Stories that linger: Hampshire College and its survival

  • Jason Tor, center, who is a professor of microbiology, raises a bottle of sparkling wine after opening it. Patricia Montoya, right, a visiting professor of video, and others, celebrate Friday afternoon, April 5, 2019, at Hampshire College after learning that Miriam “Mim” Nelson, the college’s president, resigned. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hampshire College student Sebastian Ward shares his views on the ninth day of a sit-in in February at the Dean of Students building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Managing Editor
Published: 12/30/2019 4:10:34 PM

In this selection of essays, Gazette editors reflect on stories from our pages this year that hold lasting significance for them. This is not a “top stories” compendium. Rather, editors chose to highlight the so-called first rough drafts of history that helped define 2019. What are the stories that have stayed with you? Write to us at opinion@gazettenet.com.

AMHERST — No story dominated the pages of the Gazette in 2019 like the story of Hampshire College’s financial crisis. 

The Jan. 15 announcement that the college was seeking a “strategic partnership” amid financial woes and considering not admitting a full class was not only shocking news, but it set off a remarkable chain of events that continues to play out today. 

The college, which first began accepting students in 1970, saw a 75-day student occupation of the president’s office, the resignation of nine trustees and president Miriam “Mim” Nelson, as well as significant layoffs and staff and faculty reductions

Amid the tumult, trustees named Ken Rosenthal — one of Hampshire’s founders, its first treasurer, a former trustee, and the school’s historian — as interim president, then named Edward Wingenbach, formerly an acting president at Ripon College in Wisconsin, as Hampshire’s eighth president

As for student admissions, Hampshire College trustees voted in February not to admit a full class in the fall of 2019; then in April, college leaders reversed course and chose to maintain independence through fundraising. Ken Burns, one of the college’s most notable alumni, was named a co-chairman of the committee steering Hampshire’s capital campaign that seeks to raise as much as $60 million by June 2024. While some characterized the campaign as daunting, Burns said in April he was optimistic it will happen. 

“Failure is not an option here,” he told the Gazette.

Meanwhile, the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accreditation body for higher education announced in June that Hampshire College was “in danger” of being found in violation of the agency’s standards.

And in August, the Gazette reported on correspondence providing new details about the negotiations Hampshire College’s administrators were holding with the University of Massachusetts Amherst about the possibility of partnering, and about the conditions under which UMass Amherst was willing to negotiate with Hampshire. 

Last month, Hampshire retained its accreditation after the commission determined that the college has made progress towards its financial viability following the hiring of a new president, and noted improvements with governing board practices and plans for enrollment and fundraising. 

Hampshire trustees eventually voted to admit a full class in the fall of 2020 and later voted to admit a spring 2020 class of new and transfer students. This fall, the college welcomed a tiny class of 13 new students, and the college ushered in a new academic model.  

The story of Hampshire College in 2019 is the story of one institution’s battle against the odds, and it’s  one of survival. It is also an inspiring story of determination and inventiveness

As he addressed the college’s returning students, faculty and staff, and the incoming class of 13 this fall , President Edward Wingenbach may have put it best when he said:  “We’re here … We’re going to make it, or we’re not.”


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