liberal arts colleges closing. Many people in Marlboro feared that the small progressive school, which stresses independent thinking, might have been built for a time that's passed Marlboro College by.

Amer Latif has taught religious studies at Marlboro College for 16 years. When he first interviewed for a job teaching at the school, Latif said the scene inside the dining hall convinced him that this small liberal arts college in southern Vermont would be a good place to work.

"No matter who you are on this campus — the president, the staff; if you're a janitor, you're a professor, you're a student — we all sit together and eat at the same table," Latif said. "So if you're a religious person, like myself, you might think of it in those terms that this was the ideal that many prophets tried to achieve. And we had a secular version of that here. And of course, that for me is the loss that we will have of a really beautiful community where people are people. We really treat each other as fully beautiful human beings."

Latif is going to Emerson, because he said it's the only option left of salvaging Marlboro's educational model.

"And like refugees who leave their place and try and go and create a home somewhere else, that we will be in some ways refugees who have been offered a home somewhere else," Latif said. "We're bringing a lot of value there. But in some ways not all is lost here. So that part gives me hope as much as I grieve for what will be lost. Because … this is a home for all of us."

A teacher sits at the front of a classroom.
Credit Kelly Fletcher / Marlboro College, Courtesy
Amer Latif leads a class at Marlboro College. Latif said he will be moving to Boston to teach at Emerson College.

Marlboro College is closely tied to the land in Windham County called Potash Hill. The founders built the original buildings on the land, and the trails and woods around the school are as much a part of the college as the classrooms.

Robin MacArthur not only attended Marlboro College, but her great-grandparents moved here to teach in the early years. According to MacArthur, they left better paying college jobs in Toronto to teach at a school with a stronger connection to place and community.

While MacArthur said she supports the plan that retains jobs for the professors — some of whom are friends of hers — she also said it's impossible to imagine Marlboro College in Boston.

"For me this is a death of Marlboro College. ... Actually it feels very insulting to me to have the name go with this program," MacArthur said, "because the name is the name of this town."

Joe Mazur, a former professor who now lives here, said a previous plan had Marlboro merging with the Connecticut-based University of Bridgeport and would have kept some classes at the Vermont campus. Those merger talks were called off in September.

But Mazur said that this plan, giving away the property to an unknown future, has shaken the community.

"From my point of view, it's a complete cop-out," Mazur said. "There could have been other ways of doing this, but it seems like people just want to get out. And the idea to just give the place away, I just don't understand it. I think it's nuts, quite frankly. I mean, I don't know any other way to put it, but I think it's nuts."

"It seems as though the notions of place-based learning, and a lot of the philosophy of the Marlboro College, over and over again rubs up against and has increasing friction with the realities of the larger world." — Michelle Holzapfel, Marlboro resident

Marlboro has a population around 1,000 people. It doesn't have a commercial center, so the closing of the school won't really affect business in town. But for a lot of people here, the pain that comes along with accepting that a small progressive school can't survive in the 21st century goes beyond just the grieving for this community.

"It seems to me that there are much bigger forces at work here,” said Michelle Holzapfel, who attended Marlboro College in the early 1970s.

She said if there were any ways to change Marlboro's philosophy to give it a better chance of surviving, it would have had to have happened years ago.

"It seems as though the notions of place-based learning, and a lot of the philosophy of the Marlboro College, over and over again rubs up against and has increasing friction with the realities of the larger world," Holzapfel said. "And I don't see what else can happen. And if they sell it, the new owner has the power to decide what happens next. I don't see how we can prevail against that as a tiny town of a thousand people."

Anna Morrissey is a senior at Marlboro College so she doesn’t have to worry about where she'll attend school next year. But in the four years she’s been here she's watched schools like Marlboro shut down, so she wonders where students like her will end up as the prospects for liberal arts educations fade.

"To see the schools with this model of, like, bringing in students — they're not all valedictorians, they didn't all get the best SAT scores, but they're really driven — and you bring them here and you get out of their way and they like do something amazing. And like, that is the one that has to go?" Morrissey said. "That's the one that for whatever reason isn't sustainable or isn't valued makes no sense to me. And in the worser days of this process that's what feels the most unfair.”

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