The Fight for an Ideal

Can Hampshire College Survive its “Manufactured” Crisis?


By Brian Zayatz

The January 15 announcement by Hampshire College president Miriam “Mim” Nelson that the college is seeking a “strategic partner,” and the subsequent announcement that it will not be admitting a full class for Fall 2019 enrollment, has incited a reflective mood with regards to the college’s founding documents. The 1958 “New College Plan,” penned by representatives of the other four of what are now the Five Colleges, proposed the creation of a new college in the region which would “develop new departures in educational methods and techniques.” For many who care about the college’s historical and continued presence in the Connecticut River Valley, an appeal to the language of the college’s founders provides some structure for contextualizing a seemingly unprecedented series of events.

The documents give a sense of the idealism with which the college was founded. “New College” would be a place where students and professors are freed from the quid pro quo of giving and taking courses, placing a new level of trust in students to direct their own educations in order to “develop in them a capacity to continue their education throughout their lives.” To this day, Hampshire students do not declare a major, but structure their undergraduate education via a three-tiered system that begins in exploration and culminates in a “Division III” project designed collaboratively between students and a faculty committee.

Yet we also see in these founding documents, from the vantage point of 2019, how much has changed. The pool of students seeking undergraduate education in the US is shrinking, after decades of extremely accessible, default-proof loans caused an arms race of amenities among colleges of all sizes. That race has caused the price of higher education to skyrocket. In this environment, the small-endowment liberal arts college—Hampshire’s is a mere $52 million, compared to neighboring Amherst College’s $2.1 billion—is finding itself unable to compete with larger universities and better-endowed counterparts. In recent years, it’s been no secret that Hampshire, with an alumni base dating back only to 1970, could face some difficult decisions in the near future.

According to President Nelson, who was appointed less than a year ago, that future has come. The January 15 announcement was received nearly universally with surprise, with student organizers reporting that even some full members of the Board of Trustees had been kept in the dark, as well as higher ups from others of the Five College Consortium. The announcement outlines some of the “core principles” that would guide the trustees’ search for a partner, including to “keep the interests of students, staff, and faculty at the forefront; preserve our reputation and what is best about Hampshire; advance our educational model; and consider the interests of the Amherst and Pioneer Valley communities.” Though giving little idea of what a partnership might actually entail (perhaps sharing Hampshire’s campus or other resources with a deep-pocketed institution), the statement also announced that the college would decide before February 1st whether to admit another class, which to anyone vaguely familiar with Hampshire’s finances communicated the looming possibility of massive layoffs.

Hampshire College receives nearly 90% of its year-to-year funding from student tuitions—a fact that makes Nelson’s claim that “we also have perhaps the most important resource of all-time,” particularly baffling after setting a two-week time frame for this decision to be made. The president’s subsequent statements have consistently attempted to paint this course of action as an exemplar of transparency and fiscal responsibility, clarifying a few days later that “we are, for 2019, in a sustainable position, but… we can’t look faculty, staff, students, parents, and alums in the eye and say we know we’ll be fine for the next several years because absent contributions, such as those made by our trustees, we won’t be.”

Aside from its generous redefinition of the word “sustainable,” this statement raises the question of why the school is seeking a strategic partner rather than aggressively fundraising, if contributions are indeed a determining factor in the institution’s financial health. The series of events, as of February 1st, raises the question of why the college would have made a decision to financially sabotage itself, seemingly drastically accelerating the urgency of its crisis, given Nelson’s own admission that the decision now positions partnership as the only alternative to near certain closure. The generous interpretation of these events is that a fresh-faced administration panicked at the sight of what some have called the routine financial woes of a small college, and jumped immediately to discussions of “transformative” change as early as October 2018 rather than refer to Hampshire’s long history of navigating tight budgets.

Nelson’s release of a presentation she gave to “an assembly of faculty, staff, and trustees” in January would seem to confirm this interpretation. “Hampshire’s Fiscal Reality 1965-2019,” as the presentation is called, is haunted by the specter of other small colleges’ closings around the Northeast and beyond, which have left enrolled and prospective students at these institutions with few desirable options, and in the case of Mount Ida College, have led to the organization of class action litigation against the college. In light of all this, the presentation claims, new regulations geared towards consumer protection have been proposed on the state level, which Nelson and the trustees are not confident Hampshire would meet. For this reason, they claim, it would be irresponsible to enroll a new class.

Manufactured Crisis

Student, faculty, and alumni organizers have challenged President Nelson’s dire characterization of Hampshire’s finances and reasoning in favor of transformative change. The alumni group Save Hampshire has taken the lead in calling the college’s recent decisions a “manufactured crisis” and campaigning explicitly to admit a full class for Fall 2019, a demand shared with faculty organized as a chapter of the American Association of University Professors [AAUP]. Save Hampshire points out that proposed state regulations are indeed only proposed, and that the administration’s lack of confidence in the college’s ability to show it has 18 months of financial resources available, as the proposed regulations would require, is at odds with the school’s re-accreditation last year, which could only have taken place if accreditors expressed confidence that the college would have the financial capacity to graduate its entering class. Save Hampshire’s claims were bolstered when a Boston Globe article quoted Massachusetts Board of Higher Education chairman Chris Gabrieli, a proponent of the regulations, that “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 asking how much money Hampshire needs as a temporary solution, to buy time so we can dialogue and collaboratively come up with a way forward,” says Dr. Suzanne Perkins, an alumna who did extensive research for Save Hampshire. “We have not gotten an answer,” she says, though this has not stopped two alumni-led campaigns from springing up, which have collectively raised more than $1 million in pledges already.

Student organizers, who have been organizing under the name Hamp Rise Up, have also been nonplussed by the administration’s response to their comparatively conservative demands for “transparency, shared governance, and equity” in whatever path Hampshire pursues. Describing the progress of their campaign as “mixed,” fourth-year student and Hamp Rise Up organizer Marlon Becerra told The Shoestring that the administration “added two students to their committee that’s looking towards a partnership—however, we specifically requested that we choose those two students, and they just picked two students, not really understanding the point… It’s not their decisions, it’s the process.” Though the pressure from an ongoing sit-in at the president’s office that began on January 31, making it the longest in U.S. college history, has resulted in the replacement of Non-Disclosure Agreements with less binding confidentiality agreements for members of the “Visioning Task Force,” the campaign’s small victories have mostly been in changes of rhetoric, which organizers are still waiting to see backed by more concrete changes.

In the meantime, the administration’s lack of transparency has sowed distrust among the college’s constituents. “I would have taken [the inexperience] excuse for maybe the first six days of the sit-in,” said Becerra, “but the longevity of this campaign is showing that there has to be something more there. It’s more than they’re just new. [The] alumni put it in two scenarios: either they’re incompetent and don’t understand what we want, or they understand and they don’t care.”

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Is the Student a Customer?

In a somewhat ironic twist considering the great lengths the college has gone to ostensibly in order to avoid regulatory or legal backlash, Save Hampshire has been actively pursuing collaboration with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to determine if the college violated any of its own bylaws or bylaws of the Five Colleges, or any state or federal laws. This began with a call-in campaign starting February 14, which provided a sample script for stakeholders to express concern over consumer rights. On February 18, Save Hampshire filed an official inquiry that singled out the Visioning Task Force’s use of Non-Disclosure Agreements as particularly ethically troubling and potentially illegal. The Attorney General’s office has yet to respond with any public statements.

The invocation of consumer protection by both Save Hampshire and the administration raises the question of whether, and to what degree, the student is a customer. A faculty ally of Save Hampshire from another of the Five Colleges opined via email that, by the logic of consumer protection, “the initial Jan 15 announcement by HC was greeted positively across the state: HC, so the story went, was being transparent about the exact things Mount Ida kept secret.” (The New England Commission of Higher Education, for its part, released a statement to this effect in mid-February). Understood as a corporate entity governed by owners and managers, Hampshire College has been responsible to its stakeholders: those who pay tuition or receive scholarship and are expecting a degree, and those alumni who may choose not to ‘invest’ in the form of donations in an entity that is beginning to shutdown or seek a merger. Such a logic easily “create[s] the conditions for student interests (construed as customer rights) to be opposed to faculty and staff interests (construed as labor)” for the sake of cutting costs and ‘saving’ Hampshire, the institution.

Yet, while certainly no one wants to be defrauded, Hampshire’s philosophy has long attracted those who want to believe that an education is more than a mere exchange of goods. Though conceding that “the customer is pretty unpleased right now,” Becerra and Hamp Rise Up have appealed almost entirely to this history in their demands. “Hampshire’s defined differently from other private institutions,” he told The Shoestring. “We are supposed to be included in the decision making process, and that’s been since [the college’s] inception.” The students of Hamp Rise Up understand this moment as another in a history of Hampshire students pressuring the institution to uphold its values, doubtlessly including its divestment from companies doing business in South Africa and Israel in 1976 and 2009, respectively—in both cases the first college in the country to do so.

Faculty, who are expecting an unknown number of layoffs by April 1, issued their own list of demands via the college’s AAUP chapter. These demands straddle both economic concerns, such as the honoring of current contracts, increased financial transparency, and a ceiling for administrative salaries, with concerns for the state of the college community. Several of the demands pertain to encouraging and providing resources for current and prospective students to remain in and join the campus community during its time of transition, in an attempt to address the crisis of confidence that the administration’s major decisions have produced.

Despite a diversity of rhetoric and tactics, the various groups of stakeholders are united by a determination to support each other and preserve community in the face of the instability prompted by administration’s announcements. Becerra affirmed that “the students of Hamp Rise Up stand in solidarity with the staff, faculty, and alumni.”

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Sinking in a Neoliberal Fish Tank

The first round of layoffs took place as scheduled on February 19th, with another round expected in early April, and included nine staff from admissions and advancement. Staff led a silent walkout in solidarity with the laid-off employees, with students and faculty supporting, to mark the day’s loss. In a statement following the layoffs, Save Hampshire expressed particular concern over what these layoffs mean for the future of the college, both practically and holistically. Not only does gutting the admissions department (7 of 11 of whom were issued pink slips) raise doubts about whether the college will be admitting a Fall 2020 class or be able to fund itself beyond this year, but it demonstrates a disregard for the expertise that has recruited, admitted, and built a community of transformative thinkers year after year. Furthermore, they point out, the targeting of these departments is exemplary of the inconsistency between Nelson’s rhetoric and actions. “President Nelson assured the community [in a February 18 letter] that among the approaches being considered was one in which ‘Hampshire maintains independence by means of transformative financial support from our community of alums and other long-engaged donors.’ We believe that within this community there is indeed the capacity for transformative financial support. But without a functioning admissions office this option becomes significantly less viable.”

The messaging implicit in the decisions of the Hampshire administration—that Hampshire should not, and moreover could not, be ‘saved’—was confirmed in emails obtained by the Gazette, which show coordination between the Five Colleges to limit the impact of the announcement on the political landscapes of the other institutions. The emails, which detail plans to go public in order to “have more public discussions in the valley and the state about the logic of partnering with UMass,” contain explicit reference to the presidents of Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst, who, according to Nelson, “don’t want their college constituents lobbying them to ‘save’ Hampshire.”

Yet the administration’s actions don’t inspire much confidence that a partnered Hampshire would not look radically different. “Why would a wealthier college that comes in and bails out, or buys out, Hampshire see itself as a ‘strategic partner’ and not, as in the case of UMass and Mount Ida, a university that has acquired a new branch campus?” asks UMass faculty Jim Hicks, who has been outspoken about Hampshire’s recent treatment of faculty and staff, via email. Only days after Hampshire’s January 15 announcement, well before the emails alluding to a UMass/Hampshire partnership emerged, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told an assembly of the faculty senate that UMass never considered itself in a financial position to “preserve the Hampshire model,” but would consider the implications of a partnership should Hampshire conclude that UMass was its best option.

Part of the reason Hampshire College has drawn national attention is because its community is loudly resisting the trends of perpetual crisis and scarcity that make the liberal arts seem like an impractical, outdated luxury. “It’s probably true that liberal arts education can’t swim with the sharks in a neoliberal fish tank,” says Hicks, “but I don’t think the verdict is yet in. Is that the sort of world we believe in? Is it the only one possible? All it would really take to transform this situation is a society that recommits to public education as a common good.” In a way, Hampshire’s crisis shows the precarity of embodying something so resistant to valuation as the liberal arts in a private institution. In the immediate term, however, Hicks does believe that “the solution will have to include support from the other partners of the Five College consortium,” who have stayed remarkably out of the purview of targeted institutional pressure considering the degree to which they share with Hampshire students, faculty, classes, and programs.

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Strategic Shock (Rerun)

For Hampshire faculty, the Gazette emails’ most troubling revelation was not about the future, but the past: that the January 15 announcement had been planned for days prior. Rumors that the announcement had to happen so suddenly because of a possible leak were dispelled by the emails, which show that the inquiring reporter had no intentions of breaking the story. “If you know that this is a really big decision, then why time it in a way that maximizes the shock?” asks Professor Salman Hameed, explaining that the announcement came on the same day that evaluations were due and gave 49 minutes’ notice of the all-community meeting. “The timing was such that a significant number of people would read and be left out, and the rest would read and rush to the college… That boggles my mind.”

Given that Hampshire has hired D.C. based PR firm Subject Matter, specializing in “strategic communications” (“Whether creating or protecting a brand, placing or stopping a story, our nimble professionals can guide you through an often volatile environment”), one can only wonder, have the administration’s communications with the Hampshire community been ‘strategic’? Or are the ‘strategic’ communications reserved only for potential partners? The administration’s opacity—of motive, of timeline, of what partnership would even look like—has been the defining factor of this turning point in Hampshire’s history.

If the administration’s disrespectful actions were intentional, why? If they were the result of incompetence, how? The lack of answers has spurred a second inquiry by Save Hampshire to the state Attorney General’s office regarding possible conflicts of interest in Hampshire’s transition. The list of possible conflicts is extensive; some noteworthy points include that “some members of the Board of Trustees have been providing unsustainable stopgap financial support in order to keep Hampshire College’s budget balanced,” and concerns regarding financial stakes in potential partners. The letter also requests “a copy of the curriculum vitae that Miriam Nelson submitted in her application to be Hampshire College President.” Though not listed anywhere in either Hampshire’s or UNH’s announcements on her acceptance of the Hampshire presidency, Nelson played an ambiguous role in the “transformation” of UNH’s Thompson School of Applied Sciences, which she “reinvigorated” in 2017 following years of “strategic visioning” led by the Huron Group (a consulting firm also named in Save Hampshire’s letter). The transformation ultimately resulted in the termination of four of the Thompson School’s seven programs.

Asked whether murmurings of Nelson’s involvement in the Thompson School’s downsizing was a factor in the faculty’s recent decision to hold such a vote (which was deemed procedurally invalid and subsequently tabled), Hameed told The Shoestring that “we don’t have to look for other patterns of what Nelson has done at another institution… we have sufficient information since November, or since January 15, to make up our minds about the performance of senior leadership.” The effects of the administration’s decisions, both material and intangible, are easily enough enumerated and are damning in and of themselves, but explanations for their logical inconsistencies and lack of regard for the community’s well being remain elusive.

Saving Hampshire

As the Hampshire College administration claims hollowly to be forging a new path of transparency in a climate increasingly harsh to small-endowment liberal arts colleges, the students, faculty, staff, and alums of Hampshire College have built an organized response to both the administration’s increasingly autocratic tendencies and the broader crisis in higher education they use to justify them. As radically participatory as the college has always been, this coalition is showing that we don’t have to passively accept a future in which great concentrations of wealth determine what kinds of education are available.

On March 6th, Hampshire College AAUP announced a new project, called “Re-Envisioning Hampshire College for the 21st Century,” which will seek to engage a broad coalition of stakeholders from campus, including trustees, and the Five Colleges over the 2019-2020 academic year. Recognizing the challenges posed by the decisions already made, the project, which will be funded by alumni, “will convene a Summit to collectively craft a vision for Hampshire’s future and devise the mechanisms to realize it” within the next month. Though seemingly an autonomous implementation of the changes the campus community has been demanding since January 15, the announcement strikes a broadly collaborative tone following a heated public exchange between Hampshire’s Media Relations Director John Courtmanche and Yale School of Management Dean Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, and criticism by staff of student and faculty organizers’ lack of meaningful consultation with staff representatives before claiming solidarity.

Only time will tell if this initiative will create space for the meaningful collaboration the campus community has been demanding. In the meantime, the fates of Hampshire’s students, faculty and staff remain uncertain.

“If a college loses 30-50% of the people who make up the college, is it still the same college, even if it retains its name?” asked Hameed on Northeast Public Radio. As if in response, Becerra told The Shoestring that “Hampshire is more than just its name and these buildings… It’s very much Hampshire’s current community that defines Hampshire, and that includes its faculty, staff, alumni, and students.” Asked if “preserving the Hampshire community” meant something different from “save Hampshire,” he responded in the negative. “We need to save the people at Hampshire, and the way we know it.” If anyone has a claim to be Hampshire College right now, it’s the people sitting in, teaching in, and organizing.


Brian Zayatz is a contributor for The Shoestring and an Amherst College alum. Photos courtesy of Hamp Rise Up

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