Marlboro Matters: The Engaged Marlboro Community of the Future

Inaugural Address of President Kevin Quigley 

Distinguished Guests, Chairman Dean Nicyper, trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, family, and friends: a warm Vermont welcome to each and every one of you; thank you so much for being here on this very special day of celebration of Marlboro College’s past and dedication to its future.

Welcome to the top of Potash Hill, this clearing in the woods, this unique place in the landscape of American higher education. 

I begin in gratitude, then I will speak to my path here, the past and the future of Marlboro, challenges to liberal arts education and service as a means to address that.

First, I want to thank the Board of Trustees for their trust and support.   

I also thank the representatives of other colleges and university here today, especially my new colleagues: President Mariko Silver of Bennington, President Paul Fonteyn of Green Mountain College, and President Peter Eden of Landmark College. 

I thank all my predecessors, upon whose work I intend to build:  Walter Hendricks, Paul Zens, David Lovejoy, Roland Boyden, Rod Gander…

And, especially, Tom Ragle, Paul LeBlanc, and Ellen McCullough-Lovell, who honor me and demonstrate their enduring affection for Marlboro College by their attendance today. 

Thank you to everybody in this very special community: faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends of Marlboro, who have warmly welcomed me and my spouse Susan into your midst these past few months.  Each and every day you contribute your gifts in immeasurable and imaginative ways to the vitality of this unique place. From the moment that Susan and I won a pair of laying hens at the Town’s annual potluck dinner, we knew we were in a unique community!

I also express my gratitude to the Marlboro College community representatives who spoke so compellingly today about why Marlboro Matters: Gretchen, Kate, Julie, and Logan. Thank you! I will do my best to heed your advice, as well as live up to your expectations and be worthy of your trust and support. 

I owe a special debt of gratitude to our three presenters: Alex Shakow, Ginny Kirkwood, and Phil Weinstein. My debt is not just for your eloquent words; it is for your shining examples of lives of purpose. You exemplify the best qualities of two cherished institutions that continue to shape my life: the Peace Corps and Swarthmore. 

I also express unending gratitude to my family here today, my amazing Mom—Katherine—who, along with Dad, embodied lifelong, international learning and always encouraged their nine children and twenty-seven grandchildren to pursue education as the best way to follow our passions. Remarkably, they unstintingly supported each and every one of us without judgment, whatever path we chose. And I want to publicly express my thanks to Mom for the generous gift she has made to Marlboro in support of my vision for the college’s future.

I also thank my wonderful siblings who are here: Elin, Bill, Pat, Kate, and Peter—and each and every one of their loved ones who made the trip to the mountaintop today: Charlie, Dee, Jeff, Chris and Meghan, as well as my sisters-in-law Mary Lou and Maureen. 

Thanks also to my many Peace Corps and Swarthmore friends near and far. I learned the meaning of community from them. They taught me about the importance of being open to new experiences, learning to see the world as others see it, as well as being flexible and patient—lessons that I am still building on today. 

My inspiring Peace Corps and college friends helped me to see how communities are inextricably linked to place, bonded through common experiences that nurture shared values and shape dreams for the future. These friends here today also are standing in for others who have had a life-changing experience in the Peace Corps or at liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Marlboro.

Most importantly, I thank my spouse, Susan Flaherty, and my step-daughter, Fiona Flaherty. They are the joys of my life and both teach me so much. We have enjoyed so many wonderful adventures together, and I am pleased that we are all embarked on this new one. Susan and I often quip, “We met on a 900-mile bike trip through the Canadian Rockies, and have been pedaling together ever since.” 

This morning, I want to share a bit about the journey that led me to Marlboro, and talk about Marlboro’s remarkable history and distinctive values, as well as express my aspirations for our future, especially on how strengthening service will be a powerful way to build the college community.

How I Got Here?  

We are all familiar with the college’s first trustee Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “The Road Less Traveled.” For me, the various roads I took “… made all the difference.” (Those roads included Peace Corps service in Thailand and government service in D.C.; research roles at think tanks, senior staff positions with foundations and non-governmental organizations working internationally, and various board memberships of colleges and NGOs.) 

David Orr, however, recently suggests that my interpretation of Frost’s poem is hopelessly wrong. Orr argues that Frost wrote his most famous poem as a joke for a friend who was constantly dithering over which path to take on their frequent walks together. So it is not about the particular road taken, but about the journey. In any event, I am delighted that all my roads brought me to Marlboro to travel down a new road and begin a new journey.

My lifelong learning parents set me on my path (Mom got her master’s at 50, Dad his doctorate at 57).  The next step on my path to Marlboro was via Swarthmore College, with its rigorous, yet collegial, learning environment, imbued by Quaker values of consensus, and a modesty that focused on the work itself not the individual performing it.   

There, I was deeply immersed in the study of literature, religion, and history, as well as dabbling at virtually everything that a small college can offer its students. This includes trying, but certainly not mastering, everything from intercollegiate swimming, modern dance, pottery, and poetry, to Tai Chi, theater, and transcendental meditation. 

While my undergraduate studies may appear on the surface to have little to do with the rest of my life’s trajectory, I believe they have everything to do with my ability to travel down many different roads, in a variety of types of organizations, in differing substantive fields, in numerous countries on six continents. 

We all know that liberal arts education encourages experiences that fosters empathy and respect for others, develops critical thinking, promotes personal responsibility, and motivates constructive community engagement.  In truth, my life’s work could not have been done without the foundation of a liberal arts education.   

As a student keenly interested in Asian cultures, I know that numbers and signs matter. Becoming the ninth president of Marlboro is especially auspicious: Susan and I are a “pair of nines,” both coming from families with nine children, and for the past three years I’ve been living in Thailand, a country I started learning about in college, where King Bhumipol Adulyadej is the ninth king in the Chakri dynasty.

According to Chinese cosmology, 2015 is the Year of the Goat. During the search process, we discussed challenges to liberal arts education, perhaps best exemplified by William Deresiewicz’s trenchant critique, Excellent Sheep.

He bemoans the fact that so many of today’s best and brightest students appear more interested in checking off lists, building resumes, and getting high-paying jobs, rather than having an education that helps shape a life of purpose and critical thinking. 

During the search process, Committee Co-chair Peter Zamore ’74, suggested that Marlboro students weren’t sheep, but rather they were goats: rugged, tenacious individuals who don’t follow the crowd but blaze their own way.

So, I take it is as an especially portentous sign that I am becoming part of the Marlboro community during this Year of the Goat. 

As you might see around the campus, individuals who participated in the September 11th day of service are wearing a Marlboro College T-shirt emblazoned with a goat and the caption, “looking for a few rugged intellectuals.” Thank you, Peter, for such an apt metaphor and the contrarian imagery, and Ariel Brooks—our interim dean of students—for the phrase “rugged intellectuals,” even if it was for a Craig’s List ad.

Throughout my career working on international development and expanding opportunities for Americans to serve at home and abroad, I have found that organizations work best where there is an interconnected triad of place, people, and purpose.

On place, here on Potash Hill for our undergraduate campus and by the Connecticut River for our graduate campus, Marlboro College is blessed with remarkably beautiful places. Here, we are nestled in these verdant woods, with the Green Mountains to our north and enchanting South Pond close by.

On people, during my first few months here, I have learned that the Marlboro community is a collection of remarkably dedicated individuals who are committed to the college’s purpose of helping students to have a self-directed, rigorous, academic experience rooted in community values, and shape a life that matters. 

During Convocation, earlier this month, the faculty provided inspiring answers to the question inspired by the great Vermont-born educator John Dewey, “What place does place have in your teaching?” 

The faculty’s varied answers ranged widely: there isn’t a single place, but multiple places that matter; place can be easily defined in mathematical terms, place is ephemeral and may also be imaginary.   Despite their different answers, all the faculty and the three alumni speakers—Randy, Adam, and Kendall—suggested that Marlboro is a special place that nurtures us, inspires us, and continually harkens us back. In their poignant words, I clearly hear that Marlboro is home.

Everything about the college and its values resonate deeply with me; coming to Marlboro feels like I have found another home. 

That Marlboro has this essential trinity of place, people, and purpose is just one reason that Marlboro Matters, and I am very fortunate that my life’s roads brought me here.

Marlboro: A Brief History

Like many innovations, Marlboro’s origin sprung from an idea both simple and bold; its distinctive pedagogy was based on an insight linked to our founder’s personal experiences.

When Walter Hendricks was a student at Amherst College, then-president Alexander Meiklejohn hired a relatively unknown poet, Robert Frost. In Frost’s classes, Hendricks had a unique learning experience. Using an approach Frost called, “teaching by presence,” the poet challenged students to “convert the teacher’s claim on the students, to the students claim on the teacher.” Teaching by presence means that all—students and teachers—are learners in the process. 

This new pedagogy turned Hendricks’ world upside down. He saw how self-directed learning is so much more powerful than professor-centric instruction.  Hendricks’ experience at the end of WWII, when he taught some of the best students he ever had: GIs at a special college in, Biarritz France, further persuaded him of the power of self-directed learning in a collegial setting. At Biarritz, officers and enlisted soldiers learned alongside each other, and everyone called their professors by their first names: a cherished and continuing tradition at Marlboro today.

This collegiality of approach was reflected in the college’s first catalogue and persists: “At Marlboro College, the teacher-student relationship is a personal one and a mutual one, the student and teacher occupying common ground.”

Given the GIs’ wartime experience, those veterans knew what they wanted to learn. Because they had fought for freedom, they wanted to not only direct their own learning but direct their own affairs. Thirty-five members of that first class of 50 were GIs.

While many liberal arts institutions assert that their purpose “is a strengthening of education for citizenship,” for Hendricks and Marlboro’s other founders, rooting that lofty goal in the Vermont tradition of citizen governance through Town Meeting seemed especially apt.  This practice continues today.

The distinctive Marlboro experience begins in a students’ first week, something I have just had the chance to witness. Shortly after their arrival on campus, incoming students travel into the woods for a wilderness experience.  These “Bridges” trips are organized by current students and recent alumni (and generously supported by Trustee and former faculty member Ted Wendell and his wife, Mary).

At the end of that formative week, on the lawn of the president’s house, groups of these incoming students told or acted out their developing abilities to overcome obstacles, bond with each other, and glean understanding of the centrality of community and Marlboro’s distinctive approach. Many individuals who saw and heard these students after their Bridges experiences remarked on how much these students seemed to have matured in only a matter of days.

Very much related to the community-centric Bridges program is Marlboro’s approach to learning inspired by the Oxford and Cambridge tutorials, where students meet with their professors in small settings and all are co-learners. 

Rather than have traditional majors, students develop their Plan of Concentration to explore, in multidisciplinary, often unique ways, questions that most fire their imaginations. Students’ Plans are reviewed by external examiners, a process with very few parallels at the undergraduate level.  Reflecting the fact that our students are lifelong learners, a remarkable 77 percent go on to graduate school.

The Importance and Timeliness of a Liberal Arts Education

While the founding ethos permeates this clearing in the woods and its timeless values persist, Marlboro, like other small, residential liberal arts colleges, and not for the first time in its history, is experiencing challenges.

We have fewer students than previous years. Rising costs and concerns about debt encourages students who might benefit from a Marlboro education to look elsewhere. This is occurring at a time of growing skepticism about the value of a liberal arts education.

Despite these challenges, as the Chinese adage reminds us, challenges and crises create opportunities.  And so it is for liberal arts colleges. 

Marlboro College today is in the midst of significant change and evolution. In 2013–14, a major new strategic planning process took place.  Earlier this year, following an intensive, community-led self-study process, the college received its 10-year accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. 

Although change is never easy, Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, teaches us that change is an entirely natural process since “no one steps into the same river twice.” 

The Marlboro of today is different from the Marlboro of yesterday and will be from the one of tomorrow. That river flows on, and we all must necessarily evolve with the flow. Our very engaged and amazingly supportive Board has responded creatively and quickly to current challenges—again supporting how much Marlboro Matters.

Over the past few months, I have come to more deeply appreciate the fact that Marlboro Matters because it continues to teach invaluable, timeless skills that have broad applicability: to think critically, to read closely, to communicate compellingly, to work in community.

Liberal arts, as the Greeks first posited, and as it is more recently argued by public intellectuals like Fareed Zakaria, is the best preparation for an engaged life and citizenship. As my life suggests, liberal arts graduates can do anything and everything, everywhere. There is also growing evidence from leading corporations, that they want liberal arts graduates because they work well across disciplines, problem solve, and communicate in ways that some other graduates can’t. 

Looking ahead, we at Marlboro must ask and answer fundamental questions:  What will our students need to know and how will we prepare them for the next 40 years of their working lives and beyond? What skills, experiences, and attitudes can we help them develop to successfully navigate a life that will be marked by change?

If the poet William Wordsworth is right, that “past is prelude,” we can confidently predict that the pace and scope of change will surely accelerate and deepen in the course of our students’ lives.

John Dewey provided guidance about how liberal arts education addresses life’s inevitable changes and links theory and practice in ways that develop the critical thinking, lifelong learning, and citizenship skills that our society needs and wants.

Unfortunately, too much of education is stultifying, as innovative thinker Sir Ken Robinson suggests. This robs our children and youth of imagination. Marlboro Matters because it has shown time and time again that self-directed learning, guided by engaged professors, can ignite the imagination and develop creative solutions to problems heretofore unimaginable. 

In fact, this approach matters not just to our students, but I think that it matters more broadly to American higher education as that landscape undergoes rapid changes with more students opting out, selecting public and non-residential institutions, or going online. I firmly believe there is a small but important niche for the distinctive, collegial residential Marlboro type educational approach, especially as we are more explicit about how this education cultivates problem-solving and develops engaged citizens who strengthen their communities.  

Marlboro Matters because we are prepared to rise to the challenges of our times. Last month, the Board of Trustees agreed to establish a Renaissance Scholars Program. Beginning with the next incoming class, this new scholarship will be available for one student from every state and the District of Columbia. It aims to recruit not only academically promising students, but individuals who will contribute to campus life and engage in community service. 

We are confident that these new scholars will contribute to diversification and revitalization, indeed a renaissance of Marlboro. They will increase the critical mass of students on campus and revitalize campus life, in ways that harken back to our early leaders’ aspirations, while also meeting students’ needs and helping them to realize their dreams. I know that what our students learn and experience here will lead them to lives of civic and global engagement, strengthening communities wherever they go.

Service: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

In addition to the launch of this new Renaissance Scholars Program, I believe strongly that instilling the value of lifelong community service is essential to a Marlboro education.

Service is a powerful foundation for a liberal arts education. John Dewey and others provide a theoretical basis in advocating “place-based” or “experiential learning,” much of which already informs teaching and learning here at Marlboro as the faculty so eloquently expressed during last week’s Convocation.

Service is a clear pathway to “make a liberal arts education real.” Service engenders empathy, and often helps us to know what we want to and need to know, as well as what needs to be done.

As an undergraduate, if asked about my career goals, I would have answered, “I want to be like Phil Weinstein and teach comparative literature at a liberal arts college.”

Then I had a life-changing experience in the Peace Corps, which was a kind of graduate school without walls. My service, deeply immersed in the northeast of Thailand and far removed from the day to day influences of American culture, helped me to know how much I didn't know: I needed a better understanding of how the world worked, especially about politics, economics, and social justice, and the power of culture and religion. I needed to understand about the powerful and the powerless, about what is and what could be, and about how to actually get things done. I was also motivated to address the enormous inequities that I found dividing rich and poor, educated and illiterate, rural and urban.

Although service is a gift given without expectation of payment, it usually is a gift that pays many unexpected rewards: lifelong friendships, greater clarity about life’s purpose, and affirmation of our essential humanity. 

I have heard this from thousands of Peace Corps volunteers. They include one just last week when a Marlboro neighbor, Malcolm Moore, dropped off some wonderful aerial photographs of the college and said, “I got so much more out of my Peace Corps service in Peru than I ever gave.”

Coupled with rigorous academic work, service can also assist in learning invaluable life skills, which also are in great demand in the global work place: how to work effectively in groups, developing strategies for mobilizing resources, and identifying ways to bridge myriad cultural, economic and social differences. For many of us, service provides the first opportunity to learn how organizations really function.

My hope is that in the years ahead many more Marlboro students will participate in service-learning activities at home and/or abroad, and that the number of faculty and staff who participate in these activities will also increase; and that Marlboro will be known as the college where we value service in its many forms and discover imaginative and innovative ways to express its centrality to our values and mission.

Connecting to the World 

Since being an AFS-exchange student in Belgium during high school, then a graduate student in Dublin, and a volunteer in Thailand, as I mentioned, much of my life’s focus has been international. I became a global citizen before that term was coined. My intention is to deepen Marlboro College’s connections to the world. The first students here at Marlboro brought the world to campus. It is time that we do more to strengthen our connections to the world.

I intend to build upon the successes of our signature World Studies Program, by expanding opportunities for students to study internationally and for international students to become a larger part of the Marlboro community. The Graduate Center already does this; it is my intention that the undergraduate program emulate that success in bringing to and supporting international students at Marlboro.

Earlier this week, in response to the refugee crisis that is much in the news, Professor John Willis suggested recruiting Syrian refugee students. I also have been approached to accept students from Myanmar who are interested in a rigorous liberal arts education in a community setting. Professor Grant Li is taking steps to recruit Chinese students.

Returning to our roots, we also want to deepen our connections to veterans and build on the remarkable “Words After War” program started by Brandon Willits ’12. Working with faculty member John Sheehy, Brandon has provided intense writing workshops for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. After listening to a number of these veterans read their work aloud, I am convinced that today’s veterans have much to contribute to our Marlboro community.

We must also strengthen our connections with outstanding graduates of community colleges. Robert Putnam’s sobering new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, lays out a pernicious consequence of the widening income gap in American society. This results in a growing opportunity gap around schools, jobs, and health care: in short, the quintessential elements of the American Dream.

Putnam chronicles how residential-style educational experiences are beyond the financial ability of a growing number of middle-class families. Instead, these families are asking their children to go to college closer to home or pursue higher education through online options. Living at home and having a job while studying is one way that families are economizing on the high cost of college education.

However, after receiving their associate’s degrees many of the most successful community college students are looking for opportunities for the kind of rigorous, self-directed study that Marlboro offers. This year, we had 13 transfer students, and 7 are graduates of community colleges. I hope and expect that these students will join the ranks of our most outstanding Marlboro students.

Why Marlboro Matters

For new Renaissance students, veterans, the best community college graduates and many other engaged learners, I believe Marlboro Matters because of our signature approach to learning. That approach is collegial, student-driven, emphasizes clear communication, and helps to develop citizenship skills based on meaningful roles governed by and rooted in community values. That is the best possible preparation for an uncertain but certainly different future.

Marlboro Matters because it is a rare place where students can explore, examine, and then reexamine the critical questions of life: Why is there poverty? How do we address inequality? What makes for identity? How do we promote a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world in which each and every one can flourish? Why do we spend so much on war and so little on human development, or, to put it bluntly, why does the U.S. spend more on defense than the next 17 nations combined? It’s too rare that we get to consider these essential questions. A place like this clearing in the woods matters because it demands that we address these critical questions.

Marlboro Matters because we also provide our students with the chance to develop the skills and experiences that cultivate what Alexis de Toqueville described as “the habits of the heart,” which are essential to create civil communities and democratic societies. Here, we aspire to have our students fully share in the governance of the college. 

Marlboro Matters because we have amazing alumni who take what they have learned here and apply it to make things betters.  Alumni like Noah Levinson ’05, whose dad will speak in a few minutes, started Calcutta Kids while a student here, empowering children and expecting mothers in underserved areas of Kolkata.

Most importantly, Marlboro Matters because it is a caring, learning community, with growing worldwide connections, that is deeply compassionate and earnestly seeking to be engaged in today’s most pressing issues.    

On Labor Day, Joy Auciello ’13, now a graduate student wrote: 

“Marlboro matters because it challenges us, because it makes us better people, not just smarter or more knowledgeable ones.”

Conclusion

In his inaugural address, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy challenged each and every one of us to serve others, our community, and our country. Today, I echo that timeless challenge and ask all of us to work together to educate and engage our remarkable students so that they can discover and explore their passions, develop the skills and attitudes needed to strengthen communities wherever they find them, and thus effectively engage as citizens who positively impact our world. This requires the best from every one of us, every day.

Together, we can shape a Marlboro for tomorrow that, in ever adapting ways, continues to be a learning community that truly matters and genuinely makes a difference.

Building Marlboro as an engaged, international, well-resourced learning community, is my hope and my firm intention, and that is the task to which I dedicate myself today and in the years in ahead. 

In doing that, Marlboro will truly matter. It will be a shining example of an engaged learning community for American higher education.

This task is challenging but achievable; it will require that each of us rededicate ourselves to Marlboro’s future and redouble our efforts to make our dreams for Marlboro tomorrow’s a reality.

I can’t do this alone. I will need all of your help. It will take a community to shape Marlboro College as an engaged learning community that truly matters.

The Chinese say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So, let today be that first, important step.

Thank you all for being here to help celebrate Marlboro’s past and start the journey to its new future.

And, finally thanks in advance to Jim Levinson, esteemed colleague and South Pond friend, who will formally conclude this event with a benediction.

Thank you!