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New Hampshire College leader bringing future into focus

  • Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College Friday, August 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach is leaning into new job. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach is taking over from Ken Rosenthal, one of the school’s founders. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College Friday, August 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College Friday, August 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College Friday, August 9, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College, meets with staff on his first days on the job Friday, August 9, 2019. Middle with blue long sleeved shirt, Ed Wingenbach, Sarah Steely, Jean Berg, Josiah Erikson and Becca Groveman, all members of the staff Advocacy Committee. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College, meets with staff on his first days on the job Friday, August 9, 2019. Left, Ed Wingenbach, Sarah Steely, Jean Berg, Josiah Erikson and Becca Groveman, all members of the staff Advocacy Committee. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 13, 2019

AMHERST — There aren’t too many decorations greeting visitors as they enter Hampshire College’s president’s office. The walls are sparse and the building is quiet as summer nears its end.

But on Friday there were small signs — a bag of Atkins Farms Country Market’s cider donuts, a small bouquet of local flowers — that Edward Wingenbach, who officially began work this week as Hampshire’s eighth president, is settling into life in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s kind of like a little utopia,” Wingenbach said with a small smile.

It wasn’t long ago, however, that there was trouble in utopia. Wingenbach assumes the role of president after months of tension on campus. Then-president Miriam “Mim” Nelson announced in January that the college would seek a partner organization to solve its financial difficulties, and then two weeks later the board of trustees voted to accept only a tiny class this fall. 

Wingenbach sat down for an interview with the Gazette in the president’s office, which students occupied for 75 days earlier this year in opposition to the decisions of the college’s leadership. Ultimately, Nelson and nine other trustees resigned, and the board of trustees voted to change course and remain independent.

There were no signs of that tension Friday, though. Groups from across campus filed into the building to chat with Wingenbach — he has meetings scheduled with staff and faculty throughout the next few weeks.

“We talked about: ‘How do you envision the future of Hampshire College? What’s the core you care most about?’” he said. Those questions are important as Hampshire seeks to reinvent itself as its 50th anniversary approaches next year, he said: “Trying to figure out how congruent or different people’s visions are of Hampshire College.”

One important meeting Wingenbach had this week was with the “academic innovation” group working on envisioning that future. That work is important, Wingenbach said, to have a place to start conversations when students return to campus in September.

Facing the challenges

For the most part, Wingenbach doesn’t view the challenges facing Hampshire as unique. Many small colleges — including his previous place of employment, Ripon College in Wisconsin — have faced similar obstacles, he said.

“What makes Hampshire’s challenge unique this year was deciding, in the face of those difficult but pretty typical challenges, to not take a new class,” he said. Enrollment will be down to 600 students, half of last year’s number. The college will face diminished revenue for four years as a result, he pointed out.

“Other than that challenge, it’s not really that different from most colleges.” 

Where Hampshire is well-situated compared to those other colleges is that the college has no trouble standing out from the pack, he said.

“What everybody wants and don’t have is a distinctive story to tell, and an ability to identify why their return on investment is meaningful,” he said. “That’s not a problem Hampshire has.”

So what are the hurdles Wingenbach and the college will face this year? Wingenbach said one will be maintaining the quality of the student experience, as well as the excitement on campus, during the next year when the school is facing “really significant resource constraints” because of the skeleton first-year class. 

Of the 77 students the college accepted for this fall, only 15 students committed to attending. And since the college made that announcement in May, that number has shrunk to 13.

Another difficulty will be structuring this fall around answering a big question: “What is the future of Hampshire as an experimenting college look like?” Wingenbach said his task as president will be to set up structures that invite broad participation, but that also make that participation result in meaningful decisions — conversations that are “open but also productive.”

Must make choices

In the past, he said, Hampshire and other small liberal arts schools have tried to accomplish all of the big ideas that came their way, instead of decisively saying what can and can’t realistically be done. Trying to do too much can dilute a school’s identity, he said.

“Part of that challenge is engaging the community of people who work here in democratic ways so people are participating … while making absolutely sure that there are processes in place to lead to decisions and outcomes — and that isn’t always going to be bottom up,” he said. “Somebody has to make those choices … Being decisive as the result of a consensus-oriented process is the best of both worlds.”

Wingenbach said there is still work to be done bridging divides that emerged on campus since the beginning of the year. Amid that turmoil, he said, different constituencies’ ideas for how to save Hampshire sometimes conflicted with one other. But much of that healing work seems to have begun before he arrived on campus, he said. 

“I’ve heard different versions of this story: ‘Six months ago, I couldn’t talk to this person and now we’re in a room trying to come up with ideas,’” he said. “There’s goodwill here — people want to make this work.”

The focus of this year will be the intellectual project of inventing Hampshire’s future, Wingenbach said. And that work will start on Sept. 3, when students arrive back on campus for convocation together with the 13-person first-year class. 

When reorganizing structures and curriculum on campus, Wingenbach said, the college will be looking at how to better introduce first-year students to Hampshire to ensure they stay at the school through graduation. Currently, the school’s attrition rates are slightly higher than other colleges for students in their later years at the school, Wingenbach said.

Another important date for Hampshire will come when the college has to prove to its accredditor in October that it shouldn’t be placed on prohibition or have its accreditation withdrawn. But Wingenbach said he isn’t worried about that impending presentation.

“Part of what we need to do in that report is show them that we’ve been engaged in realistic conversations about how we’re going to attract students, and how we’re going to do that within a realistic approach to our finances,” he said. “I’m entirely confident that our accreditation is going to be fine, because we’re going to be able to show them that there’s a strong future here … We’re just not that fragile.” 

What’s next?

After that, Wingenbach said he plans to bring Hampshire’s new vision to donors and institutions that will want to support the invention of a new Hampshire for the future — and a new future for higher education. 

Hampshire was created to reimagine higher education, Wingenbach said. And, as the school has had success over the years, many throughout the education ecosystem have picked up on the ideas that once made Hampshire unique.

“You can’t then stop,” he said. “What are the next ideas that we should be doing here that eighth graders will be doing in 25 years? That’s what we need to be doing.”

Wingenbach’s predecessor, Ken Rosenthal, said that work is what Hampshire does best. Rosenthal, one of the school’s founders, has over the years been a staffer, a faculty member, a trustee, a parent of a student and the school historian. Now leaving the post of interim president, he remains optimistic about the school’s prospects.

“In a way, it is an echo of the 1960s when we were planning the college,” he said. Back then, he said, the founders had to design a curriculum, find students, raise money and convince everyone that the project was going to succeed.

And the college did succeed, he said, pointing to the many other schools that have adopted some of the Hampshire pedagogy. But not everything Hampshire has done has been perfect, and there are things that now need to change, he said.

“There’s an echo of the past in that,” Rosenthal said. “And that makes me feel positive about it.”

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