Hampshire College plans to admit full class in 2020

Staff Writer
Published: 6/25/2019 11:27:33 PM

AMHERST — Amid scrutiny from its accrediting agency, Hampshire College’s board of trustees has voted to admit a full class in the fall of 2020.

Interim President Ken Rosenthal made the announcement last week in an email to campus, saying the board voted to “resolve to admit a class for fall 2020 and proceed with the steps necessary to do so successfully.”

To that end, Rosenthal said, Hampshire plans to actively recruit prospective students, and is in the process of rebuilding its admissions and financial aid offices, which had been hit by layoffs.

Rosenthal’s tone was optimistic — both in his message to campus and in an interview Tuesday. He noted that the college has raised $4.5 million in cash toward a goal of raising $20 million by June 2020, as well as another $4.5 million in pledges toward the school’s multiyear fundraising campaign.

“People have asked, why is the Board confident they can enroll a new class next fall 2020 when they voted four months ago not to accept a full class for fall 2019 and spring 2020? What changed?” Rosenthal wrote. “The answer is, the remarkable, historic outpouring of support this spring from Hampshire alums, friends, and people who believe in our College.”

But in a June 14 letter to Rosenthal, New England’s regional accreditation body for higher education — the New England Commission of Higher Education, or NECHE — expressed a bit more skepticism.

NECHE had announced on June 7 that Hampshire College is “in danger” of being found in violation of the commission’s standards on organization and governance, as well as institutional resources, though it deferred formal judgment until November.

In a June 14 letter clarifying that decision, NECHE stated that, because Hampshire’s fundraising and enrollment plans are still in their early stages, the commission “is not yet persuaded” that the college “has the capacity” to ensure compliance.

“Our concern is exacerbated by the recent decision of the College’s chief financial officer to leave in July 2019 and by the fact that the College does not have a director of admissions and is relying on consultants and volunteers to support its enrollment management efforts while it rebuilds staffing in that area,” the commission wrote.

Mary McEneany, Hampshire’s treasurer and vice president for finance and administration since 2015, is set to become chief operating officer and assistant head of school for finance and operations at Northfield Mount Hermon, the prep school announced May 30.

NECHE’s letter says the organization is “gratified” to learn of Hampshire’s significant fundraising increase over the previous year. However, the commission also said the school needs to have “considerable additional success” securing cash gifts and multiyear pledges in the next six months to meet its fundraising goals and recruit an incoming class for fall 2020.

The letter also notes that Hampshire is developing contingency plans to ensure current students are able to finish their degrees along with transfer agreements with other higher education institutions, including the Five College Consortium.

NECHE’s letter goes on to say that achieving financial sustainability “may involve further expense reductions and/or reconsideration of a merger or strategic partnership.”

Nothing new

Rosenthal said Tuesday that the June 14 letter from NECHE was nothing new, given that the commission had already publicly expressed its concerns in a joint press release with Hampshire. He added that the college was making a big fundraising push as the fiscal year comes to a close on June 30.

“We’re doing better this year … than we have in a long time, and we received some consequential gifts,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a ramp-up to meet our targets. I think we’re going to be fine in meeting our August goal, and the next big one after that is Dec. 31.”

Rosenthal added that the college is not contemplating any further layoffs, and is not pursuing a merger with any other institution.

Under the leadership of former President Miriam “Mim” Nelson, the college had been looking for a partner institution to help it stay afloat. The board of trustees also decided Feb. 1 that the college would only admit a bare-bones class this fall — a decision that resulted in substantial staff layoffs and faculty reductions, given that the college relies on tuition and fees for almost 90 percent of its revenue.

But the school’s trustees dramatically reversed course in early April, when Nelson and the board’s leadership resigned and the remaining board decided to pursue maintaining its independence through fundraising. It was during that transition that Rosenthal, one of Hampshire’s founders, stepped into the role of president to guide the college on an interim basis.

Rosenthal said the college is developing “relationships” with other schools; for example, he said he recently received a message from the head of a business college wanting to explore partnering in some way. And, he noted, the college already has partners in the other of the region’s Five Colleges.

To become financially sustainable, Hampshire is hoping to raise at least $100 million over the next five years “from philanthropic sources and other revenue streams,” Rosenthal wrote in his letter to campus.

“This includes $50 million to keep the College operating and the budget balanced, plus investments in improving the student experience: approximately $30 million to fund campus capital improvements and $20 million for program improvements,” Rosenthal wrote.

NECHE has given the college until November to make progress on hiring a permanent president, implementing best practices on its board of trustees and implementing “realistic” plans to fundraise, rebuild enrollment and improve its financial position and long-term sustainability.

Absent evidence of “substantial progress” on those matters, NECHE said in its letter that it would “take action to place the College on probation or withdraw its accreditation.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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