Saving Hampshire College: New film revisits student uprising during college’s 2019 financial crisis

  • A new documentary, “The Unmaking of a College,” takes a look at the tumultuous events at Hampshire College in early 2019. IMAGE COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

  • Students at Hampshire College meet in January 2019 to discuss how to respond to the announcement the school might merge with a larger school. IMAGE COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

  • At the center of the storm: Former Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson listens to objections to some her proposals for the school’s future. IMAGE COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

  • Hampshire student Rhys MacArthur talks about what the college means to her. If she weren’t here, she says, she’d “probably be sitting on my stoop at home smoking cigarettes.” IMAGE COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

  • An image from an early scene in “The Unmaking of a College,” where students ask President Miriam “Mim” Nelson to delay a board of trustees vote on changes she’s proposed for the college. IMAGE COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

  • Cheyenne Palacio-McCarthy speaks at Hampshire College’s commencement in May 2019 in a scene from “The Unmaking of a College.” IMAGE COURTESY OF ZEITGEIST FILMS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/8/2022 6:28:32 PM
Modified: 2/8/2022 6:26:52 PM

AMHERST — It was a story that quickly moved from the pages and TV screens of local media to gain attention in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and other national media sources: Hampshire College, the experimental, progressive liberal arts college founded in 1970, was facing a financial crisis and might not be able to continue as an independent school — or continue at all.

The story of Hampshire’s dilemma, which first surfaced in January 2019, gained even more prominence as students, rejecting calls from college officials to scale back the school’s operations, occupied the office of then-President Miriam “Mim” Nelson and demanded she fight harder to preserve Hampshire’s independence and unique educational mission.

And after students had occupied her office for a record 75 days — the longest sit-in in U.S. college history — Nelson resigned, leading to new leadership at the school and a concerted fundraising effort among alumni to put the college back on a more solid footing.

That tale of determined activism is revisited in an energetic new documentary movie, “The Unmaking of a College,” that’s been directed by a Hampshire graduate, Amy Goldstein, and which tells the story in good part from the perspective of several students who joined the sit-in in Nelson’s office and led resistance to her plans, demanding greater transparency about the college’s decisions.

The film, presented by Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber, two New York movie distribution companies, takes its name from a late 1960s book, “The Making of a College,” that served as the blueprint for Hampshire College’s creation.

Fittingly enough for a college where students design their own courses of study, Goldstein’s movie, which debuts Feb. 11 in New York City and comes to the Amherst Cinema on Feb. 17, makes considerable use of video filmed by the students, as well as shots of the students’ social media threads. It makes for a cinéma vérité approach that also includes news footage, radio broadcasts and film that Goldstein and her team shot on the scene during the crisis.

Interviews with students, professors, Hampshire employees, alumni — including the college’s most notable graduate, filmmaker Ken Burns — and some whistleblowers help flesh out a story that Goldstein, in a recent phone interview, called “a great example of democracy in action” but also one that seemed “just kind of crazy.”

“When I first heard about what was happening (at Hampshire), I just didn’t understand it,” said Goldstein, a veteran filmmaker who lives in California and attended the college in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “It was really hard to know what was going on.

“We heard about these terrible financial problems, but there didn’t seem to be any effort to fundraise,” she said. “No one (from the college) had approached me.”

As the Gazette and other media sources reported, the first public notice of Hampshire’s woes came on Jan. 15, 2019, when Nelson, who the previous year had become the college’s seventh full-time president, announced the school was seeking a long-term “strategic partner” to help with its finances — and that Hampshire might not admit a new class in the fall of 2019.

Over the next several weeks, several employees were let go and others were informed their jobs would end in the summer. The Gazette revealed that Nelson had been talking since the previous fall with the University of Massachusetts Amherst about UMass potentially absorbing the campus, and early admission high school students received a letter telling them they would be welcome at Hampshire in the fall of 2019 — but that they couldn’t live on campus or take meals there, and that other college amenities might not be available.

“It was the most bizarre letter ever issued by an institution of higher education,” Margaret Cerullo, a Hampshire sociology professor, says in the film.

The escalating problems drew more student protesters into the ranks. “It became more real to us that there was a lot of stuff being hidden from us,” one student, Marlon Becerra, tells Goldstein. “And at that moment we realized, ‘This is more than a financial crisis — this is also a political crisis.’ ”

An emotional roller coaster

Goldstein studied film at New York University after leaving Hampshire and has directed and produced feature films, documentaries and music videos. She said she decided to investigate the uproar at her former college after coming to a film festival in Salem in early 2019, where some of her work was being screened.

The students had already been occupying Nelson’s office for about 10 weeks when Goldstein and her crew arrived on campus, and it was just days later that Nelson announced she was resigning, “so our timing was pretty fortunate,” Goldstein said.

She says she also lucked out in that the first student she met was Joshua Berman, a film major who had been videotaping much of the action on campus ever since Nelson made her initial announcement about Hampshire’s problems.

Berman “was really helpful,” Goldstein noted, in making a compilation for her of what he’d filmed so that she could get up to speed on events. Watching that also helped guide her own approach in filming the students, she said.

“I wasn’t really interested in doing sit-down interviews, at least not right away,” she said. “I wanted to get a sense of what (students) were feeling and experiencing, to see what they were doing.”

Goldstein would return to campus later that year for additional interviews with students and staff, as well as with Hampshire’s new president, Edward Wingenbach, who came on in August 2019.

Goldstein initially thought she’d just make a short film about Hampshire, but “The Unmaking of a College” actually runs about 84 minutes — and it’s a better film for it. Interviews with students including Berman, Becerra and Rhys MacArthur help give a sense of how important Hampshire’s self-directed education model was to them, in turn prompting them to fight to keep the college independent.

And interviews with staff and professors help highlight the emotional roller coaster many on campus were riding. Cheri Butler, the only employee left in Hampshire’s admissions and advancement office after nine other staff members were laid off, looks shocked as she speaks with Goldstein: “Even though I was braced for it … it feels like the ground’s coming out from under us.”

But Salman Hameed, a professor of integrated science and humanities, spoke with Goldstein shortly after Nelson resigned, and he’s fired up: “She picked the wrong college to mess with, because Hampshire is designed for protest!”

Ken Burns speaks to that dynamic as well with a particularly funny line, recalling his days as a Hampshire student: “I remember occupying the president’s office, but I don’t remember why. I mean, that’s just in our blood.”

Goldstein says she did not intend to make a kind of “rah-rah film” to celebrate Hampshire; her documentary includes interviews with a number of higher education observers who speak to the serious financial challenges many small liberal arts colleges like Hampshire face today. And along those lines, the film takes a deeper look at the talks between UMass Amherst and Hampshire about a possible partnership.

No UMass takeover

John Buckley heads a Washington, D.C. communications firm that was hired by Hampshire at the time to help craft its public relations strategy. In Goldstein’s film, Buckley, a Hampshire grad himself — he’s also a nephew of the late William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative journal National Review — contends that on the issue of a possible merger, UMass essentially coerced Nelson into gutting her college so that the university “would look like the hero coming in to rescue Hampshire.”

At one point, he tells Goldstein he sat in on a phone call between Nelson and unidentified UMass officials that “was the most disturbing, thuggish conversation that I was ever a part of … [UMass officials said] ‘You’ve gotta show more pain, you’ve gotta show more vulnerability. We’ve got to take this all the way down, then bring it all the way back up.’ ”

Though Nelson absorbed many brickbats at Hampshire, Buckley says he feels sympathy for her. “I saw a woman who was trying to do the right thing and got caught, made some mistakes” but made her controversial decisions because she thought she was on the cusp of a deal with UMass — only to have the university hastily back off and leave her hanging when the merger talks became public, Buckley says.

“I think John had some things he wanted to get off his chest,” said Goldstein.

She also said she made several attempts to get comments, both while she was on campus and during the past two years, from UMass and Nelson for her film but came up empty (a graphic toward the end of the film mentions this). “I really wanted to make an objective film, and I especially wanted to have Mim’s voice in it. I’ve done my best to bring in her perspective.”

Even so, “The Unmaking of a College,” which will begin a full run at Amherst Cinema beginning Feb. 18, offers an often exhilarating — and funny — look at a critical period in Hampshire College history and how the school’s ethos of student engagement played an important role in helping right the ship.

As Goldstein says of the student protesters, “I was really impressed with what they did and how they conducted themselves.”

Amherst Cinema will offer a special sneak peak screening of “The Unmaking of a College” on Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. that will include a Q&A with Goldstein, Hampshire College students and professors, and Gazette reporter Dusty Christensen.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at
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