Leadership & Governance

At Marlboro College, Everybody Gets a Vote

Kevin F.F. Quigley, president, Marlboro College

September 29, 2016

Julia Schmalz

Situated in the foothills of the Green Mountains of southern Vermont, Marlboro College is a small liberal-arts institution of only about 200 undergraduates. One of the college’s most distinctive features is the Town Meeting, a New England–style governance structure that gives everyone, from students to professors to custodial staff, a vote on decisions that range from changes in policy to landscaping.

Kevin F.F. Quigley, president of Marlboro, recently spoke with The Chronicle about the college’s anomalous approach to decision making. He also discussed Marlboro’s efforts to increase enrollment through full-tuition scholarships granted to one student from every state in the nation.

TRANSCRIPT :

JACK STRIPLING: Hi. I am here with Kevin Quigley, who's president of Marlboro College, a small liberal-arts institution in Vermont. Dr. Quigley, thanks for coming today. Welcome to The Chronicle.

KEVIN QUIGLEY: Great to be here. Thank you.

JACK STRIPLING: So I want to talk to you a little bit about this interesting governance structure that you have that involves something called the Town Meeting. Tell us a little bit about what this is.

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KEVIN QUIGLEY: In higher ed, most of us, when we talk about shared governance, we talk about trustees. We talk about faculty. We talk about administration. In the Marlboro context, Jack, for us, we include students. There are really four key players in that. And Town Meeting is the mechanism by which the students play a major role in the governance.

JACK STRIPLING: So what's an issue they might decide? Give us some examples.

KEVIN QUIGLEY: There are whole range of issues. They were working on something, making the college into an ecological reserve. Recently, the Town Meeting agreed to build a smoking pavilion on campus. It was something that I opposed vehemently. But it was their decision. And they had the resources to follow through on that decision, despite my opposition.

JACK STRIPLING: So that's a double-edged sword. Sometimes they do things you don't agree with. They don't, as I understand it, have control over the budgetary matters, but they may make advice on this. And I guess it's up to you to decide whether to follow it.

KEVIN QUIGLEY: That's right. But the Town Meeting, it's a mechanism that involves not only the students, so it's not student government because every community member, every member of our learning community, faculty, staff, and students have a vote in this mechanism that is led by students.

So Town Meeting is the convening, much like in New England where our communities are governed by a town meeting. In our context, it's every other week. There is a select board that oversees the ongoing operations of the Town Meeting. And they're always led by a student. There are some faculty and staff who serve on that, as well but —

JACK STRIPLING: And even a custodial staff member has a vote in this —

KEVIN QUIGLEY: That's right.

JACK STRIPLING: If they want one. So how does this fit into the larger ethos of the college? What is the message it sends?

KEVIN QUIGLEY: The message it sends is that everybody in our community has a voice. And it's not just that they have an opportunity to speak, to have a seat at the table, but you really need to listen to that voice. You have to understand where they're coming from. And recognize that participation is critical to building an effective and engaged community, much like we need in democratic societies.

JACK STRIPLING: So part of, probably, why this works well for you is because you're a small institution. Tell us a little bit about your size and perhaps, the challenges that also presents for you.

KEVIN QUIGLEY: We're really a tiny institution. We have a couple hundred undergrads and 100 or so grad students. So you add in faculty and staff, our community is a little more than 400. And that means there's an intimacy in our community. Everybody knows everybody. And that allows us to, in effect, be a laboratory to experiment with these ideals and values related to community governance.

JACK STRIPLING: But it also might put some pressure on your budget with the enrollment struggles that you and a lot of small colleges have. How have you tried to address that?

KEVIN QUIGLEY: We've tried to address this by creating something we called the Renaissance Scholars Program. And part of the inspiration behind that, Jack, is to say we've got a great institution, we're an exemplar in the colleges that change lives.

We're based on the Oxford/Cambridge model of tutorials and seminar. Mentoring relationships, self-directed learning, students follow their passion. But what brings students to Marlboro is the opportunity to have a role in the governance. And as Renaissance scholars, the idea is there's one great potential Marlboro student in every state.

And so we launched it last year with great success. Our incoming class is up 42 percent. Overall enrollment up 15 percent. And these students who are coming through this program are community builders. They're engaged in their community at home. And they're becoming engaged in our community —

JACK STRIPLING: And so you're covering full tuition for one student from every state in the country, is that correct?

KEVIN QUIGLEY: That's the idea. And for a four-year period, based on certain criteria. They have to be a great student. They have to continue to be a great student. And they have to be active in our community or our neighboring community.

JACK STRIPLING: So you come out of the Peace Corps. You're, forgive the pejorative, a nontraditional president, although you do have a Ph.D. This is, in some ways, doubling down on a merit aid program. As far as I know, it is not need-based. Do you have any conflicting feelings about that at all, as somebody who's worked so hard to help disadvantaged communities?

KEVIN QUIGLEY: I think this is really — it's about finding spectacular students who will build our community. And even though it's not theoretically need-based, we find that of our students, 98 percent get some form of financial aid. So we're providing an opportunity for students who otherwise wouldn't have it.

And also, for students who wouldn't know about what a special place Marlboro is, they learn about us through this Renaissance Scholars. And in our incoming class of 75 students, there were 24 who applied and did not get this Renaissance Scholars scholarship, but still came to Marlboro.

JACK STRIPLING: Well, good luck going national. We appreciate you coming, Dr. Quigley. Thank you so much.

KEVIN QUIGLEY: Thanks so much, Jack.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.