Tensions on campus as Hampshire College board votes on incoming class

  • Students protest on Hampshire College's campus Thursday, ahead of a meeting with the school's board of trustees. The board will decide Friday if Hampshire will admit an incoming class this fall. SUBMITTED PHOTO/HELEN MURRAY

Staff Writer
Published: 1/31/2019 7:54:27 PM

AMHERST — Students at Hampshire College staged protests and sit-ins Thursday, and employees and alumni lobbied college leadership as the board of trustees met to begin making the first in a series of big decisions about the school’s future.

Fear and frustration have boiled up both on and off campus since Hampshire College announced Jan. 15 that the school is seeking a merger — preferably, though not necessarily, with another educational institution — and may decide not to admit an incoming class this fall. The college’s trustees will be announcing Friday their decision on the incoming class, but some on campus rallied Thursday to ask for that decision to be delayed for two weeks, and for more democratic input in decisions about the college’s uncertain future.

“We feel that if the decision is being made tomorrow, that’s simply not enough time for the community to process, or to fundraise,” Emery Powell, a third-year Hampshire student, said Thursday.

Powell added that shared governance and transparency have been hallmarks of Hampshire’s relationship with students staff and faculty.

“I think a lot of the uproar and frustration is coming from the fact that there was not that transparency,” Powell said.

Students marched through frigid temperatures on campus to a meeting between the Student Advocacy Network — the college’s recently formed student government body — and the board of trustees. Following the meeting, students occupied several buildings, demanding to delay Friday’s decision and calling for more representation from staff and faculty in that vote.

“This is something that’s not only really big for us in our personal lives … it’s also something that’s really going to affect our futures,” Alison Smith, a first-year student and member of the Student Advocacy Network, said by phone Thursday. “Students, they’re not angry about what’s happening, it’s more so that we want the opportunity to be heard.”

Faculty, staff concerns

Those feelings about transparency are shared by Salman Hameed, an associated professor at Hampshire. He said that a strategic partnership with another institution isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that it could possibly be a way to solve the financial challenges that everyone recognizes Hampshire faces.

However, college President Miriam “Mim” Nelson’s announcement on Jan. 15 that Hampshire was seeking a strategic partner came without forewarning, shocking almost everyone, Hameed said.

“As far as I know, none of the faculty were informed, including all of the academic deans of the schools,” he said. Hameed added that if the college does not enroll a new class in the fall, it “would mean significant cuts, no matter how you look at it,” which in turn would create suffering.

For faculty, the timing of the announcement in January came at a terrible time, Hameed said. Most applications for academic jobs are due in November or December, meaning that when faculty contracts are up for renewal at the end of June, professors may be out of a job with no prospects on the horizon, he said. For staff, the situation is even more precarious, he added.

“I’ve been at Hampshire for 14 years and there are other people who have been here longer,” Hameed said. “We are part of this community, we are living here, we have children going to schools, we have elderly to take care of … suddenly to find out in January, out of the blue two weeks before classes that we may not have a job after June 30, that is a shock.”

Nelson was unavailable for an interview Thursday because she was in discussions at the trustees meeting, college spokesman John Courtmanche said.

Hameed said that in her first meeting with faculty and staff, Nelson said the sudden announcement was due partly to the college trying to get out ahead of an article that a news outlet was ready to publish about Hampshire’s financial problems.

When asked to confirm if that was true, Courtmanche did not respond directly. He said the primary reason for the timing of the decision was so that Hampshire could respond to applicants with their admissions status by the college’s Feb. 1 admissions notification date.

“The college’s intent was to give prospective students and their families enough time to make a decision on their choice of a college,” Courtmanche said.

The sudden announcement left some in the tight-knit Hampshire community struggling to organize themselves ahead of Friday’s vote. Steven Aronstein, a 47-year-old alum and Northampton resident who graduated in 2006, said he and other alumni originally focused on fundraising, but have shifted their focus to postponing Friday’s vote on an incoming class.

“If this had been announced in the fall, we could have had six months to fundraise,” he said, adding that some members of the Hampshire community managed to quickly secure around $600,000 in pledges from prominent alumni he said hadn’t yet been contacted by Hampshire. “Instead, we’re basically being given a week to come up with millions of dollars to make it possible to have an incoming class.”

In a letter to colleagues from the five colleges, printed in The Massachusetts Review on Wednesday, Hampshire’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors criticized the college’s administration for a decision-making process “that violates the model of shared governance that has been so important at Hampshire and in American higher education.”

“Those privy to these discussions have been required to sign nondisclosure agreements, which the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) considers a violation of academic freedom and completely inappropriate in higher education,” the letter reads.

Those faculty members wrote that they are not convinced by Nelson’s argument that it would be immoral to admit an incoming class amid the future uncertainty at Hampshire. They said a group of admitted students — Hampshire early-admitted 39 students before making its Jan. 15 announcement — wrote a letter saying they are excited to come to the college during its time of transition.

Changing regulations

The state’s changing regulatory environment is also a large consideration in determining whether Hampshire admits a new class. The state Department of Higher Education is working on creating a new Office of Student Protection by this fall, which would monitor financially struggling small private colleges and potentially intervene if money troubles become too dire. The new regulations would also require a college to be able to “teach out” any class that it admits, though the AAUP stressed in its letter that those regulations are not yet finalized.

In an opinion column in The New York Times, famed nonfiction author and Hampshire alum Jon Krakauer wrote Thursday that last May, 10 weeks before Nelson was to take over as Hampshire College president, outgoing President Jonathan Lash warned her that the incoming 2018 class was “drastically smaller than anticipated.”

Krakauer also wrote that Nelson’s understanding is that in order to have enough cash to graduate a first-year class, the college would need to set aside at least $168 million before enrolling a class in the fall.

“This isn’t likely to happen,” Krakauer wrote. “Dr. Nelson is adamant that the only way out of this conundrum is to cancel that class and merge Hampshire with a much wealthier ‘strategic partner.’ Otherwise, she told a group of prominent alumni, donors and former administrators this week, Hampshire will be forced to close within the next three or four years.”

Courtmanche said Krakauer’s reporting is accurate, but noted that it is the responsibility of the board of trustees as a whole to vote on whether to admit a class next fall.

Courtmanche confirmed that Nelson has been in discussions with potential partners since November. Responding to concerns about the unexpected announcement, he said Nelson and the board began discussing strategic options in October, and that Nelson began talking with faculty and staff about the option of partnering with another institution that same month.

“The realization of the value of finding a long-term partner intensified after Newbury College announced its closing in December and as Mim continued conversations through December with our accreditors ... and with the attorney general’s office, state department of higher ed, and AICUM,” Courtmanche said, using the acronym for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

In an email, University of Massachusetts Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski confirmed that the university has had “some preliminary conversations with Hampshire’s leadership to explore the possibility of deeper collaboration between our two institutions.”

“Our sense from those initial conversations is that Hampshire is having discussions within their own community on charting a course for their future, at the same time that they are having conversations with other institutions,” Blaguszewski said.

As those conversations continue, all eyes will be on the trustees Friday as they prepare to announce the results of their vote in a campus-wide assembly at 3:30 p.m. Regardless, the Hampshire community will undoubtedly continue to make its voice heard as the college’s future hangs in limbo.

“People are caring a lot right now,” said Smith, the first-year student. “They’re caring very loudly.”

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

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