The ripple effect of Hampshire’s decision to not admit a fall class

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

  • Hampshire College student Anwyn Gatesy-Davis does homework during the ninth day of a sit-in, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 at the Dean of Students building. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A group of Hampshire College students take part in an ongoing sit-in Friday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Signs on doors in the Cole Science Center where Hampshire College students are having a sit-in in response to the college’s decision about enrollment. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs on doors in the Cole Science Center where Hampshire College Students are having a sit in response to the colleges decision around enrollment. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A banner hanging at the Harold F. Johnson Library Center at Hampshire College reads “This Is Our Home These Are Our Lives.” The banner is hanging in response to the colleges decision around enrollment. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs on doors in the Cole Science Center where Hampshire College Students are having a sit in response to the colleges decision around enrollment. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs on doors in the Cole Science Center where Hampshire College Students are having a sit in response to the colleges decision around enrollment. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Signs on doors in the Cole Science Center where Hampshire College Students are having a sit in response to the colleges decision around enrollment. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2019 12:11:54 AM

AMHERST — When Rowan Lasky graduated high school last year, she knew she wanted to go to Hampshire College, the school her mother, father and stepfather all attended. So she applied early decision and was admitted in December 2017.

Lasky took a gap year, and was excited to matriculate this fall. Then she got an email on Jan. 15 that threw those plans into serious doubt. Hampshire was seeking a “strategic partnership” amid financial woes, and its trustees were considering whether to even admit her 2019 class. Ultimately, the board of trustees decided not to admit a full class, but Lasky and 76 other students who had already been admitted have been invited to attend.

“I just think it’s unfair to expect a group of 18-year-olds to go into debt to be guinea pigs for that experiment,” Lasky said.

She said she understands the position the college is in, and thinks they will find a good partnership. But she has decided not to attend amid the uncertainty. She was visiting Fairhaven College in her home state of Washington when she talked with the Gazette over the phone on Wednesday.

Lasky and her family are just some of the many people who have been affected directly by Hampshire’s decision to not accept a full incoming class in 2019 as the college charts an unknown future.

Across the Hampshire community, current and prospective students, staff, faculty and alumni are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst as the college continues its search for a partner. Many have said that the college’s decision making has been an opaque and unclear process.

On Hampshire’s campus, student sit-ins have gone on for more than a week in the Cole Science Center and Dean of Students Office as students press for greater transparency from the administration and trustees.

“Do better,” read one sign hanging outside of Cole. Another sign inside the other sit-in said, “The best apology is changed behavior.”

On Friday afternoon, a handful of students were part of the sit-in at the Dean of Students Office. They were sleeping, doing homework, playing games and keeping busy, the signs of their occupancy scattered around the space: a sign spelling out “community norms,” a box with medical supplies, sleeping bags and pillows organized on shelves.

“We’ve had to be hyper organized,” Sebastian Ward, 23, said.

He said students clean the space every morning, and have organized themselves into committees with different roles. On Friday, Ward was a “press liaison,” without whom reporters are not allowed into the students’ two occupied spaces.

Ward said the students were voicing their own demands for greater transparency, and that there has been some movement toward more openness on the administration’s part. But the students are also showing support for staff and faculty who will be affected by the pending changes.

“We’re standing in solidarity with them to have a voice,” he said.

Layoffs coming?

Hampshire College is a tuition-dependent institution where close to 90 percent of revenue comes from tuition and student fees. With only a skeleton class coming in 2019, that means inevitable layoffs for college employees. When and how those happen, however, is still unclear.

“We haven’t heard a lot directly, we’ve pretty much heard the same thing that students have been hearing,” said Ethan Snow, political director at The New England Joint Board of Unite Here, the union that represents food service workers hired by a third-party contractor at Hampshire. Snow said union members have appreciated the student actions.

“I know some of our staff and a few of our members have gone by to show their support for the students,” he said.

As for any layoffs, Snow stressed that none have been announced. Under U.S. labor law, large employers must give employees 60 days notice of any layoffs.

“If it does happen, we intend to demand to bargain over the layoffs, over the closure, which is something under law we have the right to do,” Snow said.

Some of the issues they could bargain over are severance packages or job-training programs, Snow said. “We’re not there yet.”

Faculty, meanwhile, are also expecting drastic cuts. Unlike some staff, however, faculty are not unionized, though they do have contracts many are expecting the administration to break.  

The 1980 Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. Yeshiva University effectively blocked collective bargaining for private college faculty, ruling that those faculty members are counted as managers because of their roles in shared governance. But some at Hampshire and beyond say that the college has violated the norms of shared governance, and are demanding more of a seat at the table as managers.

“This question of shared governance is not just a discussion of how process should operate, it’s central to the labor issues at Hampshire,” said Jennifer Hamilton, a professor at Hampshire and the president of the faculty’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP.

Hamilton said she and others formed their AAUP chapter in May of 2018 because of concerns over the erosion of shared governance at Hampshire, in addition to other concerns around issues like administrative bloat at the college.

In a letter to Hampshire President Miriam “Mim” Nelson, 137 faculty members at Amherst College voiced concerns that recent decisions by the college violate principles of shared governance, citing secrecy and the use of non-disclosure agreements, a lack of consultation with faculty and a need for more transparency. Smith College’s chapter of the AAUP has written a similar letter to Hampshire expressing worries over shared governance and transparency.

Nelson confirmed that some on campus have signed non-disclosure agreements. She said she doesn’t like those agreements, but that these are “extraordinary times.”

“No partner would allow us to have any conversations, deep conversations with campus constituents, if there weren’t NDAs,” Nelson said.

Hamilton criticized that process, however. She said very few people were involved in deciding to announce the search for a strategic partner, adding that with the exception of a select few trustees, everyone figured out on the day the announcement was made. Since then, faculty haven’t received all the information they want, she said.

“We have not had access to any meaningful financial information, we have not seen any budget projections,” Hamilton said.

College: We’re transparent

In a phone interview with the Gazette, Nelson said the “central tenets” of good shared governance are having a voting member on the board of trustees from the student body, staff and faculty, to have elected deans of schools and to have different committees comprised of those stakeholders.

“We have that, it is very rare for that to happen. Very few colleges do that. We do that, that’s central,” Nelson said. “And it’s not easy for colleges and boards of trustees to do it.”

As for transparency, she said that no other college has been as open as Hampshire in moving forward with a partnership.

“No one’s ever done it in a public, transparent way,” Nelson said. “We are doing as much as we possibly can out in the open, and it’s really hard.”

Hamilton said that having just one student, one staff member and one faculty voting member on the board of trustees isn’t real representation.

“They’re three of 29,” Hamilton said. “They were not informed of the Jan. 15 announcement before we were, they were informed on the same day.”

Ever since Nelson announced the search for a partner and worries about an incoming class, she and the board of trustees have faced indignation from many in the Hampshire community.

Not everyone is pointing the finger at the administration, however.

“I don’t think they have it in for the school, I think they’re trying to do the best they can,” said Molly Maloney, the mother of Rowan Lasky, the admitted student who decided not to attend Hampshire this fall. “But my kid has been caught in the crossfire, and other students have too.”

Why so late?

What frustrates Maloney is the timing and perceived lack of forethought on the part of those making the decisions. She said the Jan. 15 letter to the whole Hampshire community came just days before many college applications were due. And many of those colleges, unlike Hampshire, require SAT scores for applicants.

“The thing that really chaps my hide is that I would think they would have had enough information to go down this path in October or November when our kids, those who were accepted to 2019, would have had a couple of months to do additional research, or take the SATs,” Maloney said.

Lasky said she is in a group chat with around a dozen of the other 76 members of the 2019 accepted class, and despite the uncertainties some have said they still want to attend Hampshire. The college sent a letter to those students warning them that there will likely be fewer on-campus services and that their enrollment can only be guaranteed through the fall.

“There’s a handful of people that are like, ‘Nope, I want to go to Hampshire,’ ” Lasky said. But that’s not the decision Lasky is making, she said: “I don’t want to be the guinea pig.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@

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