Friday Takeaway: Ode to Hampshire

  • Ilan Stavans

For Hampshire Life
Friday, March 01, 2019

Hampshire College is in a woeful existential crisis that happens to be taking place during a perfect storm.

Large market factors are shrinking the overall offerings of the American higher-education industry. Fewer students are applying to more schools. Paying exorbitant tuition prices is prohibitive to a large number of families. The result is that institutions with less cache are becoming vulnerable, seeing a decrease in applications and a reduction of cash. Being competitive in an environment where branding is essential is tough.

Hampshire is among them. In the last couple of decades, it has had a string of less-than-visionary leaders, including members of the Board of Trustees, who have made impetuous, unadvisable decisions. Along the way, a rowdy faculty and student body have sometimes gotten themselves lost in the type of delusions of grandeur chronically affecting higher education, including the sense that the act of questioning power is in itself a strategy to assert it. In other words, with foresight the current quagmire could have been averted, at least in part.

I have had dozens, maybe hundreds of Hampshire students. They are savvy, even feisty, thriving in the art of disconnecting the dots in order to reconnect anew. Their most typical trait is, well, being atypical. I love them in part because I got my own undergraduate degree from a Mexican public university much like Hampshire, in which we had no grades and other such rigid structures. I was regularly invited to test authority; I learned that if you aren’t rebellious in your youth, you’ve missed a crucial step in your education.

Of course, while a student I was also frequently unhappy, convinced I was being miseducated. I wanted my teachers to be more systematic, less rambunctious. I wanted from them guidance as well as freedom. At some point in the serendipitous journey that is life, I, too, became a teacher, trying to emulate in the classroom some of the patterns of my restless education.

Frankly, all these years later I still can’t quite explain the mystery that happens inside that classroom. To say it is all about knowledge is to state the obvious. In truth, knowledge emerges haphazardly, in stints and stretches. What might generate insight in one student might bore another to death. Teaching is about being humble and alert so as to welcome surprise and about providing the necessary tools for people to think clearly, persuasively, and in original ways.

I’ve italicized the word because I feel I have failed miserably when a student hands in a project that might well have been done by someone else in the exact same way. Where is the uniqueness? Students aren’t clones.

I have collaborated many times with superb Hampshire teachers. They have taught me how uniqueness is encouraged for innovation to be harvested.

The announcement that Hampshire would only accept 77 in its 2019 freshman class is a symptom of distress. A regular-size class is around 340; that means at least some 250 students won’t be around in the next four years. Who knows if 2020 will be different? The college has also announced layoffs. Understandably, students are up in arms, occupying buildings. The faculty feels sidelined. And the staff, the weakest of all links, sees itself as a liability.

Hampshire’s annual operating budget was $56 million in 2016. Finding a “strategic partner” — as the current president, Miriam “Mim” Nelson, describes the elusive messianic savior that might bring a breath of fresh air into campus — is unlikely to happen without irrevocable changes to the institution’s style and forward-looking pedagogy. Plus, its minuscule endowment of $55.4 million, substantially less than its annual budget, leaves little room to maneuver. (By way of comparison, in 2018 Smith’s endowment was $1.915 billion. A year earlier, Mount Holyoke’s was $729.4 million and Amherst’s was $2.248 billion.)

By the end of this academic year, the overall landscape will likely look very different. Will anxiety give in to wisdom? According to President Nelson, who has emerged as a target of animosity (she has been described as “bunkered in her stubbornness”), the objective is to become a smaller, more manageable college. Given the circumstances, it is the right approach.

Unfortunately, it is being accomplished poorly. Only a few months into the job, President Nelson appears to be handling the situation with only a modicum of transparency, failing to generate the type of empathy required as capital in times of abrupt change.

Still, this isn’t a eulogy. We must be hopeful. The answer to the conundrum might actually be found in Hampshire being unconventional; that is, in looking at options in alternative, unusual ways. Whatever solution emerges, the challenge is to make it long-term. Time, which is shrinking rapidly at the moment, is the best bet.

The college is about to turn fifty. In the lifespan of a school like this, that amounts to adolescence. Will it make it to adulthood? All of us are rooting for it. Its future is ours, too. We all need its nonconformist stance.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.