Hampshire College won’t accept an incoming class this fall; gap, early admission students will be admitted

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

Staff Writer
Published: 2/1/2019 7:50:11 PM

AMHERST —  Hampshire College’s board of trustees has voted to not accept an incoming class this fall, throwing the tuition-dependent school’s future into further uncertainty.

At its winter meeting Friday, trustees did agree to accept 77 students — early admission students and those who had accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in fall 2019. The decision comes as Hampshire seeks a “strategic partnership” with another institution as the college faces financial troubles like many other small colleges across the region.

“No matter how people feel, every single one of us loves Hampshire College, and everyone’s opinions come from a place of love and passion for our mission, our people, what Hampshire means to the world and what we want to bring forward,” Gaye Hill, the chairwoman of the board of trustees, told those gathered in the gymnasium of the Robert Crown Center.

As Hill announced the vote, students held hands and formed a ring around the gymnasium, and when they learned the board’s decision the upset students began chanting over Hill, drowning out her voice: “Hampshire united will never be divided.”

“It’s pretty crazy, you know? They just kind of dropped it on us in the last two weeks,” Richard Dell Italia, a junior from New York City, said just after the announcement was made. “With the future in doubt with how it’s going to go forward, it’s troubling. I don’t know, it’s just concerning in every way.”

Some students, faculty, staff and alumni had called on the trustees to delay the vote for several weeks and to allow greater faculty and staff voting power in an ultimate decision. Hill told the crowd that based on community feedback, the board voted on several motions: whether to delay the decision on an incoming class, whether to admit a full fall 2019 class or whether to admit just early admission and gap-year students.

After voting not to delay the vote, Hill said the board decided to admit around 41 early-decision students and 36 gap-year students. Hampshire’s 2018 first-year class had 290 students.

“We welcome them to Hampshire, and we will make full disclosure to them about what to expect, because this is a new and different time for the college,” Hill said.

The trustees were expected to announce their decision earlier in the day at 3:30 p.m. but delayed that announcement after what Jenny Chandler, the college president’s chief of staff, described as “deep deliberations.” The announcement ultimately came at 7:30 p.m.

Hampshire College spokesman John Courtmanche declined to make Hill, college President Miriam “Mim” Nelson and incoming board chairman Kim Saal available for interviews, citing the board’s ongoing meeting that continues on Saturday.

“The last two weeks, and the last two days, and definitely today has been a roller coaster,” Salman Hameed, an associated professor, told the Gazette in a phone interview. He said the entire campus was ready for the announcement at 3:30 p.m., and having to then wait another four hours was emotionally draining. “This is a consequential decision about a college that we love, and our livelihood which is attached to it.”

Hameed said he is deeply disappointed with the decision, and that employees of the college will now be looking toward next steps: how layoffs are going to work, and how faculty contracts are likely to be broken. As someone who has lived in the area for almost two decades, he wondered what will come next for him.

“We still don’t have enough information about why the board is making the decisions they’re making,” Hameed said.

Students slowly dispersed from the Crown Center after the decision was made public. Upstairs, where many students had perched overlooking the gym, some seemed shocked.

“I’m not happy about the decision,” said Saren Vigneault, 19. “I think it’s really going to mess things up … they’re not going to be bringing in any money from new students. I’m really upset.”

Hampshire’s $52 million endowment is relatively small compared to other colleges, and the school relies significantly on tuition to cover operating expenses. The college’s 2018 enrollment is 1,175 students.

Alexandria Weinraub, a second-year student, was leaning against the Crown Center’s billiards table after the announcement.

“I think it’s hard to have any opinions when you don’t know information, and I think that what has happened can’t be good or bad because we can’t predict the future,” Weinraub said. “The only thing we can do is stay optimistic.”

Hampshire College is far from the only small liberal arts college facing money problems. As enrollment declines at schools across the country, many smaller colleges are struggling to keep the doors open by themselves.

In Massachusetts, 12 small colleges have closed or merged with other institutions in the last five years alone. And last Wednesday, Green Mountain College in Vermont announced that it too was closing amid declining enrollments.

The situation has become serious enough that the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education is now working to create an Office of Student Protection. The proposed regulations would allow the state to monitor struggling colleges, and to potentially intervene if finances become too strained.

Reflecting on how that trend played out at Hampshire on Friday night, Hameed, the professor, said there was only one high point: the protest of students during Hill’s address to the campus community.

“The student reaction to it was inspiring,” he said. “That is Hampshire. And I just hope that somehow Hampshire’s soul survives.”

This story has been updated to reflect the total number of students admitted for fall 2019, and to clarify the words of the student chant during the announcement of the trustees’ decision.

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