Hampshire College leaders explain decision to not admit a full class

  • 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.

  • Gaye Hill, chair of the board of trustees at Hampshire College, speaks during commencement in 2017. —GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Kim Saal, the incoming chairman of the Hampshire College board of trustees, speaks at the Gazette in 2017, when he was president of the Cooley Dickinson Physician Network. Carol Lollis—GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2019 12:11:07 AM

AMHERST — Hampshire College’s campus was tense last Friday afternoon as everyone waited for a scheduled announcement on the fate of the incoming 2019 class of Hampshire College. But that decision was delayed until evening as the board of trustees held intense discussions. It wasn’t until 7:30 p.m. that the trustees, at a rescheduled event in the college’s gymnasium, announced there would be no full class admitted in 2019.

In the week since that announcement, many in the Hampshire community have been asking why the trustees made the decision. As the college seeks a “strategic partner” amid financial trouble, some have questioned the wisdom of not accepting a full class to a college that depends on tuition for 87 percent of its revenue.

“It was a very deep discussion that took into account all of the meetings that we had had with our campus constituencies,” President Miriam “Mim” Nelson told the Gazette.

When asked for specific factors that contributed to the decision, Nelson cited worries that the college would lose accreditation, a moral obligation to incoming students and proposed regulations from the state’s Department of Higher Education that would allow the state to monitor financially struggling private colleges.

Those state regulations, however, are currently just proposals. They stipulate that if a college were unable to complete the current academic year and the following — an 18-month period — the state would require that institution to make a contingency plan to transfer its students. The regulations have not been finalized.

The administration’s citing of those regulations reportedly surprised the chairman of the state’s Board of Higher Education, who told the Boston Globe that the intention of the regulations isn’t to make any college “take an action before it’s necessary.”

Accreditation worries

Nelson said a larger factor in the board’s decision was accreditation. She pointed to a standard from the college’s regional accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education, regarding “institutional resources,” which requires that a college “demonstrates, through verifiable internal and external evidence, its financial capacity to graduate its entering class.”

In its letter to Hampshire College informing the school of its continued accreditation in 2018, the school’s accrediting agency did ask to be appraised in spring 2019 of the college’s “success in implementing its financial plan, consistent with our standard on Institutional Resources.”

Kim Saal, the incoming chairman of Hampshire’s board of trustees, pointed to that letter, which outlined several improvements that the college would have to include in its 2019 review, which has now been scheduled for April. Among those actions: “improving the College’s financial position and engaging in multi-year financial planning;” “meeting its goals for enrollment, retention, and discount rate;” and “achieving its goals with respect to faculty and staff compensation.”

“The accreditation board has not said to us that we’re not going to be accredited or be on probation,” Saal told the Gazette. But he said the board worried about the prospect. “We believe we would not meet the standard.”

‘Slow awakening’

In a question-and-answer session with students following the decision last Friday to not admit a 2019 class — audio of which was posted online by students — board of trustees chairwoman Gaye Hill described a “slow awakening” to the college’s financial straits.

Hill said that amid declining enrollments nationwide, the college put together a financial sustainability plan several years ago that was meant to boost admissions, enrollment and retention. But in 2016, enrollment slowed and trustees had to dig into their own pockets for $1.6 million to plug a budget deficit. In 2017, there was another deficit that led to faculty and staff cuts. In the spring of 2018, the enrollment numbers were “woefully under” projections, she said.

“And then all of the sudden we got a hit from the blue that we may lose our accreditation if we accept a class for 2019, because our numbers are that bad,” Hill said. “Which would mean that nobody gets federal financial aid anymore, which would really hurt our students.”

Hill also told those gathered that if the college’s finances dipped below a certain amount of money, its bank loans would be called, leaving a $26 million hole.

“It’s a huge liability if we get to that point,” Hill said. “Right now we’re not there, right now our decisions we made today have bought us some time.”

Saal told the Gazette on Thursday that the college’s resources have been lacking for a while. “We have been so constrained in resources for so many years, we are not fulfilling the Hampshire mission,” Saal said. “If this is really about our mission, we need to change.”

When asked why 41 students were accepted early on Dec. 15, only for Nelson to then announce on Jan. 15 that the trustees were considering not accepting a 2019 class, Nelson said the college wasn’t in a position to make the decision when they admitted those students.

“I started as president in the middle of July,” Nelson said. “It literally just takes time to understand and get our footing on all the potential scenarios and finances.”

Hill, in her talk with students, and Saal, in his interview with the Gazette, said that an impending story in the press was a serious consideration in the timing of the college’s announcement on Jan. 15. “There were leaks and we wanted to be ahead of the story and not be reactive to the story,” Saal said.

Search for partner

As for the future, Saal said the search continues for a strategic partner. He said plenty of colleges and universities have talked with Hampshire about the possibility.

“Some of them are very strong,” he said of the potential partners. Saal also added that some smaller colleges have suggested combining together with Hampshire as a group. “We’ve probably heard from every struggling college in the country,” he joked.

Saal said that he and other trustees have experience with “acquisitions and mergers.” A cardiologist and health care administrator, Saal said he has been involved with mergers and acquisitions of hospital systems for the last 20 years.

Going forward, Saal said college leaders will do better at communicating with those on campus the financial realities at the college as the board makes tough decisions ahead.

“The short term is going to be tough, no question about it.” he said. “But long term it’s going to be amazing.”

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

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