Boston’s Emerson College announced a plan Wednesday to absorb Marlboro College, a small school in Vermont known for holding New England-style town meetings where faculty, students, and staff vote on schoolwide matters.
As part of the deal, Marlboro College would shut down next spring, and Emerson would get a large financial infusion: $30 million from the Vermont school’s endowment and property valued at $10 million.
It’s an unusual match: Emerson, across from Boston Common, has global aspirations and a second campus in Hollywood, while Marlboro over its 70-year history has lured students with ski trails just steps from dormitories and the freedom to develop their own academic programs in a tight-knit community.
But these are desperate times in higher education for small, private schools such as Marlboro.
“This is painful,” said Kevin Quigley, the president of Marlboro.
“Our finances and enrollment trends are such that we can’t make it on our own. We’ve tried. . . . This remarkable opportunity to develop an alliance with Emerson ensures that the essential elements of Marlboro will endure.”
Under a draft agreement, Emerson’s liberal arts program would be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, according to officials at the colleges.
Marlboro, with fewer than 150 students and declining enrollment, would close its Vermont campus at the end of this academic year. Marlboro students would be able to complete their degrees at Emerson at their current tuition as long as they stay in their same majors. The college’s 24 tenured and tenure-track faculty would also be able to teach at Emerson.
“One way to understand this transaction is to think of an individual making a $40 million gift to endow an existing college program,” Emerson president Lee Pelton said in a statement.
It is unclear how many students and faculty would make the transition from rural Vermont to downtown Boston. The merger would likely mean layoffs for some of the 100 Marlboro employees.
Emerson hasn’t determined what it would do with the Vermont land, Pelton said. The property includes an organic farm and 17 miles of cross-country trails.
The Marlboro Music School, a nonprofit unaffiliated with the college, has a long-term lease to rent the campus every summer for seven weeks.
“We’re going to be thoughtful about how we manage the land and respectful of Marlboro College and surrounding community,” Pelton said.
The news of the Emerson and Marlboro merger left many alumni and students of the Vermont college shocked.
“I’m glad Emerson will be taking on some faculty and allowing Marlboro students to finish up, but in reality this is a farewell to a dream,” said Cary Barney, a 1980 graduate of Marlboro, who recalled performing Greek tragedies in the dining hall, which was essentially a converted barn, and briefly living in a teepee on the wooded campus. “With all respect to Emerson . . . Marlboro will be no more.”
Many alumni said they didn’t realize until this past summer that Marlboro’s perpetually shaky finances had taken a dire turn. Then in July, college officials announced that they had been searching for a partner and were considering a merger with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
But in September, that deal fell through. Both sides said they were unable to come to an agreement. Marlboro officials had previously said they wanted to preserve the college’s governance culture, its campus, and education philosophy that allowed students to develop their own curriculum.
Doing all that proved to be too difficult.
For its size, Marlboro has a healthy endowment and little debt. But it has been plagued by other problems facing many small, private colleges, particularly in Vermont. Marlboro’s enrollment has fallen, and it has been forced to offer increasingly larger discounts on its tuition through grants and other financial aid to entice students to its campus.
In the past year, several of Marlboro’s peers, including Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph, have closed.
After the collapse of the University of Bridgeport deal, several Marlboro alumni said they volunteered to help to raise more money and boost enrollment to keep the college independent.
Then came the Emerson announcement.
“I feel completely blindsided,” said Katherine Hollander, a 2002 Marlboro graduate who is a poet and teaches at Boston University. Hollander said she was communicating with Marlboro officials just two weeks ago about how to increase admissions.
Hollander, who grew up in the Boston area, said she picked Marlboro because she wanted a rural and contemplative setting. For many Marlboro students, that was part of the college’s appeal, and Hollander said she is unsure how many current students would transfer to Emerson.
Vincent Lyon-Callo, a Michigan parent of a Marlboro freshman, said his son is unsure where he will go to college next year when the campus is expected to close. His son wanted a small, progressive school, where students could vote on the operations of the campus, but such places are increasingly struggling, he said.
His son had also considered applying to Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts, but that school’s future is also uncertain, he said.
“He has no interest in going to school in downtown Boston,” Lyon-Callo said. “If you want to be in a small place, where it’s not dedicated to the children of the elite, it’s a difficult situation.”
Quigley and Pelton said the deal between Emerson and Marlboro would benefit faculty and students by giving them a home.
The deal has similarities to Boston University’s acquisition of its smaller neighbor Wheelock College in 2018. Wheelock closed, but some of its students and faculty joined BU and its name lived on in the university’s school of education.
For Emerson, the partnership with Marlboro would provide an opportunity to increase its $181 million endowment and help improve its standing with bond rating agencies. Emerson has taken on significant debt in recent years for building renovations, and Moody’s Investors Services noted that the college could upgrade its mid-tier ratings if it had a “significant, sustained increase in liquid financial resources including enhanced fund-raising.”
In the coming months, Emerson and Marlboro will iron out the details of the alliance, including issues of academic affairs, finances, governance, and administration. The deal is to be completed by July 1.