Promises to Keep: Marlboro’s Search for a Partner

Poet Robert Frost’s student-centric teaching style inspired the creation of Marlboro College. Frost’s memorable line, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep…” also captures the essence of the marathon-like partnership exploration process Marlboro undertook before finalizing its alliance with Emerson College in the summer of 2020.

As Marlboro’s president, I had a unique perspective on the complexities involved in merging two academic institutions. Everyone involved, from both colleges, was in uncharted waters when we began our negotiations. Yet by the time the merger was finalized, we possessed a specific kind of expertise which only a small number of higher-ed administrators can claim.

As institutions of higher education consider various forms of partnership, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Focus on Mission:  In considering a strategic partnership, whether a merger, acquisition, alliance or some other arrangement, an institution may be facing serious, perhaps existential, challenges. Although seemingly counter-intuitive, college leaders (and their boards) should focus not on maintenance of their independence but rather on their educational mission. Continuation as an independent institution with current personnel and students might not be the best way to advance that mission. Trying to continue as an independent institution may put students at unacceptable risk.

Time is Not Your Ally:  After a couple of years familiarizing the Marlboro Board and extended college community with trends in higher education, in June 2018 the Board agreed to pursue three options: 1) a “Reimagining Marlboro” plan utilizing every imaginable strategy to put the college on a sustainable footing in the face of declining enrollments and deteriorating financial circumstances; 2) exploring partnerships; and 3) developing plans for a possible teach-out and closure.  Regrettably, during this multi-year exploration process, enrollment trends worsened and our financial circumstances deteriorated further, narrowing our options.

A Long and Winding Road:  A Board’s decision to deliberatively explore partnerships is just the start of an intensive, uncertain and anxiety-producing process. Securing a partner is not guaranteed. Many things can delay or derail the process, and partnerships can fall apart despite initial impressions that the partners are well matched. That happened to Marlboro twice. The process of identifying a suitable partner takes time and concerted effort—which can be extremely difficult when you are simultaneously trying to address immediate institutional challenges and maintain normal campus activities.

There are numerous steps involved in formalizing a partnership that can derail the process: reaching an initial agreement (expressed in a term sheet or letter of intent); executing the final, comprehensive agreement; and securing approval from regulators and accreditors. Along the way, there is an enormous amount of due diligence required, as well as efforts to align programs and personnel while communicating extensively with key stakeholders. Complicating matters further, much of the process takes place, by necessity, in a highly public manner where there can be intense opposition from key stakeholders, including students, faculty, alumni, neighbors, faculty, and perhaps legislators.

Know What You Have and What You Want: Although any process is likely to engender strong opposition, the prospects for a successful outcome are significantly enhanced if the Board has clarity about its goals and an unwavering commitment to stick to them. The Board must also have an unvarnished, unsentimental understanding of what its institution brings to the table. This might be a distinctive identity, a particular academic program or technology, certain well-known faculty, or an attractive campus. But in most cases the only sure asset is its financial resources (i.e. endowment.)  It is equally important to be honest about the institution’s needs and weaknesses, and to be clear about what it is looking for in a partner.

Between 2016 and 2019, four Vermont Colleges had closed abruptly. This prompted the Marlboro Board and Administration to resolve that, come what may, our college would not close suddenly and our people would be treated with dignity.

After a participatory self-assessment involving one-on-one interviews with Marlboro trustees and senior administrators, focus groups with students, faculty and staff, as well as an on-line survey, we identified three essential goals. First, we were intent on preserving Marlboro’s identity. Second, we sought to protect our distinctive approach to interdisciplinary, self-directed learning. And finally, we were committed to supporting our students and faculty in what would certainly be an emotionally challenging process.

With these principles as our guide, we sought evidence that a partner institution would respect our legacy, protect our pedagogy, and support our people. Emerson did all these things, and more. They created the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. They offered positions to all of Marlboro’s tenured and tenure-track faculty. And they accepted all of our students with all their credits while maintaining student fees at the Marlboro level (approximately $30,000 a year below Emerson’s).

Trust, but Verify. Like a good marriage, a successful partnership depends on trust. That trust is built up over time and through numerous interactions at many levels in varied settings.  It most likely starts with the institutional leaders, spreads to the Board and then develops between the faculties. Developing trust requires respect, empathy, honesty and transparency, from both institutions. Sadly, this seems to be a surprisingly high bar for educational institutions to meet in many circumstances, but especially during the emotionally wrought and tumultuous partnership exploration process. Starting too late makes it almost impossible.

The exploration of any partnership, even those less complex than a full merger or acquisition, will involve a journey of many miles. Increasingly, however, there are powerful examples (Wheelock, Marlboro, and Boston College, to name a few), where clear-eyed, steadfast leadership can produce an outcome that keeps its promise to the institution’s purpose and its key people: students and faculty.

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