Hampshire, the college I led until I retired last summer, is in grave danger of closing. Dependent on tuition for nearly 90 percent of its revenue, the school has been transparent in recent months about having too few students and paying too much in financial aid to cover its expenses. The crisis has left the campus community and the schools’ alumni deeply and angrily divided. Like so many others, I care a great deal about the school, and what is happening there this winter fills me with sadness.
I came to Hampshire from outside of academia after a decade and a half running a global environmental organization. Hampshire soon taught me the power of inquiry based, student-centered education. I worked with faculty for whom this education was truly, in the words of Paulo Freire, “an act of love.” I watched students with the courage and curiosity to be driven by questions into deep learning. With faculty partners they produced innovative work of extraordinary depth. We learned that there was a certain kind of independent-minded student who thrived at Hampshire. We built our marketing around reaching those students and their families with individualized messages offering Hampshire as a community of creative learners on a shared journey of experience and discovery with faculty deeply committed to teaching.
But we were fighting against demographic and economic trends buffeting small independent colleges across the country, and especially in the Northeast. I thought that Hampshire’s uniqueness would enable us to sail into those headwinds. But while we saw encouraging signs about how our target audience responded to our message, last spring the number of students who told us that they were coming to Hampshire was disappointing. I had to call the woman whom the Hampshire Board had selected as my successor, Dr. Miriam Nelson (Mim), to tell her she faced an even tougher road than we had described when she interviewed for the job. I thought she might back out. Not at all. She was undaunted and only asked for as much information as possible. That was the beginning of a relationship of friendship and trust built around a set of shared values. I thought — and still think — the Board had made a wonderful choice.
By the end of summer, from a distance, I heard that the numbers had gotten worse. Students who had said they were coming to Hampshire were lured away by more generous financial aid offers from other schools, and more continuing students than expected failed to return. Instead of the 345 students we expected, 286 actually registered. By January, the President and the Board concluded that this was not a passing difficulty of the kind the school had struggled through often before, but an existential crisis that would kill the school unless it could find a mission-aligned partner. The Board reluctantly concluded that it would not be responsible to accept a new entering class for fall 2019.
The Hampshire Community — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends — were stunned by the Board’s announcement that the college would have to find a partner or close its doors. There was anger, confusion, and disbelief. How could this happen so suddenly? What of the school’s unique place in education? How could a college with a $50 million endowment and an 800-acre campus named the “greenest in the country” suddenly fail like this? Why not keep fighting to raise money and find students? The answer that the problem was too big, and the hole the school was in was too deep, left many unconvinced. President Nelson announced that the school would begin layoffs of both staff and faculty. Students occupied her office. Faculty expressed bitter skepticism. It seems like the school may fail as those who love it battle over how to save it.
In the past, when I have left the leadership of other organizations I have always kept out of my successor’s way. I am not the president of Hampshire any more, and the school’s future will depend on the person the Board chose as my successor, not on my opinions. But seeing the level of pain, anger, and mistrust among people I care about and respect at an institution I believe has a profoundly important role to play in education, I am violating my own rule.
I want to make two observations about saving this wonderful place and its unique approach to education. First, as an outsider coming into the Hampshire community in the summer of 2011, I found a level of belief in and devotion to Hampshire that was unlike anything I had encountered elsewhere. The first thing that people wanted to know about me was that I understood and believed in Hampshire’s approach to education. And now, that passion for what the school does is the thing that can save the school. This is a powerful community with one shared belief: that a way must be found to keep this form of education in existence. We may disagree about how, but we agree on the goal, and if we can find a way forward that most of us can support, we will succeed.
That leads to the second observation: This crisis will be resolved by love, not anger.
I proudly served as Hampshire College’s sixth president from 2011 to 2018. Contact me at email@example.com