AboutOriginally published in the Fall 2003 issue of The Marlboro Record
Marlboro's next president returns to the Green Mountains
By Kevin Kennedy
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell's first Marlboro Moment happened when she met the college's presidential search committee. "They said to me, ‘what do you think of us?'" she recalls. "And I said, ‘I probably idealize Marlboro too much.' And then they laughed and everybody's heads nodded up and down and they said ‘so do we!' I think that's what attracted me the most profoundly. It was the ideals, the values."
In a career like Ellen McCulloch-Lovell's, there are many Moments. There's 1978 at the Vermont Arts Council, asking IBM for more money than she'd ever asked of anyone before, to tour a Vermont folklore exhibit around the state. When she got the good news "I remember hanging up the phone and jumping up and down and shouting all over the office," she recalls. Her IBM contact later told her she had such a good proposal she should have asked for more than just $25,000.
There's 1993 in Washington D.C., pulling all-nighters to save the confirmation her boss, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, backed for head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. McCulloch-Lovell and her staff succeeded and Vermonter Molly Beattie got the job.
There's the Moment she created at the White House in 1999, bringing together for a Millennium Evening Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Dr. Odette Nyiramilimo, a survivor of the Rwanda massacres. It was an event meant to celebrate the humanities, not talk politics. But U.S. warplanes were bombing the Serbs out of Kosovo, and Wiesel, in front of hundreds in the East Room and many thousands over C-Span and the Internet, turned to President Clinton and asked, "Why are we so involved, so nobly, in Kosovo—why were we not in Rwanda?" McCulloch-Lovell held her breath. The National Security Advisor shot her "a look." The President answered calmly and at length. "I had my heart in my throat," she says, "but I realized it was one of those moments that was unfolding by itself, and very powerfully."
McCulloch-Lovell's career trajectory has not been what some might expect of a Bennington College philosophy major who failed at landing a grade school teaching job after graduating in 1969. For others, her experiences could exemplify the power of a liberal arts education, one that has brought her full circle, out to the national stage and back, back to Vermont, back to the liberal arts, to become Marlboro's eighth president.
Her brief foray into elementary education, as a student teacher in a two-room schoolhouse in Fayston, Vermont, showed her the educational possibilities of the classroom, which she put to work in her first job, at the Vermont Arts Council. "I think I had the most wonderful first job in the world," she says, "putting nine poets in nine rural schools in Vermont for residencies. Working with the teachers, working with the administrators, watching what happened in the classroom and seeing how the students responded had a very profound effect on me."
Her efforts didn't go unnoticed. In 1975, at the age of 27, McCulloch-Lovell was offered the executive director's position by the Arts Council board, headed at the time by a young potter named Michael Boylen, years before he would begin teaching at Marlboro. Her promotion came at a perfect time for the Arts Council. She'd become fascinated with arts administration at a time when "arts" and "administration" were often viewed as mutually exclusive. In 1972 she'd carried out a summer fellowship in arts administration at Harvard Business School and now she could put her ideas to work. Dorothy Olson, longtime friend of Marlboro and wife of late Marlboro trustee Paul Olson, took over as chair of the Arts Council board soon after McCulloch-Lovell became director. "I spent a lot of time on Ames Hill in Marlboro, visiting and planning with Dorothy," McCulloch-Lovell says. "I started to get to know the college that way, and that's when we started doing things that hadn't been done at the Arts Council before, like strategic planning and being more ambitious about getting grants. It was a real growth period."
"Ellen just took the ball and ran with it," by building a strong staff and creatively pursuing funding, recalls Dorothy Olson. And once the Arts Council received the funds, McCulloch-Lovell was also creative in how she used them. "Ellen supported an absolutely marvelous project for a Vermont painter," Olson says. "He went into a nursing home, and he got some of the residents doing paintings—some of them who hadn't been out of their rooms for a year or more. He got them reaching into their memories and they ended up with a show that was a terrific representation of Vermont life from up to 80 years before. The artist came to give his final report to the board and we were in tears, it was so moving."
The numbers also tell of an organization that blossomed under McCulloch-Lovell's direction. In her eight years as director the Arts Council's budget nearly tripled, staffing doubled and she helped initiate projects that have become part of the bedrock of Vermont's cultural life: the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, the Governor's Institutes, which offer summer programs in the arts and sciences to junior and senior high students and, regionally, the New England Foundation for the Arts.
In 1983 McCulloch-Lovell took what she describes as "a leap of faith" from arts to politics. She moved with her husband, Chris Lovell, and son, Evan, to Washington to become U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy's chief of staff, overseeing policy planning and implementation, budget, a staff of 25 in three offices and the agendas of three Senate committees. While an intimidating change, the move made sense to McCulloch-Lovell. "One of the things that I loved doing at the Arts Council as its leader was the politics, with a small ‘p': going to the legislature, making the case, making friends with the governor's chief aides, understanding the agenda," she says. "And so I felt comfortable and adept at the state scale, and maybe was foolish or arrogant enough to think that I could understand it at the national scale."
Understand it she did, according to Peter van Oot, who worked for McCulloch-Lovell when he was a legislative assistant to Leahy in the early 1980s, and who is now Marlboro's attorney. "If you're the chief of staff, you're working without a net," he says. "It is such an extraordinarily dynamic environment. Judgments have to be made on the fly; there's no book where you look it up. The senator is going to turn to the chief of staff to get the final advice on a vote. That ability to have sound policy judgment, to have the confidence to make the right decision, really showed Ellen's political, personal and policy strengths."
McCulloch-Lovell ran Leahy's office for 10 years, when the average Senate chief of staff lasts about three. She credits the senator with being the kind of boss for whom people want to work. But exceeding by threefold the average life span of a Senate chief of staff can be tiring, and McCulloch-Lovell heard the arts beckoning her, so when the Clinton administration approached her to direct the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, she was ready to say yes. "I thought of it as a vehicle, a very small staff attached to the National Endowment for the Arts with a very large committee" composed of 33 artists and arts industry leaders and the heads of 13 federal agencies. Working with a board whose members ranged from the head of Warner Brothers to music producer Quincy Jones, McCulloch-Lovell and her staff collected a knowledge base from existing cultural organizations that could affect policy and help fledgling groups avoid reinventing the wheel.
One notable project that came from the Committee during McCulloch-Lovell's tenure was Coming up Taller, a national study of the effectiveness of arts and humanities programs geared to help at-risk youth. "It was the first time anybody really looked at all the programs and all the evidence of what happens when students have a serious engagement in the arts or humanities," she says. "It pulled that together, and I think has made a difference in those programs being taken seriously and being funded."
From the President's Committee McCulloch-Lovell worked briefly as the First Lady's deputy chief of staff, and then as deputy assistant to the President and advisor to the First Lady on the millennium. Working closely with Hillary Rodham Clinton, McCulloch-Lovell created programs to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium that would last beyond the fireworks. Save America's Treasures, a project conceived by the First Lady and McCulloch-Lovell, drew attention to and protected some of the America's most endangered historic and cultural sites and collections. They ranged from preserving the barbed wire around the Manzanar Japanese internment camp to saving original manuscripts at Poetry magazine and the plant collection of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Lovell's abilities became clear to Clinton in the seven years she worked with her. "Through the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, of which I was the Honorary Chair and she the Executive Director, and through her direction of the national programs of the White House Millennium Council, I know well Ellen's many qualities as a leader," Clinton wrote in a recent statement. "I have no doubt that Ellen's leadership, intellect, and ability to engage a wide range of people—from youth to those at the highest levels of government—will make a significant contribution to Marlboro College and its future."
With the end of the Clinton administration came the end of McCulloch-Lovell's White House appointments, and she moved on to become the first director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress and the president of the Center for Arts and Culture, both subjects dear to her heart. The Veterans History Project records the first-hand accounts of veterans and civilians of American wars from World War I through the Persian Gulf wars. The Center for Arts and Culture, McCulloch-Lovell explains, "is a think tank where public policies that have an impact on cultural life can be examined. In addition, it brings a greater variety of cultural voices into the policy debate."
Lovell sees the Center's mission of bringing the cultural community into public policy overlapping with that of Marlboro College. "I think Marlboro is an important institution nationally, because of its emphasis on experiential learning and creativity and citizenship. Those are values that attracted me so deeply to Marlboro, and they should really be held up as examples nationally.
"There's an exact parallel here with my work at the Center for Arts and Culture, because a lot of what I've been about has been helping people understand their power as citizens. And so the degree to which we have an educated citizenry—going back to Thomas Jefferson's famous quote—and the degree to which young people understand the policies that affect them, is the degree to which we are going to have a better democracy."
On a personal level, McCulloch-Lovell is attracted to not only promoting the importance of culture in society, but working right in the thick of it. "I have worked with a lot of scholars and a lot of faculty members from higher education and I have really loved that engagement, that back and forth. Agree, disagree, but constantly learning," she says. "And when I got to Marlboro and I heard people talking so seriously and earnestly about community, I realized that it was possible. That this is a community of learners. And I thought, I want to be in a place like this."
Coming to Marlboro's presidency having worked extensively, as she says "with higher education but not in higher education" offers McCulloch-Lovell and the college unique opportunities, she says. "I do think I have a perspective on how an institution like Marlboro fits in with the broad array of intellectual and cultural institutions. And along with thinking I have something to contribute, I also have something to learn. Usually when I start something new, it's already gripped me and given me ideas, but at the same time I really like to do my homework. And so I don't have a lot of preconceived notions, and I'm looking forward to the kinds of discussions I'll have with the faculty and the students and the staff."
Less visible than a college's participation in the cultural life of society is the work that goes into feeding its engine with revenue, which is where Marlboro, along with much of higher education, faces challenges. Marlboro's current financial model is organized to draw on three primary revenue streams to keep its engine running—enrollment, endowment and ancillary programs, with ongoing fundraising taking up annual shortfalls. While Marlboro is enjoying a solid enrollment, the college's modest endowment is not yet a significant source of annual income and its primary ancillary program—the Graduate Center—has suffered from anemic enrollment since the crash of the Internet economy three years ago.
"Challenges are the things that are going to be intriguing," says McCulloch-Lovell. "One thing is with the Graduate Center and the college being in two different places and having articulated some different purposes. What struck me is that they do share common values, and so how do we bring them into closer alignment. And of course how do we help the Graduate Center thrive and attract students."
Fundraising—both for building endowment and financing ongoing operations—is an area in which McCulloch-Lovell enjoys considerable experience. She cut her teeth raising money in three-digit increments for the Vermont Arts Council, and later helped raise millions for national organizations.
Nevertheless, she has no specific plans on how to address Marlboro's financial challenges, she says. "It is really too early to speculate on what I might recommend. I think there is no one solution, maybe no two solutions, but many that need to be carefully considered, consistent with Marlboro's values and reputation, adventuresome yet well calculated. Marlboro has some real fundraising strengths: a strong and devoted board, loyal alumni, a great message. We need to tell the Marlboro story to more people and make more friends for the college.
"There's so much that's right with Marlboro," she adds. "I think one of the things to do is preserve and value what it's doing well."
Ellen McCulloch-Lovell assumed the post of president in April 2004.