‘No doubts about our future’: Ken Burns kicks off Hampshire College funding drive

  • Documentary filmmaker and Hampshire College alumnus Ken Burns mingles with members of the Hampshire community at a fundraising launch event Tuesday at The Red Barn. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Documentary filmmaker and Hampshire College alumnus Ken Burns speaks at a press briefing prior to a fundraising launch event held Tuesday at The Red Barn. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Members of the Hampshire College community gathered for a launch event kicking off the college’s effort to raise $60 million by June 30, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Documentary filmmaker and Hampshire College alumnus Ken Burns speaks at a press briefing prior to a fundraising launch event held Tuesday at The Red Barn with Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Ken Rosenthal, a founding member of Hampshire College and former interim president, mingles with members of the the Hampshire community at a fundraising launch event Tuesday at The Red Barn.  STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Members of the Hampshire College community gathered for a launch event kicking off the college’s effort to raise $60 million by June 30, 2024. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

  • Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach speaks at a press briefing prior to a fundraising launch event held Tuesday at The Red Barn. STAFF PHOTO/JACQUELYN VOGHEL

Staff Writer
Published: 12/4/2019 9:42:40 PM

AMHERST — Hampshire College officially kicked off its four-year, $60 million fundraising campaign Tuesday with help from alumnus and renowned documentary maker Ken Burns.

Burns visited the Red Barn on Tuesday, where staff, faculty, trustees, administrators, current Hampshire students and alumni gathered after a press briefing by Burns and Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach. The college reported that more than 100 members of the Hampshire community were expected to attend the event, which came just over a week after the New England Commission of Higher Education, which in June designated Hampshire as “in danger” or being placed on probation or losing its accreditation, voted to uphold the college’s accreditation.

The prospect of raising $60 million by 2020 is “a daunting one, but I think a challenge that Hampshire is more than up to,” said Burns, who is a co-chair of the campaign committee. “I have absolutely no doubts about our future.”

The college has already raised $11.2 million since January, Wingenbach said, with $2.5 million in donations arriving over the past six or seven weeks and $500,000 contributed on Tuesday morning. Hampshire officials intend to hit their $60 million goal by June 30, 2024, and aim for a return to a full enrollment of 1,100-1,200 students by 2023-2024. 

Admissions and retention “remain strong,” Wingenbach said, with a “quite similar” retention rate as in past years and almost twice as many applicants for the spring semester as last year.

The college faces serious challenges, Burns said, but added, “There is no other way but to meet them but head-on, and to do so optimistically.”

These challenges are “not uncommon to, I’m sorry to say, hundreds of liberal arts colleges,” Burns said. 

“What distinguishes us is that we are the most important of these experiments that have to survive,” he said. “What Hampshire provides is an extraordinary model for how you’re actually going to have to do college, higher education, in the future.”

The most serious issue facing higher education today is not financial issues, Burns said, but is signified by recent admissions scandals.

“Higher education, one of the crown jewels of the American experience, has been experiencing a purely transactional moment,” Burns said. “We’re about buying things, not about transformation.

“And maybe part of Hampshire’s problem is that it hasn’t bought into that transactional situation, but has actually remained outside of that, being wholly transformational,” he said. “That’s why Ed is here, that’s why I’m here, that’s why we’re going to succeed.”

Burns said he stopped by the campus unannounced during his most recent visit before the launch event, during which he walked around “taking the temperature” of campus.

The results?

“I find the students as curious as they’ve ever been,” Burns said. “I find them wanting to be part of a solution. I find them curious about what they can do.”

Students recognize him, he noted, but it’s not a problem. 

“This is my family,” Burns said.

Students at the launch event returned the appreciation.

“We just want to see Ken Burns,” said second-year student Caroline Elfland, who attended with fellow second-year student Laurel Douglas, on the draw of the event. 

With decision to uphold Hampshire’s accreditation, the campus has taken on a mood that warrants the celebratory atmosphere of the gathering, Elfland and Douglas said, with both students expressing optimism about Hampshire’s future. 

“The atmosphere on campus is more hopeful,” Douglas said, “and I think that’s lifting up everyone.”

“It’s comfortable,” Elfland said. 

Elfland and Douglas, who were first-year students when Hampshire announced in January that it was seeking a merger and possibly would not admit an incoming class the following year, acknowledged that they were still new to the college when it entered a turbulent period. But despite uncertainties about Hampshire’s future, they were among 732 students who decided to continue their education at Hampshire the following academic year — 132 more students than the college had anticipated, according to Wingenbach. 

“It felt like there was unfinished business here,” Elfland said. 

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


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