New Hampshire College president: ‘We have a really good story to tell’

  • Ed Wingenbach, the newly named president of Hampshire College, speaks at his first news conference Thursday at the college in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Ed Wingenbach, the newly named president of Hampshire College, greets members of the campus community on July 18, 2019. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2019 9:25:28 PM

AMHERST — Standing before much of the region’s press corps on Thursday, Hampshire College’s board chairman officially introduced the school’s new president, Ed Wingenbach.

“He’s been a frustrated, wannabe Hampshire student forever,” joked Luis Hernandez, alluding to the fact that some of Wingenbach’s past work — at Wisconsin’s Ripon College, and before that the University of Redlands in California — mirrors some of Hampshire’s educational model.

In his remarks to those gathered at the college’s Red Barn, Wingenbach praised Hampshire’s student-led, experimental educational model and how it has spread to other schools across the country.

“It embodies the best ideals of the liberal arts goals of American education,” he said.

It was just six months earlier that the press gathered in the same exact spot to hear then President Miriam “Mim” Nelson announce that Hampshire was facing financial crisis and would seek a strategic partner to save the college. Shortly thereafter, the college’s trustees decided to admit only a tiny 2019 first-year class.

Those decisions caused deep rifts on campus, eventually leading to the resignation of Nelson, nine other trustees and several top administrators in April, as well as staff layoffs and faculty reductions.

During his news conference, Wingenbach acknowledged that it has been a difficult year for the Hampshire community.

“There has been a lot of trauma here,” he said. He said recognizing that fact is the first step to building back relationships that may have frayed during the crisis. “We recognize that, and then say, ‘Now we’re going to continue to struggle, but we’re going to do something constructive about it.’”

After deciding in April to reverse course and maintain independence through fundraising, the board of trustees voted last Friday to hire Wingenbach to lead those efforts. The board’s vote was unanimous after receiving a unanimous recommendation from a presidential search committee of students, staff, faculty, trustees and alumni.

“He comes from a small liberal arts college; he comes from schools that have had their own problems,” trustee Ellen Sturgis, who chaired the presidential search committee, said. “And he gets Hampshire in a really deep way.”

Sturgis said one of the first challenges Wingenbach will face is responding to New England’s regional accreditation body for higher education, which has stated Hampshire is “in danger” of being found in violation of its standards, though it has deferred formal judgment on the school’s status until November.

In his press conference, Wingenbach acknowledged that there are difficulties ahead. He said the school faces those obstacles for two reasons.

The first, Wingenbach said, is that Hampshire is “in a sense a victim of its own success.” The college’s innovations, he said, have been adopted elsewhere at other schools across the country. The second reason is the decision not to admit a full class this fall. At a school dependent on tuition for almost 90 percent of revenue, he said that choice has highlighted some structural challenges tuition-dependent institutions face.

“I am confident that we can overcome both of those challenges by reinvigorating the mission to innovate and lead higher education,” Wingenbach said.

Reinventing Hampshire, and higher education, will be a “compelling proposition” to a lot of the kind of students who are attracted to Hampshire in the first place, he added.

As for immediate steps the college will take under his leadership, Wingenbach said that from now until mid-October he will work with the campus community to figure out a new framework for what Hampshire will be going forward.

That process of innovating at the college is important because students, families, donors and the school’s accreditors will want to hear about it, Wingenbach said.

“That needs to happen very quickly,” he said. “And then we need to spread the message.”

Wingenbach also said that Hampshire will have to adjust its cost structure, figuring out how to attract a more diverse student body — including socioeconomic diversity — and what a reasonable revenue stream is given that diversity it hopes to attract.

When asked, Wingenbach said tuition was likely to rise, though not substantially. He said the average amount of debt a student leaves Hampshire with currently is $24,000. For a four-year education from a place like Hampshire, he added, that is “extraordinary” value.

Hampshire has set for itself ambitious fundraising goals — $20 million by 2020 and $100 million over the next five years. Wingenbach said the energy generated on and off campus by the college’s crisis has helped raise unprecedented money and pledges so far, and he expects that momentum to continue now that the school has a permanent president.

“I think we have a really good story to tell,” he said. And he expects to tell that story not just to prospective students and donors, but to foundations and other organizations that care about innovation in higher education.

Wingenbach made some references to his past experience. He said he was in charge of the successful accreditation of the University of Redlands in 2010, and that he had success at Ripon College fundraising off innovations he helped institute there.

Speaking after the event, members of the Hampshire community were enthusiastic about the college’s prospects under Wingenbach’s tenure.

“He understands us,” said Amy Lowe, a third-year student from Oregon who was one of the students who sat in on the interview process. “It was evident from the first moment he walked in the door.”

Christoph Cox, a professor of philosophy at the college, was the faculty representative on the presidential search committee. He said all of the candidates for the job were great, but that Wingenbach stood out.

“I’m feeling really positive about it,” he said.

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


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