Hampshire College ‘in danger’ of having accreditation withdrawn

Staff Writer
Published: 6/7/2019 10:47:26 AM

AMHERST — New England’s regional accreditation body for higher education has voted to issue a public notation that Hampshire College is “in danger” of being found in violation of the agency’s standards, though it has deferred formal judgment on the school’s status until November.

The announcement was made Friday in a joint press release from Hampshire College and the New England Commission of Higher Education, or NECHE. Hampshire officials went before the commission May 30 after being asked to submit evidence why the college “should not be placed on probation or have its accreditation withdrawn” over concerns it wasn’t meeting commission standards on organization and governance, as well as institutional resources.

“The Notation indicates that the institution’s accreditation may be withdrawn if current conditions continue or worsen,” the press release says. “Because the Commission did not have enough information to make a decision regarding whether to place Hampshire College on probation or withdraw its accreditation, the Commission voted to defer that decision to its meeting in November 2019.”

Hampshire College is in the midst of an expedited search for a new president after the April 5 resignation of Miriam “Mim” Nelson following turmoil on campus over the administration’s decision to pursue a “strategic partnership” to survive financially and to admit only a bare-bones class this fall. Nine other trustees also resigned around the time Nelson stepped down, and the board of trustees later voted to fundraise to maintain the school’s independence.

The accrediting agency noted in the press release that an interim president, new board chairman and three new trustees are now in place, and that the college believes that, after significant layoffs this year, the number of employees on campus are at a sufficient level to serve the 600 students it anticipates for fall 2019. The college has also received $7 million in cash and pledges as part of a fundraising drive to keep the school independent, the agency noted. 

“Deferral until November will afford Hampshire College time to prepare a report for Commission review regarding its success in hiring a President, implementing best practices with respect to Board governance, and developing and implementing realistic plans regarding fund-raising, enrollment and discount rates, and enhancing its long-term sustainability,” the press release states.

Interim Hampshire President Ken Rosenthal said in the joint press release that the school has a lot to accomplish in six short months, but that he believes the Hampshire community is up to the task.

“We are on an accelerated path to identifying a president and we are putting every possible effort into fundraising,” Rosenthal said. “We very much appreciate the Commission’s oversight and integrity in upholding the Standards for Accreditation and are committed to meeting its expectations with regard to Organization and Governance and Institutional Resources.”

In a separate statement emailed to campus, Rosenthal and board of trustees Chairman Luis Hernandez said that the Hampshire community is fully invested in the college’s turnaround. They added that the school has the next six months to secure a “vibrant future” for Hampshire and to respond successfully to the commission’s expectations.

“The Commission also recognized that Hampshire is in a period of unprecedented transition, and much is not yet known,” their email to campus reads. “They therefore deferred making a formal judgment pending the College’s demonstrated success in securing its governance, leadership, and operations, and planning for its long-term sustainability.”

The statement goes on to say that school leaders see the accrediting notation as a “call to action.”

“We’ve only just begun to demonstrate what the Hampshire College community can do together,” the statement reads.

A spokesman for the college said that Hernandez and Rosenthal were unavailable for interviews on Friday afternoon. In a statement to the Gazette, the college’s secretary and accreditation liaison officer Beth Ward addressed the fact that NECHE said it “did not have enough information” to make a decision about Hampshire’s accreditation.

“NECHE recognizes that Hampshire has a lot in play right now, and important indicators of progress such as successfully hiring a new president, showing a sustained increase in fundraising, and changing our admissions paradigm can’t yet be evaluated,” Ward said.

Colleges officials are expected to come before the accrediting commission again on Nov. 4.

Friday’s announcement came a day after the commission announced that all 72 private colleges and universities in the state will be taking part in a one-year pilot program that it’s billing as an “enhanced process to monitor the financial condition” of those schools. The new process will consist of a dashboard of financial and enrollment data, according to a Thursday press release. If a school crosses a certain threshold, a “more intensive review” of the school is triggered, potentially leading to adverse action by the commission.

Some state lawmakers are pushing for the commonwealth to have a greater role in monitoring the financial health of private colleges operating in Massachusetts, but the trade group lobbying on behalf of the state’s private colleges — the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts — has petitioned for NECHE to review private colleges and universities rather than the state.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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