Crisis and collaboration: Hampshire College faculty propose alternative vision for school’s future

  • Hampshire College's campus, with the R.W. Kern Center sitting in the foreground. —HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE

Staff Writer
Published: 3/7/2019 4:58:53 PM

AMHERST — Faculty at Hampshire College have started organizing an effort to “re-envision” the school, providing the first steps for what they say is a way to keep Hampshire independent and “thriving.”

The proposal was released Wednesday and lays out four initiatives the faculty say will turn the school’s current “crisis” into a new college plan. The re-envisioning program has been endorsed by two former presidents of the college, Gregory S. Prince, Jr. and Adele Simmons, as well as by Penina Glazer, the former dean of faculty and vice president.

“Recent decisions regarding Hampshire’s future present the Hampshire community with an astounding opportunity to reboot — to work collectively to create a college that stays true to its roots in experimenting education, student-driven inquiry, interdisciplinarity, and informed approaches to the problems and prospects that face the world today,” the paper reads.

Hampshire is currently seeking to partner with another institution amid financial difficulties and will not be accepting a full class of students this fall.

As a first step, the document proposes the creation of a council made up of faculty, staff, students, alumni, Five College colleagues and other stakeholders. The council would then meet in the near future to begin planning sessions.

Christoph Cox, a professor of philosophy at the college, said the process of forming the council began Thursday afternoon.

“Ordinarily, we would not at all want to be doing anything this quickly,” Cox said. However, he added that the pace of developments on campus — including the consideration of a possible partnership or merger — necessitates a fast response. “We feel like we need to pretty quickly get an alternative plan for an independent Hampshire going to match the pace of that other set of possibilities.”

The release of the faculty re-envisioning plan was accompanied by an endorsement from Prince, Simmons and Glazer, who in a joint statement said that the proposal represents the spirit that created Hampshire and that charting Hampshire’s future “must begin with faculty and their collaborators who know firsthand what the task involves.”

“This is precisely the creative and forward-looking planning that is needed now to chart Hampshire’s course for the next fifty years,” the statement reads. “Empowering young people to shape their own education is a demanding task that requires collaboration from faculty and staff and alumni as well as those from outside the academy.”

When asked about the faculty’s proposal, Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson said that the school is considering all options, including the re-envisioning document.

“That proposal has just come in, so we’ll be looking at it,” Nelson said. “There’s so much value in it, there’s a lot of things that harken back to the early years and the making of the college.”

Nelson said that college officials will have to consider the “financial footing” of each option, as well as the time needed to execute them. 

“A lot of this is predicated on our funding and our transitioning over the next two years,” she said, adding that the college needs to stay in business as it transitions. “All of that is really critical.”

Cox said that a vast majority of faculty approved the plan at a meeting this week and that they feel they have some “buy-in” from some trustees.

In addition to creating the council, the proposal suggests three main areas of focus for the project: examining the financial “hard truths” at Hampshire, re-embracing Five College partnerships and revitalizing teaching and research at the school.

A large portion of the document discusses the college’s finances, beginning by suggesting that layoffs and terminations are not the best way to deal with a reduced operating budget in the short term.

“We will work with faculty and staff to determine ways to use leaves of absence, short-term reductions to full-time status, and other reasonable incentives,” the plan reads. 

The current fundraising efforts by alumni are essential to the plan, the faculty say. The document states that, in addition to a short-term fund and a long-term capital campaign, the college’s land can be used to generate funds, and the college can reach out to foundations to help with a rethinking of the college’s structure.

The faculty proposal also calls for bringing in a new class this fall or next spring. Among the suggestions for filling that class: reaching out to community colleges for transfer students or to students from recently closed schools, such as Green Mountain College in Vermont.

On the subject of the college’s leadership, the proposal suggests imagining new models of administration in order to “embed our senior administrators more fully into the systems and culture of the college.”

“Can administrators be chosen from among our community and therefore be more directly accountable to faculty, staff, and students?” the document asks. “This opportunity can also reduce administrative salaries to bring them more in line with Hampshire’s fiscal realities.”

The plan points out that Hampshire has been central in creating some of many successful Five College programs. It also suggests that such programs could find ways to share facilities and services.

Finally, the plan suggests that the current situation is ripe to create “new institutional structures” and fields of study based on the college’s interdisciplinary nature.

“This moment of crisis has generated new faculty collaborations across the curriculum,” the plan reads. “It has fueled our appetite for re-embracing experimentalism and for re-envisioning Hampshire and what it can contribute to the world.”

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

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