Alumni uncertain what partnership means for Hampshire College

  • Jonathan Wright, a student in the first class at Hampshire College, talks about the college’s future Tuesday while working at the Kern Center on campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2019 12:39:12 AM

AMHERST — News that Hampshire College is seeking to partner with another institution in order to survive financially shocked many alumni on Tuesday, though not everyone was surprised.

As the experimental college approaches the 50th anniversary of its founding, the idea of a “new” Hampshire emerging this year caused fear for some — mostly because they are unsure what the announcement really means.

“I was a little surprised, mostly because I didn’t know how to interpret the email,” said Hannah Gais, a 2011 graduate. “I don’t really know what a strategic partnership means.”

Miriam Nelson, Hampshire’s president, said an educational institution will likely be the partner but didn’t rule out other types of partnerships. That uncertainty sat on the minds of some.

“I’ve been seeing a lot of panicked posts from people on social media, from alumni and staff, about the uncertainties of the coming year,” said Brianne Zulkiewicz, a 2012 graduate from Chicopee.

Among some of the many alumni posts on Twitter were questions about whether the college would be closing soon. Nelson has said the college has no intention of closing.

Zulkiewicz said she appreciates that the administration is making attempts to be transparent about the college’s financial struggles and how it’s addressing them, but she said Nelson’s email to alumni was confusing. She worries that staff might lose their jobs, that Hampshire may join with a corporate partner or that the announcement might scare away prospective students even if the college does decide to admit a new class next year.

“I know that would be a really big concern for me if I was a prospective student,” Zulkiewicz said.

Kim Saal, the incoming chairman of the board of trustees and a member of school’s first class, said he and other Hampshire officials expected a range of responses from the college community, including anxiety.

“Transparency is associated with anxiety, because it’s not all uniquely packaged with a bow,” Saal said.

Instead, he said, Hampshire is taking a more proactive and honest approach than other colleges that have faced similar situations recently, allowing it to communicate with relevant stakeholders before finalizing a partnership. “We’re going to engage all those constituencies in baking this cake.”

Jonathan Wright, the founder and CEO of Wright Builders and a Hampshire alum, said he appreciates that the administration is being careful, but also public, in its approach.

Assembling new tables at the R.W. Kern Center on campus Tuesday, Wright noted that Hampshire is already a partner with the other colleges in the region, and that a formal partnership could be a good thing.

“The first question that came to my mind is how can this strengthen the college,” Wright said. “It is potentially an opportunity for even broader impact.”

Wright said it is important for colleges to face the fact that consolidation is coming.

“It’s not failing, but the opportunity to excel is getting harder,” Wright said.

Hampshire is almost 50 years old, and has long struggled with its finances. The college’s $55.4 million endowment in 2018 is meager compared to others among the five colleges. Smith College has an endowment of more than $1.5 billion, for example, and Amherst College more than $2 billion.

Susan Tracy of Amherst, a Hampshire professor emerita, said there was always a knowledge that the college faced financial issues, with its graduates never old enough to will significant amounts of money to the college.

“The big problem for Hampshire was always that it didn’t have an endowment,” Tracy said. “The college always had enough money to sustain itself, but not enough money to thrive.”

Despite the knowledge many had of Hampshire’s difficult financial picture, the news doesn’t seem easy to stomach for many.

“It personally taught me to be a better writer, a better researcher, to think more creatively,” said Gais, the 2011 graduate. “Of the non-traditional colleges, there are a few but they also seem to be running into hard times. And it’s really sad.”

Reporter Scott Merzbach contributed reporting to this story.

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


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