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Hampshire College, used to fighting for its survival, presses on during pandemic

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  • Edward Wingenbach is the eighth president of Hampshire College. Photographed on the Thornton Quad on Thursday, April 9, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Edward Wingenbach, photographed outside the R.W. Kern Center on Thursday, is the eighth president of Hampshire College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire College president Edward Wingenbach is shown on the Thornton Quad, Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Edward Wingenbach is the eighth president of Hampshire College. Photographed on the Thornton Quad on Thursday, April 9, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2020 3:55:34 PM

AMHERST — After weathering a tumultuous start to 2019, Hampshire College last fall announced a plan to secure its long-term future: a five-year, $60 million fundraising campaign to stabilize the college’s finances and return to full enrollment by the 2023-2024 academic year.

Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world is grappling with both public and economic health crises. As colleges and universities around the country deal with room and board refunds, a shift to online learning and other unexpected costs, Hampshire College president Ed Wingenbach says that a secure future is still within reach for the small liberal arts college.

“I think in the long run, it doesn’t change our viability,” Wingenbach, speaking of the COVID-19 crisis, said Wednesday. “We will continue as an autonomous institution.”

Like countless industries, higher education has been hit hard by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley, Amherst and Smith colleges — which, prior to the pandemic, reported $2.4 billion and $1.9 billion endowments, respectively — announced that campus shutdown measures will cost them millions. Amherst estimates it will lose around $10 million, while Smith expects to lose $8 million to $10 million in related expenses.

Hampshire anticipates a $1.2 million budget hit this fiscal year, according to Wingenbach, though this figure may change depending on how long the pandemic lasts.

At Hamsphire, Wingenbach thinks the financial loss differs from its neighboring colleges due to a smaller student body size — 732 in the fall — and different costs associated with room and board plans. The “vast majority” of the $1.2 million loss comes from refunding students for the second half of spring semester housing, Wingenbach said, noting that all but around 175 students left campus. Meal plan refunds, cancellation of rentals at the Red Barn events venue, and other financial assistance that went towards helping students return home also factored into this figure.

But Hampshire came into the crisis in a significantly more vulnerable state than colleges such as Amherst or Smith. In addition to a modest $52 million endowment, the college faced the preexisting challenge of renewing its financial health and enrollment after former Hampshire officials, led by then-president Miriam “Mim” Nelson, announced in January 2019 that Hampshire was seeking a merger amid financial hardship and later elected not to admit a full freshman class in the 2019-2020 academic year. These actions drew widespread criticism from the Hampshire community.

Hampshire’s five-year plan, including its $60 million fundraising goal, has enough flexibility “to sustain some unexpected challenges,” Wingenbach said, though he anticipates that some aspects of the plan will need to be accelerated.

“We are still confident that we will be able to raise those funds and that our campaign will be successful over the next five years,” Wingenbach said, noting that the college may have to make some adjustments to budgets in the coming year.

“We had a target budget that we were working on through our budget process,” he added. “We may need to find more savings in that budget, but right now, I will say this: What we’re doing right now is doing contingency planning and stress testing for the range of possible outcomes for the fall and beyond.”

Wingenbach also believes that Hampshire’s education model will prove more attractive to students due to its focus on innovation and addressing challenges in today’s world.

While the president remains cautiously optimistic, he said in an email to students that the college has considered the possibility of “difficult decisions” down the road.

“It’s very possible that things are going to be very hard, and I want people to be prepared for that possibility — and Hampshire is not going to be alone in that,” he told the Gazette.

But ultimately, Wingenbach said, “I am confident that this is not going to put us in a position where we can’t survive.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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