Guest column Jonathan Wright: Knowing Hampshire

  • An entrance sign for Hampshire College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/5/2019 9:00:16 PM
Modified: 7/5/2019 9:00:04 PM

I very much appreciate the Gazette’s robust efforts to report on progress at Hampshire College. It is not easy to be thorough, thoughtful and newsworthy. But good news sometimes lurks under the crusty weathered stuff.

Recent success in fundraising is unprecedented and bodes so well. The creative resilience of the faculty is remarkable and a signature of these teachers, who along with the generous outreach of the other colleges, have placed 17 members at other institutions for a bridge period of three years.

A recent symposium at the R.W. Kern Center brought sustainability expertise, voices and hope from around the country to our Valley. I have talked to many excited returning students.

Every day I am asked: “Will the college make it?” or offered the condolence, “It’s really too bad about Hampshire.” No harm is meant. Kindness lurks there. But, hold the phone just a second.

Hampshire College fell ill to a period of misinformed leadership and a failure of nerve. Many very good people came to a faulty conclusion, I believe, because they failed to consult and collaborate. This conclusion emerges now as part of the aftermath and recovery.

It is a serious setback, brought on only in part by changing circumstances. Along the way, Hampshire was in the middle among its national peers in financial well-being. It had and has nothing in common with the small failing colleges dotting the landscape — the ones short of students, money, distinctive ideals and vibrant mission.

There was never a “strategic partnership” in the wings, other than a hoped-for alliance with UMass, which could never have happened and would have been a terrible fit. Can you imagine the rightful outcry if UMass were to begin a cleanup sweep of closing campuses? UMass is already an excellent partner for Hampshire, but not a savior.

Within weeks of arriving on campus, and without consultation with any stakeholders, the recent president set the long slide in motion by deciding not to replace the director of admissions, and directing advancement staff to stop raising money.

Understanding responsibility is important here. These decisions were led by the president. There are misjudgments in life. Mistakes are made, some of them catastrophic; in this case, damaging, but not fatal.

Much has been made of the accreditation news. Actually, it is really good news. Given the damage done, especially the bizarre decision to cancel a fall class admission, the agency has no choice but to issue a warning. That warning is the mildest of all possible outcomes. “Wait and see” is pretty damn good under the circumstances. It was the least they could do. Probation and then loss of accreditation are not appropriate.

Look at it this way. A member of our Valley family has been hit in a bicycle accident. Perhaps the driver of the car was unaware or distracted. Injuries are serious but not fatal. What do you do? Ask if they will live, and discuss the state of their arteries? Begin mourning while they heal? In the next room over, look up the odds for that patients’ cancer survival?

No. Give blood. Help out. Bring food. No cocktail talk when lives are at stake. Encourage the high school seniors to consider Hampshire — it is an extraordinary place! Sing in harmony like your life depended on it. Wellness for institutions is just like it is for our cyclist and our college. Help and healing will come. It’s in our nature.

After all, the best things in life are, well, just that. The best.

Jonathan Wright is a 1970 Hampshire College graduate.
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