Hampshire College proves its leadership, even as it lays bare its struggles

President Miriam Nelson took the bold and ethical step to announce that Hampshire College would seek a strategic partnership while it was still fiscally healthy.

Last week Hampshire College dropped a bombshell on the educational world. With a single letter, President Miriam Nelson let it be known that the seemingly healthy school faces tough financial times ahead. She then noted that the school is both seeking a long-term partner and may not admit a freshman class.

Every private college and independent school in the country should be rooting for Hampshire to survive. Not just because of Hampshire’s unique approach to teaching and learning, but because if Hampshire College does not emerge as a case study in how a small private school can survive, then it will set a new high watermark for failure.

If that happens, then a large number of educational institutions should prepare now to wind down operations and close their doors. There are predictions that half of all colleges will close in the next decade. I don’t subscribe to that school of thought, but Moody’s does note that 25% of private colleges are currently running a deficit. This isn’t an isolated problem.

I encourage presidents and heads of school to treat this news as a call to action toward forthright organizational introspection. My advice is to hold on to President Nelson’s letter to the Hampshire Community to reference later, as it acts as one of the best examples of organizational stewardship that I’ve seen in my career. It places long-term vision ahead of current conditions, laying out ideas and concepts that are both supremely ethical and very risky. And Hampshire does so at a time when it can still operate, and take on such risks, from a position of strength.

Hampshire is actually in good shape (and probably would be for a while)

As far as colleges in its class go, Hampshire is in relatively sound shape, offering a set of broad benchmarks that should act as a gut-check for anyone in the field. Not only does it have a stellar reputation, but runs a balanced budget, and has a $52 million endowment, which translates to roughly $37,000 per student. Nelson lays all this out clearly in the letter.

Hampshire’s relative financial health makes the letter truly remarkable, both for its candor and for its timing, coming out while the school still has plenty of runway left. In my experience most schools are reluctant to admit when they face troubled waters ahead and react only when backed against the wall. This delay severely limits their options as well as their ability to muster the organizational capacity necessary to respond with agility.

Learn from this letter

If education leaders and boards of trustees take nothing else from this letter, I suggest you model its structure. From the very start Nelson addresses the “Hampshire Community”, making it clear that this isn’t one of many letters sent to different constituencies, it’s a communication to everyone who has helped Hampshire along its nearly 50-year journey. Similarly, she signs it herself, not from the board or some other larger collection of faceless people. This is a personal missive, something reflected in the tone throughout. It will be the defining initiative of Nelson’s presidency, and she leans into this responsibility. Nelson also signals that she has the support of the board of trustees, without wielding this power as a weapon. She writes in clear, digestible language, not in legalese and not in a way that sounds as if it has been crafted by the communications department.

Her first paragraph sets the tone, letting the community know that what they’re about to hear is thought out, not something done lightly. “I’d like to provide an update on the Hampshire Visioning Project announced last fall and tell you about an important decision we’ve made.” She follows that with perspective, helping the reader understand the context and the reasons for the decision:

“As we approach our 50th anniversary, and as Hampshire continues to have an impact on students and society, the trustees and I are absolutely determined to find the best way forward.”

She also lays out the very reason for this problem, that Hampshire is “under-endowed.” This is a shared problem among many small, private colleges and independent schools. The National Association of Independent Schools reports that the median endowment per student in 2018–2019 is $19,635. That means more than 50% of NAIS schools are in a weaker endowment position than Hampshire’s $37,000 per student.

Supremely ethical and very risky

The big move, however, came a few paragraphs in when Nelson announced that there may not be an incoming freshman class. This is an enormously risky, but highly ethical move. Hampshire wants to be sure that it can educate students for their full career and, given their financial situation, they likely can. But that may not be true for the foreseeable future. So moving now is key, before they reach a crisis point.

There will be a cost: the reputational risk to the incoming class is significant and could cost Hampshire some great students, but the point here is to rally the community and get the school the help it needs before it’s too late. Hampshire is very clear in its mission and in the students it serves. As Nelson says when she lays out the key questions Hampshire looks to answer,

“How do we continue to be an innovator and keep evolving our educational model?”

So while Hampshire must continue to innovate in how it serves students, it must also be a financially sustainable non-profit.

As Nelson reaches the end of her note she doesn’t sugarcoat anything, writing “Transformational change can be difficult and unsettling.” Yes, it can. She also invites the community to be part of the solution, and provides an action: feedback. She lays out, in very broad terms, the plans for having community conversations. Looking forward, Nelson will have the immense challenge of ensuring the multiple constituency groups at Hampshire have genuine voice in the process while discerning a solution that both addresses the issues at hand and can be approved by the college’s governing body.

Seduction of false optimism

Too often I see colleges and independent schools hiding from this reality, choosing the seduction of false optimism instead of asking the tough questions and squandering the biggest asset they have: time.

Once the time is gone, the school enters its own death spiral and then there is no time to rally the community and make a comeback. Let’s hope that Hampshire’s moves are what it needs to survive and thrive. In doing so, it might just find a new way to be a model within the risk-averse educational landscape.