Facing fiscal challenges, Hampshire College seeks long-term partner

  • The Hampshire College campus in Amherst.  FILE PHOTO

  • Miriam Nelson, president of Hampshire College, talks at press conference about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miriam Nelson, president of Hampshire College, talks at press conference about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miriam Nelson, president of Hampshire College, speaks Tuesday at the college. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miriam Nelson, president of Hampshire College, talks at press conference about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Piper Patterson, a recent graduate and now employee at Hampshire College, talks about the announcement made by Miriam Nelson, the president, about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Miriam Nelson, president of Hampshire College, talks at press conference about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Piper Patterson, a recent graduate and now employee at Hampshire College, talks about the announcement made by Miriam Nelson, the president, about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jonathan Wright, a student in the first class at Hampshire College, talks about the announcement made by Miriam Nelson, the president, about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jonathan Wright, a student in the first class at Hampshire College, talks about the announcement made by Miriam Nelson, the president, about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Liv Smith, a second-year student at Hampshire College, talks about the future following the announcement by college President Miriam Nelson that Hampshire may seek a long-term partner to help stabilize its finances. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Piper Patterson, a recent graduate and now employee at Hampshire College, talks about college President Miriam Nelson’s announcement Tuesday that the college may seek a long-term partner to help keep the college afloat in the face of financial difficulties. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/15/2019 10:51:49 AM

AMHERST — Hampshire College is seeking a long-term partner to keep it afloat financially and may choose to not enroll a first-year class this fall, according to an announcement made by President Miriam E. “Mim” Nelson.

Nelson sent a letter to the Hampshire College community Tuesday morning informing students, faculty and staff that the college would like to have “a strategic partnership to address the challenges we’ve faced as an under-endowed institution, really from our very first days.”

“We are forging a new path in higher education,” Nelson said. “We feel this transparency and having public input is important to ensure an impactful and sustainable future.”

Nelson, who spoke a few hours later at the Red Barn, said while she recognizes talk about some form of merger is unsettling, it has been determined to be the best course forward to protect the college’s reputation and educational model, and to overcome “the stiff headwinds facing small liberal arts colleges.”

Announcing the search for a partner allows for casting the net as wide as possible and getting the most public engagement, and being transparent, Nelson said.

The path to finding a strategic partner comes from the Hampshire Visioning Project, which began last fall, as Nelson began her first semester as the college’s seventh president. This effort, to confront the lean finances, changing demographics and increased competition Hampshire and other small liberal arts schools are facing, included input from college officials, senior leaders and the community.

Hampshire College is balancing its books this year and sees a way to a sound financial footing next year, as well, Nelson said, but the college still needs to get out in front of its financial challenges that are anticipated to arrive by 2025.

“The most important resource is we want to have time to make that decision,” Nelson said.

By making the announcement, Nelson said the hope is to find a partner by the end of the spring semester or early summer, and then transition to what she describes as the “new” Hampshire by the college’s 50th anniversary in summer 2020. “We have no intention of closing,” Nelson said.

There is uncertainty about what form the partnership will take or who the partner will be, though she believes the “outstanding alumni and brilliant students” will make the college attractive. Nelson said an educational partner is likely, though she is not ruling out a different type of partner, if it is one that can embrace the college’s educational model.

Nelson said the guiding criterion will be a partner “related to our principles, and what’s best for Amherst and the Pioneer Valley.”

She points to the relationship forged between Wheelock College and Boston University in 2017 as one that Hampshire might want to emulate, though there are other options available. Nelson acknowledges there will be a decrease in autonomy under almost any partnership scenario.

An independent, go-it-alone route, while unlikely, is not being ruled out, Nelson said.

Meantime, college officials will decide by Feb. 1 whether to enroll a class of 2023, which would normally be about 325 students, Nelson said. She calls it a “moral obligation” to those students because of a possible change in the college’s educational structure when a long-term partner is brought on board.

“We are not confident Hampshire’s educational model will be exactly the same,” Nelson said.

Not admitting a new class might also preserve that inquiry-based model for students already on campus.

“We want to make sure they have all the supports and educational opportunities they are expecting,” Nelson said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said in an email that Hampshire’s success is important to the town, the Five College region and to higher education, and the town will support the long-term strategic partnership.

A Hampshire graduate, Bockelman praised Nelson and the college’s trustees for being proactive in addressing the challenges at Hampshire, which are no different from those facing most small colleges.

“I’m confident they will be as creative and bold as the founders of Hampshire were when they took the dramatic and courageous leap to create a new college in an apple orchard in South Amherst 50 years ago,” Bockelman said.

Current and former students say they hope that the right partner won’t change the educational value they saw in Hampshire.

“I want the essence of the school to be preserved,” said Liv Smith, a second-year student. “I’m happy to be here as it is.”

But Smith said the announcement adds confusion for students, and likely for staff and adminuistrators, as well. “I’m kind of nervous because I don’t know what it means for my future plans,” said Smith, who eventually hopes to apply to law school.

“I’m definitely intrigued by this idea and would love to have more information,” said Piper Patterson, who graduated last May and was working at the Kern Cafe at the Kern Center on Tuesday afternoon.

Patterson, after writing her senior thesis on sexual health advocacy work, enjoyed her time at the college and wants other students to find a Hampshire education.

“What we care about is Hampshire being able to succeed,” Patterson said.

Bockelman said he loves the campus, the people and the values the college lives, and that higher education is well served by having institutions like Hampshire.

“I met my life partner there on the first day of school and my oldest and dearest friends are from Hampshire,” Bockelman said. “It’s a remarkable institution that attracts some of the brightest, most interesting people.”

With the possibility of no new class in the fall, Nelson said those who have applied for admission have been notified about this, and the college has reached out directly to the 39 students who have been early admitted.

“The thought about not having a freshmen class is sad,” Patterson said

“I feel for the people who are considering coming to Hampshire, because I look forward to more people having an experience similar to mine in higher education,” Smith said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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