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Burns upbeat on Hampshire College’s fundraising effort

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Staff Writer
Friday, May 10, 2019

AMHERST — It was 44 years ago that the renowned documentarian Ken Burns completed his first history film, “Working in Rural New England.”

The documentary was Burns’ “Division III” project at Hampshire College, where all students complete an advanced independent project in their final year. And for Burns, the Hampshire model — independent, interdisciplinary study guided by students with help from faculty advisers — represents an alternative to the “transactional approach” he said has “tarnished” higher education over the last several decades.

“Hampshire isn’t transactional — never was, is not now and never will be,” Burns said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It is transformational … and it will be transformational going forward. That’s our goal.”

That is Burns’ message as his alma mater charts a new course amid deep financial uncertainty. Earlier this year, Hampshire leaders announced they were seeking a “strategic partnership” to keep the college afloat. That announcement, and the subsequent decision to only admit a bare-bones class this fall, caused turmoil in the Hampshire community, leading to the resignation of President Miriam “Mim” Nelson and top members of the board of trustees. The board then voted to change course and pursue independence for the college.

Burns is now the co-chairman of the committee steering Hampshire’s capital campaign as the college seeks to raise $15 to $20 million over the next year and as much as $100 million over the next five or six years. That’s a lot of money for a small college with an endowment of around $52 million, but Burns challenged the characterization of the task as “daunting.”

“I’m totally optimistic that it’s going to happen,” he said. “Failure isn’t an option here.”

Broad-based commitment

Hampshire is on its way to that goal, having already raised $7 million in gifts and pledges, according to spokesman John Courtmanche. And the college has said that Burns himself has made a “significant” contribution, though Burns declined to say how much exactly. He said he doesn’t want to daunt anyone who wants to donate but can’t give as much.

“My mantra for this campaign is, ‘Figure out what hurts and do it times four,’” Burns said. “If a thousand bucks hurts, give $4,000.”

The hope, he said, is to get the entire Hampshire community to contribute in that way. That kind of commitment and financial backing might then invite “transformational” support from foundations or other organizations, he said.

Burns will be co-chairing the capital campaign committee with another Hampshire graduate who was recently named to the position. Pasha Dritt Thornton is also a parent of a Hampshire graduate and a longtime member of the board of trustees. She said that the current fundraising efforts are different from other recent campaigns at the college.

“A lot of it is that we’re not starting a capital campaign just to keep the doors open,” Thornton said. “It’s a much bigger picture. It’s very exciting.”

Burns said that the college’s current situation focused the Hampshire community — “mostly for the better” — on solving the financial problems at hand. And he said addressing those issues goes beyond just raising money.

“We also have the opportunity here to reinvigorate the Hampshire message,” he said. “We have a chance to remake the college.”

As for the events that led to this point, Thornton said she had advocated for the college’s independence since the beginning, while Burns said he had been “agnostic.”

College struggles

From climate change to immigration, Burns said that Hampshire’s model is one that can prepare people to tackle the biggest problems facing society today.

One of those problems also happens to be the current state of higher education.

Hampshire College is not alone in its struggles. A report that the ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service released last year found that one in five small private colleges in the United States faces significant financial stress, and that private colleges are closing at a rate of 11 per year. And after U.S. birth rates declined significantly beginning with the Great Recession of 2008, colleges and universities across the country are looking ahead to an enrollment dropoff beginning in 2026.

“We are in the middle of a crisis in education in the country,” Thornton said. But she and Burns hope that Hampshire will be able to provide an example to other liberal arts colleges facing their own money troubles.

“How do we make sure that the United States at least has a few islands of independent education that are going to be producing leaders who are going to solve these huge interdisciplinary questions?” Burns asked.

Hampshire will soon be launching a commencement weekend fundraising drive as the school’s fundraising efforts continue.

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