Hampshire College salutes tiny incoming class

  • Natalie Sowell, dean of institutional diversity and inclusion at Hampshire College, talks about the next steps for Hampshire. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • President Ed Wingenbach talks to students at Hampshire College. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Mack Flynn Caswell and Marielle Glasse, talk about being two of the 13 members of the incoming freshman class at Hampshire College. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mack Flynn Caswell, a member of Hampshire College’s incoming class, smiles after college President Ed Wingenbach acknowledged the class of 13 students and how hard Hampshire made it for them to come there, Tuesday, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Mack Flynn Caswell and Marielle Glasse, talk about being two of the 13 members of the incoming freshman class at Hampshire College. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • President Ed Wingenbach talks to students at Hampshire College. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • President Ed Wingenbach listens as small groups work together to talk about the next steps at Hampshire College. Left is Fianna Wilde, David Ko, and Will Syldor. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 9/3/2019 10:35:45 PM

AMHERST — Last semester was arguably the most tense in the history of Hampshire College. The school faced financial crisis, protests, the resignation of the president and nine other trustees, sweeping layoffs and deep divisions on campus.

But on Tuesday, a new academic year began. And for many, the day represented a fresh start. Addressing the college’s returning students and incoming class of 13, newly appointed President Edward Wingenbach was optimistic — but also realistic — about the challenges that lie ahead.

“We’re here,” Wingenbach said to the audience of students, faculty, and staff. “We’re going to make it, or we’re not.”

Wingenbach’s speech kicked off the semester, but also a “launch” event facilitated by the college’s Academic Innovation Planning Group, which is working on a new vision for the school. Hampshire community members gathered together to share ideas for reinventing the college on Tuesday. Parents, students, staff and faculty sat together brainstorming for the future, some talking with those they had disagreed with months ago on the course Hampshire should take going forward.

“I see this as a big success,” said Eva Rueschmann, the dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs and a member of the planning group.

Speaking to those gathered, Wingenbach reasserted the college’s commitment to remaining independent, contrasting last semester’s controversial search for a long-term partner under the leadership of then-president Miriam “Mim” Nelson.

“The work that was done last spring didn’t save Hampshire College — it gave us the opportunity to save it,” he said. “And that’s the work that we have to do now … It will be a long process, but we’re going to make it happen.”

While students, faculty and staff cheered Wingenbach several times throughout his speech, the longest round of applause by far erupted when he referenced the school’s incoming class of 13 students.

Speaking with the Gazette, Mack Flynn Caswell, one of the 13, said they knew from the time they began looking at colleges that Hampshire was their top choice.

“I really didn’t want to go anywhere else,” Caswell said, citing the school’s diverse academic offerings and genderqueer community as two of Hampshire’s major attractions. “When I visited here twice, it really clicked for me.”

When news broke in January that the college was seeking a merger amid serious financial difficulties, Caswell just felt unlucky. “The news came and went,” said Caswell, who frantically searched for other options as emails from the school gave encouragement to look elsewhere.

But ultimately, Caswell decided to set aside these uncertainties. With the support of the Hampshire community and Wingenbach’s vision for leading Hampshire through its transition, Caswell is confident of having made the right decision, and noted that they’re “not afraid of a tiny class.”

“It’s definitely going to be a leap of faith,” Caswell said, “but I’m going to have a lot of good people around me.”

Marielle Glasse, another student in Hampshire’s first-year class, also noted a significant show of support from the Hampshire community, calling the launch event an encouraging start to the academic year.

“It’s good to see everyone show up and care about the future of this school,” Glasse said. Like Caswell, Glasse also felt that Hampshire offered opportunities that other colleges lacked. “I was told that I had to choose in high school a lot — that I had to choose this one path and do one thing.”

But this option did not appeal to Glasse, who saw the chance to forge her own path at Hampshire. When a college counselor suggested the school to her, she investigated and found that Hampshire “seemed right up my alley.”

Shared vision

Wingenbach reiterated that the upcoming school year will pose numerous challenges, noting that the decision to not admit a full class this year changed a “slow-moving challenge” to “a genuine crisis.”

But moving forward, Wingenbach hopes that the Hampshire community’s shared vision will lead the charge “to show that it’s possible to be a rigorous, excellent, student-centered college without depending on massive accumulations of wealth.”

Some of the ideas for that shared vision will bubble up out of Tuesday’s event, where students, staff and faculty broke out into groups to begin that work. The day was just one of a series of similar events that have been carefully planned throughout the fall.

“From the standpoint of our table conversation, it was incredibly productive,” said Rachel Conrad, a professor of childhood studies. “It set the tone, it was participatory and inclusive in a way it deserves to be.”

Salman Hameed, a professor and member of the Academic Innovation Planning Group together with Conrad, said that the group was encouraged to see the college gym packed with people ready to participate. He said that the successful event was just one step, however, in a long process to save the college.

And that process, at least in the short term, is very clearly defined, with many meetings between campus constituencies and deadlines for narrowing down ideas.

“That makes it seem bureaucratic,” professor and Academic Innovation Planning Group member Christoph Cox said. “But it’s for real.”

The short timeline is due to the fact that New England’s regional accreditation body for higher education voted in June to issue a public notation that Hampshire is “in danger” of being found in violation of the agency’s standards, though it has deferred formal judgment on the school’s status until November. That means that the college is rushing to put together a plan ahead of that meeting, looking to involve the Hampshire community as much as possible along the way.

Natalie Sowell, dean of institutional diversity and inclusion, called the start of this academic year “the opposite of what happened last semester, where there was a lack of transparency.”

Hannah Jones, a student taking part in Tuesday’s work, said that things are still uncertain on campus, adding that that what happens next depends on the work the college community puts in.

“I think I was reminded again of the reasons that brought me and kept me here,” Jones said of the conversations that began Tuesday. “I was reminded of how brave and how strong our community here at Hampshire is.”


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