Guest column: Hampshire College trustees should admit incoming class, or buy more time

  • 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.

  • The flag flies on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst Friday, December 2, 2016.

Published: 1/30/2019 3:32:01 PM

On Jan. 15, the Hampshire College community learned of President Miriam E. Nelson and the trustees’ intent to find a strategic financial partner to help the college face “bruising financial and demographic realities” and that Hampshire was considering not enrolling a new class in fall 2019. News of Hampshire’s precarious finances is not surprising to anyone who has been involved with the college over its 50-year history. Nor is the idea of partnering with another school or entity; after all, Hampshire was born of a partnership between the Four Colleges (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass). What was surprising was the idea that a new class might not be admitted, and that this decision was only two weeks away.

In response to this news, local Hampshire alumni have been organizing, both in person and in a lively online community of 150 at the time of this writing. It may be one of the best-kept secrets of the Pioneer Valley, but Hampshire alumni are everywhere. We are teachers, social workers, activists, business owners, public servants and artists. From our unique experiences at the college, we learned how to ask critical questions, organize, lead, teach and keep local interests and needs in mind while also seeing a bigger picture. Hampshire taught us these things, and then it brought us home, where we have built our lives, started our families and engaged in our communities. 

While alumni have many ideas and opinions about how Hampshire could move forward, or what it could have done differently in the past, one thing that we all agree on is the need for Hampshire to admit an incoming class for fall 2019. We would like to ask the trustees and President Nelson to give us, and the college, more time to organize fundraising efforts before deciding not to admit a new class.

In light of this recent announcement, there has been a strong fundraising push in the broader alumni community, resulting in more, sometimes large, donations. Moreover, we have in our community alumni whose careers are in fundraising and development. It may be possible to raise the necessary funds by using our diverse skills and resources, many of which we owe to our Hampshire education, but there is no way for us to do that if we have not been asked, and certainly not in two weeks.

Hampshire is a unique school that relies on the institutional memory of faculty and staff to ensure that it stays true to its organizing vision of active, experiential learning. Not admitting an incoming class would undoubtedly require layoffs of faculty and staff. We have been told by the trustees of the college and President Nelson that the consideration not to admit an incoming class is due to pending consumer protection legislation requiring that colleges be able to deliver the education they advertise to prospective students.

While we appreciate the ethical considerations towards the incoming class of students, and in general are in support of greater consumer protections and regulation, we are also concerned about the livelihoods of valued faculty and staff, who are also our neighbors. They have mortgages to pay and families to care for, and if they are laid off from Hampshire, we are likely to lose them from the Pioneer Valley.

In support of our neighbors and the continued vision of Hampshire College, the Hampshire College Alumni of Western Massachusetts is asking the trustees on Friday to either vote to accept an incoming class, or to delay that vote until they know the result of recent fundraising efforts.

We cannot go back in time and redo the way that this message was delivered or decisions were made. What we can do is make sure that, moving forward, we are true to the vision and pedagogy of the school, in which everyone contributes what they can to our common cause. The right strategic partner could make Hampshire sustainable in the future, but if we lose our current faculty and staff, we will lose Hampshire as we know it today.

Written on behalf of the Hampshire College Alumni of Western Massachusetts.

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