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Editorial: Amid loss, what we can learn from Hampshire College crisis

  • A banner hanging at the Harold F. Johnson Library Center at Hampshire College. It reads: “This Is Our Home, These Are Our Lives.”   FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


Friday, February 22, 2019

We knew money was tight at Hampshire College — we just didn’t know how tight. In a letter to campus Jan. 15, President Miriam “Mim” Nelson, sent up a flare, announcing that the college was seeking a long-term partner to keep it afloat financially. In short order, the college revealed a series of scenarios and decisions that rocked the campus and the larger community.

First, it was the revelation that Hampshire was considering not enrolling a first-year class in the fall, somewhat confusing given that tuition and student fees account for 87 percent of the college’s revenue.

Then came confirmation that the college’s board of trustees had voted to not accept an incoming class, other than gap and early admission students, largely due to worries over the college losing accreditation.

And earlier this week, the college announced it would lay off full-time employees who work in its admissions and advancement offices as the first cut to the college’s 400-person workforce. Further cuts are expected to be announced in early April.

The Jan. 15 announcement came at a terrible time for faculty, with most applications for academic jobs due by December, meaning some professors could be jobless after faculty contracts are up for renewal at the end of June, said Salman Hameed, an associate professor at Hampshire.

“We are part of this community, we are living here, we have children going to schools, we have elderly to take care of,” said Hameed, who has worked at the college for 14 years. “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.”

While Hampshire officials say they’re committed to transparency, faculty, alumni and students say the process has been opaque.

“We have not had access to any meaningful financial information, we have not seen any budget projections,” said Jennifer Hamilton, a professor at Hampshire and the president of the faculty’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“I think it’s hard to have any opinions when you don’t know information,” said Alexandria Weinraub, a second-year student, earlier this month.

A letter sent out to the 77 students the college has accepted painted a bleak picture of life on campus. Hampshire can only guarantee admission for one semester. First-year students can live on campus, but “college dining options likely will be limited,” along with limited support services and extracurricular activities. Students may not even graduate from Hampshire College, as any institution it ends up affiliating or merging with would “likely control how any diploma will be awarded and by what entity.”

Since Jan. 15, the Bulletin and Daily Hampshire Gazette have published a wide range of reactions, from a student’s plea to save Hampshire College to a guest column by the Hampshire College Alumni of Western Massachusetts to a letter from President Nelson herself explaining, among other things, the college’s reason for not admitting a full incoming class.

One letter writer, Jay Vogt, an alumnus of Hampshire and a longtime nonprofit organizational development consultant, quoted Ernest Hemingway’s take on how one goes bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” He argued that Hampshire’s effort to seek a merger from a position of “relative strength” makes sense: “Doing so, if warranted by economics, is both courageous and smart. But it is never popular. Sacrificing short-term gain for long-term gain never is.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates. We believe Hampshire owes it to the campus and larger community to be as open and clear as it can be about how it got here — and why. But we also believe that President Nelson, while the face of the college, shouldn’t be the fall guy for financial problems that started years before her tenure began in July 2018.

It’s a sad situation. Students will lose part of their community. Staff will lose jobs and livelihoods. A unique place on Earth will likely lose some of its unique character. But not everything has to be a loss, and we can learn from other examples.

Hampshire is one of many small colleges trying to make ends meet — and failing. In Massachusetts, at least 17 colleges have closed or merged over the past six years. President Nelson pointed to one example close to home — the merger between Wheelock College and Boston University in 2017 — saying that relationship is one that Hampshire might want to emulate.

In the wake of the abrupt shutdown of Mount Ida College, state education officials are proceeding with a plan to screen colleges annually and gauge their risk of closing. The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education is moving towards using a so-called stress test to monitor the financial health of private nonprofit colleges.

We think state monitoring of colleges’ financial health is a good idea and that a merger could be beneficial to Hampshire College, should it find the right partner. Locally, one needs only to look at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, now a part of Mass General, to see how a small institution can benefit, and still preserve much of its original character, by linking up with the right long-term partner.

This is a story of survival, and the college appears to be doing everything in its power to save the college — in some form. It’s distressing that the abruptness of the announcement left little time for the people who will be most affected by these changes to plan for their futures. Even in her early days as president, Nelson could have done more to warn of the college’s financial crisis. Instead, she told the college community in the fall that “Hampshire’s financial position is stable.”

Now that we know the opposite is true, we hope that someone, or some entity, will throw Hampshire and its students a lifeline. Or an offer of marriage.