Guest Column: Former Hampshire president Gregory Prince pens open letter to college, community

  • Gregory S. Prince Jr

  • Gregory Prince

Published: 2/23/2019 12:20:31 AM

Crisis brings opportunity and Hampshire’s crisis offers the Five College institutions severally and collectively, and the towns which surround them, incredible economic and educational opportunities.

As president of Hampshire, my goal was to make Hampshire your most significant accomplishment. With the same imagination, courage and encouragement you provided 50 years ago, you can continue to help it move in that direction.

You created Hampshire at a time of intense national unrest driven by civil rights reform and pressure to end the Vietnam War but encompassing much more. It was a time of classic generational conflict that gave rise to the recognition that every organization, community or nation needs an effective working model for tapping into, rather than suppressing, the energy and creativity of its next generation.

The model your community of academic institutions and civic partners allowed a community of young people, not just a select few within a community, to be partners in their own education rather than simply being the objects of it. Having all students create committees and negotiate contracts was a profoundly simple but dramatic shift in practice.

Hampshire’s character today — its focus on social justice, its experiential dimensions, its interdisciplinary nature, the nature of its “traditional” scholarship and its edginess — are all the consequences of that basic vision to make all students true partners in and owners of their education.

What a sad irony it would be if Hampshire College, created during the tectonic cultural shifts of the mid-20th century, should falter just as another tectonic shift is taking place as populist movements worldwide grow and the global environmental crisis deepens.

These shifts occur even as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt warn in “The Coddling of the American Mind” that this generation of college students come of age in a “culture of safetyism,” afraid to take intellectual risks. Therein lies the continuing value of and the continuing need for Hampshire’s vision.

Fifty years ago, you recognized that need, and boldly created Hampshire College. Today Hampshire’s leadership has had the courage to say that the college’s underfunded half-century-old structure must change in order to sustain its mission. A collective imagination and creativity are essential to that change, as they were at Hampshire’s founding.

The range of suggestions now coming forth confirm that a multitude of exciting possibilities exist, as do challenges.

Overnight Hampshire could become the core of a Five College Center for Intergenerational Education, transforming all segments of the curriculum and faculty into interconnected institutes that intensify the interaction between undergraduates and older accomplished professionals as they worked together on projects addressing the critical problems every field has. It could create more partnerships like the Smith-Simmons-Carle Museum partnership. It could form alliances with progressive secondary school and home schooling organizations.

Simply put, opportunities abound because Hampshire’s approach to education has immense value for and is critically needed in all parts of our society. That value can be realized in diverse, mutually supporting structures, capable of preserving Hampshire’s mission, addressing accreditation issues, awarding college credits, certificates and degrees, expanding the range of ages served and thus the audience of potential “students,” exponentially enlarging the universe of potential donors and investors, and preserving, not just the jobs of the Hampshire College faculty and staff, but their skills and experience in delivering its mission.

On this latter point, I can testify to the challenge of encouraging, rather than suppressing, the creative energy of the generation that will replace us. Like the release of any major energy source, it can be complicated, sometimes messy and sometimes even dangerous but still of great value. The skill and experience of every member of the community are critical to doing it well. If nothing else, we should pause, explore and truly revision to see if we can save as much of that experience as we can.

Collectively, you created a “better idea.” Fifty years later, the “you” is now “we” and our collective task is to translate the value that has been created into a sustainable educational and incubator/entrepreneurial center that will grow that value for the benefit of the entire society, as well as for western Massachusetts.

Gregory S. Prince, Jr. served as Hampshire College’s president from 1989-2005. He lives in Norwich, Vermont.
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