The Unmaking of a College: Notes From Inside the Hampshire Runaway Train

The Unmaking of a College: Notes From Inside the Hampshire Runaway Train

The Unmaking of a College: Notes From Inside the Hampshire Runaway Train

If Hampshire goes under, the arts and the liberal arts as inspiration to lives of critical inquiry and social engagement will have been dealt another serious blow.


Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.

—Walter Benjamin

On January 15, Professor Patricia Montoya was finishing her spring syllabus, listening to the radio. “Trump’s nominee for attorney general…” “Brexit deal…” “Facing financial hardship, Hampshire College may not admit a freshman class.” Montoya sat frozen. Around the world, faculty, students, staff, alumni, even some Hampshire trustees first learning the news, reacted similarly, stunned. Tuition, after all, accounts for 87 percent of the operating budget. President Miriam (“Mim”) Nelson’s announcement bore the upbeat—or emotionally dissociative—language that has become her trademark: The college was seeking a strategic partner to “undertake the awesome, exhilarating responsibility of evolving education at Hampshire.” Incoming board chair Kim Saal blithely estimated that 30 to 50 percent of faculty and staff will be eliminated by fall of 2019. Employees were offered psychological counseling. On social media, POC faculty referenced the film Get Out: “I feel like we’re locked in a weird place with rich white people who seemed nice enough at first but have turned out to be freaky AF,” said one.

From its 1970 inception, on the winds of social change and student movements, Hampshire has been both a political and a pedagogical project—“a new departure in higher education” in the words of its founding document, The Making of a College. Hampshire’s ethos holds that higher education has a social mission. Its interdisciplinary, inquiry-driven, collaborative pedagogy inspires fierce loyalty among those who have experienced it as students and faculty. Its history of political action is such that it is difficult to name a social movement over the past 49 years to which its members have not contributed. As small colleges nationwide find themselves under siege, Hampshire may be the demonstration case. If this college can be destroyed—one founded as an alternative by powerful institutions in western Massachusetts (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass Amherst), and linked with them in the Five College consortium—then the arts and the liberal arts as inspiration to lives of critical inquiry and social engagement will have been dealt another serious blow.

Now, the broad community that made the college is fighting its unmaking. To say this is a state of emergency is not an exaggeration. In creating it, administrators have acted recklessly and in bad faith both publicly and behind the scenes.

Most recently, the administrators and trustees, in an attempt to thwart a faculty vote of no confidence, raised the specter of imminent closure, due not to their decisions but to faculty “brinkmanship.” Gearing up for resistance to massive workplace reductions, they hired the law firm that represented Harvard in its (unsuccessful) fight against a graduate-student union last year, and are deploying classic tactics—sowing fear to peel away support and unity. The entire blindsiding rollout resembles a standard corporate merger/acquisition strategy, a version of the shock doctrine—moving very fast, without warning, and creating “facts on the ground,” self-fulfilling prophecies, while thwarting resistance as everyone scrambles to keep up.

So what are the facts of this crisis?

Throughout the fall of 2018, Nelson was upbeat: “Hampshire’s financial position is stable…. we will balance the budget this year and there will be no cuts.” The endowment, while small and needing supplement, has grown by about $20 million since 2011 and had a 14.3 percent return on investments last year.

Then, on February 1, the board voted not to admit a freshman class, attacking the revenue base. Nelson and board spokespeople offered a cascade of shifting explanations for their decisions, producing both confusion and alarm. None of the explanations held up under scrutiny. First was the claim that the college was in danger of losing its accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education, resulting in a cutoff of federal financial aid. However, as Professor Aaron Berman, co-chair of the college’s successful 2018 ten-year re-accreditation self-study, explains, “NECHE is not in the business of issuing ultimatums or threats. They have a well-earned reputation of working with institutions as they attempt to deal with challenges.”

Next, they floated the tightening Massachusetts regulatory context, including a prospective financial stress test. The Boston Globe reported: “That Hampshire cited the stress test surprised Chris Gabrieli, the chairman of the state Board of Higher Education who has been the driving force behind the regulations. ‘Our goal is not to put people out of business.… And not to make anyone take an action before it’s necessary.’”

We have been told, and it is commonly believed, that Hampshire and other small private colleges teeter on a “demographic cliff”—declining numbers of college-age students. In fact, nationally, enrollment decline is hitting for-profit and two-year institutions. The Admissions Office’s long-term strategy to shift the enrollment picture was affirmed by Nelson in October, who insisted their initiatives would be ongoing. Instead, their efforts have ground to a halt; their staff, laid off.

Finally, it was claimed that creditors would swoop in to call Hampshire’s debt if its budget (balanced last fall) slipped into the red. In fact, the public announcements about greatly restricting admissions make a financial collapse more, rather than less, likely. When faculty threatened a vote of no confidence in February, the board again evoked the improbable but frightening specter of lenders’ calling in loans, “potentially precipitating closure.” In the end, these explanations act as diversions to keep us off balance, lurching from one to another. Existentially, we are stunned—as in hit by a stun gun.

Their chaos strategy is illustrated by a bizarre communiqué to 77 Early Decision and Deferred Admission students, to whom the college had prior binding commitments for fall 2019, that first encouraged then discouraged matriculation, warning that they may not have access to a dining commons or first-year dorms, to many faculty, or to most of the “services and benefits previously offered by Hampshire and generally offered by small, private colleges”—sports, clubs, study abroad, social and affinity groups, or even on-campus jobs! Nor could they be guaranteed more than a semester, or even a Hampshire degree, since whatever institution we affiliate with “will likely control how any diploma will be awarded and by what entity.”

This missive seemed designed not only to discourage new students, but also to spur current students to transfer, rapidly eliminating the student body. Suddenly, this seemed to have been the plan all along: Bleed the college of students, faculty, and staff, leaving only real estate, to be auctioned off at a fire sale. Whatever entity survived to merge with a “strategic partner,” it wouldn’t be a college, let alone Hampshire College.

The arbitrariness here must be emphasized.Explaining the timing of the announcement as an attempt to get ahead of a breaking story, board members inadvertently revealed that they planned to inform campus constituencies of their (our) futures only after decisions had been taken, without “advice and consent.” In the world of hospital mergers and acquisitions, Saal’s recent avocation, this may be standard practice. But universities take principles of shared governance seriously. In a letter, 137 members of the Amherst faculty rebuked Nelson for failing to “adhere to the conventions that structure our…profession.” Among those failures was the requirement that faculty sign “non-disclosure agreements” before being allowed to sit at any decision-making table—a table, moreover, where one can’t order because the menu is set and everything is a secret.

Hampshire was founded on ideas that “were better than its financial underpinnings,” founders and former presidents drily observed in a letter opposing the Board of Trustees’ decisions. In the fall, faculty and staff had welcomed Nelson’s call for a “visioning process” toward the future. Our salaries, lower than at the other Five Colleges, have been stagnant for seven years; our benefits are worse, and we have endured cutbacks to retirement contributions and increased workloads. In autumn “visioning sessions,” people shared ideas to tap fundraising sources, build on the benefits of the Five College Consortium, face new demographics—not a “cliff” but a geographical shift in the largest pool of prospective students from the Northeast to the West and Southwest, with growing numbers of Latinx and Asians—and draw on the college’s creative identity creatively. Creativity was spurned, as Nelson et al. indeed move the college toward a cliff.

As bleak as this sounds, the real Hampshire—students, faculty, staff, alumni, community allies, and, most recently, parents—has stood up to the fabrication of a crisis when the budget was balanced, applications were on the upswing, and an extraordinary fundraising opportunity, the college’s 50th anniversary, approached. Responding to the administration’s grip on information, students have invoked Hampshire’s motto, declaring, “‘To Know Is Not Enough’… but we need to KNOW.” Since January they have occupied two strategic sites on campus 24/7. In meetings their process is open, democratic, modeling the college they believe in. They demand the restoration of shared governance, equity, transparency. Alumni send encouragement, and occasional pizza dinners. “Tiring but inspiring” was the verdict of Marlon Becerra, a final-year law student, who dreams of the Supreme Court, inspired by fellow Bronx native Sonia Sotomayor. Students have renewed community and solidarity, he said. They are holding “teach outs” to spur student organizing across the Five Colleges.

Faculty have organized formally through our American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chapter and informally, even holding scheduled study sessions at the sit-ins to aid students struggling to keep up with studies. We have forged new ties of solidarity, trust, and loyalty that are a counter, a counter-culture, to the administration’s tactics of division and fear. Alumni—outraged that Nelson gave no hint of dire straits in “meet and greets” last fall but now blames them for failing to pony up—have organized teach-ins, petitions, and proposals, offered pro bono services, and have undertaken fundraising for everything from supporting the admission of a fall 2019 class, to faculty and staff legal defense, to stabilizing a future. It is an incredible show of loyalty to an institution whose mission, uniqueness, synergy, and importance to higher education, their lives, and society they embrace. “Possibility” is the recurrent word in their testimonials. As a space to “flesh out progressive/left ideas without having to constantly articulate why such values are important,” one wrote, “Hampshire provide[s] the fertile ground to think on the edges of possibility.”

We fight for that possibility.

Casting the faculty as resistant to change, guilty of “magical thinking,” board leaders reject plausible scenarios to save the integrity of the college. Media coverage accepts their frame of inevitability: “Small colleges in financial trouble”; “Half to close in the next 10-15 years.” Our experience shows these are not inevitabilities but strategic, self-fulfilling prophecies. Last week, the administration decimated the Admissions and Advancement offices; it ceased recruitment and fundraising.

The Five College community, the town of Amherst, Hampshire donors, former presidents, and former board members are all working with the campus community to stop this train. This week the faculty announced an organizing effort to “re-envision” the college, laying out concrete steps to turn the school’s current crisis into a new college plan. Critical to this possibility are alumni fundraising initiatives to keep the college independent and to allow the entire community time to plan thoughtfully for long-term stability. Perhaps finally we have pulled the emergency brake on this train hurtling toward catastrophe. But the threat is not yet extinguished, and time is racing.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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