A fresh take on a higher ed merger
As the pending merger of the University of Bridgeport (UB) in Connecticut and Marlboro College in Vermont demonstrates, struggling higher ed institutions need not look only in their own neighborhood for life-saving partnerships with other colleges.
On Thursday, UB announced that a letter of intent had been signed to begin the merger, with language that focused on the expansion of academic and campus offerings for the more than 5,000 students enrolled in both schools. While it’s too early to have any definitive answers about the newly created institution’s exact offerings and operational structure, Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley referenced a “remarkable complementarity,” a synergy based on both institutions being mission-driven.
Both institutions are in New England and have plentiful views, but the similarities of life on campus end there. UB’s 56-acre campus lies on Long Island Sound and within a city of nearly 150,000 residents. To get to the closest city from Marlboro College, which sits on an old farm in the Green Mountains, students need to trek 10 miles to Brattleboro, with a population of 12,000. Just under 200 students, including undergrad and graduate, are enrolled at Marlboro.
UB’s president is Laura Skandera Trombley, a Mark Twain scholar who took the helm in July 2018. “We became aware that Marlboro was looking for a partner, and we started to have conversations and really have enormous respect for their pedagogy and their mission,” she says of the agreement’s beginnings about three months ago.
“It’s no secret that we have been losing liberal arts colleges for the past decade,” Trombley adds. “We can either stand by and watch these places go out of business, or maybe it’s time to create a new model and make a statement that we want to preserve the diversity of higher education.”
New names, new opportunities
Marlboro students participate in weekly New England-style town meetings and craft their own customized plans of concentration rather than selecting majors and minors. UB, known for its engineering and health sciences programs, consolidated its 14 colleges into three in 2018. The College of Health Sciences and The College of Engineering, Business, and Education will retain their names; The College of Arts and Science will be renamed The Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences.
The merger will expand UB’s arts and sciences faculty. Trombley anticipates curricular innovations such as team teaching and first-year seminars that would be at both campuses. Because UB owns several homes, Marlboro students and faculty could be housed during short trips. In addition, agreements will help Marlboro students move seamlessly into UB graduate programs.
Trombley is telling students to think of the Bridgeport campus as their home base, but that she hopes they’ll have multiple campus experiences. Experiences might include options to alternate weeks between Connecticut and Vermont. “Seeing different campus cultures offers an additional education that most students don’t have,” she says, adding that many UB students are first-generation college and come from urban centers. “This is an opportunity for them to actually go and experience nature.”
Students are expected to benefit from the merger as early as spring 2020.
UB’s music faculty are “thrilled to pieces,” says Trombley. Marlboro is home to a well-known summer music festival. Other faculty, the students she has heard from, and alumni are seeing the merger “as a great new chapter for the university.”
Organizational changes pending
The Vermont institution’s new name will be Marlboro College of the University of Bridgeport, Trombley says. “What we’re trying to do is set a new standard for collaboration.” Marlboro’s trustees will have seats on UB’s board.
Trombley’s leadership team is in the process of reaching out to their counterparts at Marlboro. “Clearly, there are areas we’re going to keep in place, such as services that must be available on each campus. Maybe there are some places we could combine operations, but we’re just at the very beginning,” she says. “There’s a lot of getting to know about each other to come.”
One certainty: A single institution needs only one president. “I don’t know the timing yet,” says Trombley, who will remain, and she adds, “We would want to do it with a lot of honor and grace.”
As for working through the financial pieces of the arrangement, Marlboro has no known debt load, and Trombley says the agreement is simply “that we would become one institution.”
Her charge for peers at other institutions is to step up. “This is the time where we need to do our very best to go above and beyond to support the marvelous diversity of education that has, I think, made American life so rich,” she says. “I’ve spent most of my career watching funding dwindle and the humanities be pushed aside. I’m at a point in my life and my career where I just don’t want to accept that anymore.”
Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of University Business.