Guest column Jonathan A. Wright: Hampshire has earned, needs support from alums like me

  • Hampshire College's campus in Amherst. FILE PHOTO/Amanda Schwengel

Published: 3/11/2019 9:13:44 AM

Hampshire’s mission in the Valley and in America is just begun. Now, more than ever, the innovative, feisty, open thinking, and collaborative learning approach are essential if we are to survive and thrive as a world community.

Other schools talk the talk because they have picked up the Hampshire lingo, but their walk is mostly on tip toe.

In the late 1860s, the president of Amherst College was heard to say “the first 50 years are the hardest.” Indeed, 50 years ago this past December, two of us were admitted as the first prospective Hampshire College students, 21 months before matriculation. I was 16 years old, and the safety net was deployed to rescue a child of the 1960s from the 60s themselves. The bond is old by the standards of this body, and deep in the blood. Hampshire yearns for its second half century.

I have listened a lot. So much is at stake. The decision to not admit an incoming class must have been excruciating. Certainly, it is for me, to watch and to hear. No one I know can understand the upside of perhaps $8 million of operating income forgone, and the pulse of the shuddering.

I know many, if not most, of the people who were in those meetings and rooms and they are people of judgment, courage and indeed valor. I have tried not second guess the outcome, only witness the heartbreak. Was it burst of vision or a failure of nerve?

Where to from here? The answer does not lie in tearing the family limb from limb, or looking for a spot for the finger of blame to rest. I was a trustee in a difficult time in the 1980s when the college contemplated the “College of 1000” and it was stark.

Much has been written that is inaccurate. One recent writer took a poorly informed swipe at the college’s presidents from the comfortable chair of tenured security. I have known and worked with all of them.

Unlike well-funded institutions with a bench full of staff, Hampshire is lean as lean can get. Too much rests on a president, and each has given full mind, heart, joy, brilliance, full body and love to the place. I would invite anyone to step into those shoes and do better.

Another writer has suggested a vocational swing in Hampshire’s education, which reflects a lack of information on the college’s alums.

First, every year Hampshire students, through their Division II and III work, create the work that will underlie job descriptions not yet written. Sometimes they create award-winning products in the process.

Second, the range of careers is astonishing, including breathtaking levels of advanced science degrees, medical training, and arts accomplishments. How many liberal arts graduate have understood and replicated the methods of forging Samuari steel, I wonder? Or dived into dumpsters to save the Yiddish language and culture of all the world, for all time?

Hampshire students learn how to DO things. Many local businesses and institutions just love their Hampshire interns because they’re inventive, and learn quickly how to DO things.

Third, the entrepreneurial sprit thrives in a place that nurtures invention. Hampshire graduates more entrepreneurs than many schools with lavish entrepreneurship programs. We alums like to do things, make things, change things.

Many in the community have suggestions about what the college should do, while we must focus on what it DOES do, and CAN do. The talk and suggestions can be helpful, but much of it is not particularly.

Hampshire has been chronically underfunded since inception. That is not new news — it was planned that way. The founders knew it and knew that to fulfill its mission, the college had to open and do its work. And college fundraising has had to focus on grants and annual giving to keep butter in the fridge.

It was originally designed to operate with a quickly rotating cadre of faculty, without financial aid provisions, and largely without regard for racial and economic inclusion. It was a lab, and fees paid for the lab.

This was not a failure of initial vision, or a failure of leadership. Institutional climate change has been afoot. The permafrost is melting. Meanwhile, senior faculty are priceless mentors and know the ropes. They have given up traditional research trajectories in favor of teaching and research within the institution. They’re quite vulnerable as they have in many cases traded off ignition of their student careers in lieu of their own.

Also, we know now the gender and ethnic diversity is the character and strength of our country, and meeting this challenge in our land of lopsided resources is a steep hill.

As it turns out, the college built its own image of itself from inside the family it became. Eighty-five percent of the students now need aid, almost all of which is a discount against tuition, followed up with usurious loans. And they are fabulous students, better than we were 50 years ago. I spend time with them, and I know. They are the changemakers we need.

But the North American incoming student population is smaller each year and is looking increasingly toward western states for college, and the exciting students often need more aid. The foreign students, what’s left of them in the Trump era, are looking more for a conventional marketable diploma. So, Hampshire’s foreign students also need aid and do not qualify for U.S. loans.

Thirsting for a culprit in a time of pain is not uncommon, but we must rise above this. We cannot tear at each other. As a community we must be generous in our assessment and support and funding, even as we reel from current decisions.

Generous donations have kept Hampshire alive. Ken Burns, who has changed the way we write and see history forever, who tells us that “Hampshire College changed him at a molecular level,” is very generous, but his work does not pay Hollywood dividends.

And the real fact is that as alums we have underperformed in our giving role, perhaps never fully learned the role at all. For some the current circumstance is a wake-up call. Can we hope that we did not miss the last train?

Most of us have not reached that stage in life when we can afford the estate gifts that build endowments. But as many of us age, and lose parents, that family math is changing. It’s Hampshire’s turn to benefit.

Why would we give more deeply to an institution that appears to be faltering, and whose leadership we do not quite understand? Because it is our place, our legacy, and we are its story, as alums and friends.

Whatever happens up ahead, the current students are relying on us, the faculty and staff are relying on us. Whatever happens up ahead, alum support will strengthen the outcome, reassure current students and parents, perhaps inspire those parents and other friends. Only we can provide the basis of a new period of thriving. And we must.

It’s a difficult ask, but we know how our blood flows and we can identify our institutional DNA without a new scraping. We need to give, as deep as the hope runs. Failure is not an option, even as we see the outline of its features.

It is our covenant as friends and alums of the college, including, of note, the trustees and administrations of the other four institutions, to not let that happen. We must not be complicit in what a distinguished older friend of the college recently called fratricide. We are so much better than that.

Hampshire has earned and needs our generosity and our faith.

Jonathan A. Wright is a 1970 graduate of Hampshire College.

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