Not long after arriving on the Hampshire College campus in 2011, President Jonathan Lash asked students how long they believed it would be before the school could accurately declare itself carbon neutral. Upon hearing that they thought it could be done in 25 years, he said, in essence, that this wasn’t nearly good enough. So the school set a new goal — 10 years — and with some dramatic recent developments, it is well on its way to meeting it, and in the process it is writing an exciting new chapter in a history long defined by progressiveness and unique approaches to learning.
Jonathan Lash noted that Hampshire College — that self-described “experiment” in higher education located on rolling farm land in South Amherst — has been operating for 46 years now.
That’s more than enough time to gather research, look at trends, and develop a composite, or profile, if you will, of the graduates of this small and in many ways unique institution.
And one has emerged, said Lash, the school’s president since 2011, noting quickly that individuality and independent thinking are perhaps the most common traits among students and alums, so it is impossible to paint them with one broad brush. But there are some common traits.
One of them is entrepreneurship. A quarter of the school’s graduates — an eclectic list that includes Stonyfield Farm chairman and former president and CEO President Gary Hirshberg, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, actor Liev Schreiber, and countless others involved in the arts and literature — have started their own business or organization, placing the college on Forbes’ short list of ‘most- entrepreneurial colleges.’
Another is a passion for learning; the school is in the top 1% of colleges nationwide in the percentage of graduates who go on to earn doctorates.
“Our students have such a good time learning that they don’t want to stop,” said Lash with a laugh, noting that the desire to create unique learning experiences for students was one important motivation for two recent sustainability initiatives on the campus — construction of a so-called ‘living building,’ the school’s R.W. Kern Center, which will use zero net energy, and the announcement that the institution would take a huge step toward becoming the first private college in the country to go 100% solar powered.
Indeed, professors in several disciplines have incorporated the Kern Center into their curriculum, said Lash, noting also that for a course he was teaching last fall in sustainability, he assigned students the task of reviewing the contract for the solar installation and explaining why the initiative was a sound undertaking for the school and the company building it.
“One of the ideas behind this building is to make sure you learn something every time you walk into it,” Lash said of the Kern Center.
As for the exercise involving the solar installation, he borrowed an industry term of sorts. “You could see the lightbulbs going on,” he said while relating how the students eventually grasped the many aspects of the concept.
But creating such learning opportunities is only one motivating factor. Indeed, this school that has been seemingly defined by that adjective ‘alternative’ since it was first conceived nearly 60 years ago, is adding another dimension to that quality. And in the process, it is living up to its own core beliefs while also taking on the character (and the mission) of its president, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as one of 25 “warriors and heroes fighting to stave off the planet-wide catastrophe.”
And it is a dimension that Lash believes will inspire other institutions — both inside and outside the realm of higher education — to follow suit.
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest traveled to the Hampshire College campus to talk with Lash — in the Kern Center — about how that building and a broader drive to become carbon neutral is adding another intriguing chapter to the school’s brief but already remarkable history.
Hampshire’s distinct philosophy and pedagogy assert that: Students learn best when they are given the independence to direct their own learning under the advisement of faculty, and education should not be imposed on students.
Courses are not the only sites of learning for our students; instead they engage in a variety of learning activities and environments that challenge their creativity, problem-solving, and discovery of ideas and meaning, through independent study, internships, community engagement, social action, lab work, and teaching assistantships. Hampshire was founded by the leaders of four venerable colleges in Western Massachusetts to re-examine the assumptions and practices of liberal arts education.
At Hampshire, all students are challenged to perform serious independent work under the mentorship of faculty. The college’s goal is to graduate students who can identify significant questions, devise interesting ways to approach them, and follow through to a solution … we have no majors, each student designs their own program of study, commonly examining questions through the lenses of several disciplines. The student negotiates their studies with faculty advisers in a rigorous environment that supports student intellectual growth. The student learns to be a creator of knowledge, engaging in substantial independent research and self-directed projects as they explore the questions that drive them.
This language, taken directly from the school’s own literature — a fact sheet describing and explaining its academic program — does an effective and fairly concise job of explaining what this school is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.
It isn’t a college in the traditional sense of that term — as made clear in that passage about majors, grades, and set programs of study, or the distinct lack of them, to be more precise.
These are the foundations upon which the school was founded, and Lash admits that he knew very little, if anything about all that when he came across an e-mail titled ‘Hampshire College’ from a headhunter, one that would eventually lead to the most recent line on a very intriguing resume dominated by work in the environment and sustainable development.
But first, back to that e-mail. Lash wasn’t going to open it; he opened very few of the many he received from search firms looking for candidates for a host of different positions. But something compelled him to click on this one.
“I cannot tell you why I opened it — I just don’t know; but instead of just clicking ‘delete,’ like I did with all the others, I opened it,” he told BusinessWest, adding that upon reading it, he recalled that a friend, Adele Simmons, had served as president of the school in the ’80s. He called her, and she eventually talked him into meeting with the search committee.
Lash needed such prodding, because he didn’t even know where the school was, and also because higher education was somewhat, but not entirely, off the career path he had eventually chosen, with the accent on eventually.
Indeed, Lash, a graduate who earned both his master’s in education and juris doctor from Catholic University, started his career as a federal prosecutor in Washington in the mid-70s.
“At a certain point, it began to be less and less rewarding for me to send people to jail, and I wanted to have a different kind of impact on society,” he explained, adding that he left the prosecutor’s office for the National Environmental Defense Fund, at what turned out to be a poignant time in its history — just as Ronald Reagan was entering the White House.
“There was a period during the Reagan administration when environmental organizations were filing lawsuit after lawsuit to stop things Reagan was doing,” he noted. “It was like shooting at a Budweiser truck — you just couldn’t miss; they just didn’t bother with the law.”
Fast-forwarding a little, Lash eventually left that organization to run environmental programs for the new governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, and later became director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School.
From there, he went on to lead the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank focusing on issues ranging from low-carbon development to sustainable transportation. Under his leadership, WRI quadrupled its budget and globalized its work, with offices in eight countries and partners in more than 50 nations.
It would take something compelling to leave that for the Hampshire College campus, and he encountered it at his interview before the search committee, a panel of 26, dominated by students.
“They asked very aggressive questions, they argued with all my answers, and they were absolutely passionate about it all,” he recalled. “And about 45 minutes into it, I thought to myself ‘I’ve been working on these environmental issues all my life; I’ve been really successful, and the things I care about are getting worse. If anyone’s going to change that, it’s going to be kids like these, and I should probably help them.’”
Lash said he did some research before he came to Amherst for his interview, and gleaned a general understanding of the school and everything that made it unique. But it didn’t really prepare him for what he found.
And it was only a matter of weeks after arriving that he said he found himself saying, ‘I wish I could have learned this way,’ or words to that effect.
Still, four decades after its doors opened, Hampshire College was facing a number of challenges, especially those that apply to a small school with a tiny endowment — $40 million. In many ways, the school needed to make some kind of statement, a reaffirmation of its core values — social justice and environmental sustainability — and an even stronger commitment to live them.
The Kern Center is part of that statement, Lash said, referring to a structure that was carefully designed to make its own energy, harvest its own water, and treat its own waste, and thus become truly carbon neutral.
But that’s just one building, said Lash, who then related a conversation with students concerning the school’s participation in the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, under which institutions commit to implementing a comprehensive plan to achieve a carbon-neutral campus.
“The committee that was working on it came to me and said ‘maybe we can do it in 25 years,’” Lash recalled. “And I said, “I don’t think you understand how urgent this matter is; if Hampshire College says ’25 years,’ what is the world supposed to say?’
“So we switched it to 10 years, and that kind of forced us to think radically,” he went on, adding that such thinking included exploration of solar power.
But at that time, such a proposition was still financially untenable, he went on, adding that since then, the cost of photovoltaic collectors has gone down so much, and the efficiency of units has increased to such a level, that the proposition was not only feasible, but the school would save up to $8 million in electricity costs over the 20-year life of the project.
After months of cost analysis and negotiations with project partner SolarCity, which will construct the PV arrays and sell the electricity back to the college, work began earlier this month on the 15,000 solar panels, an installation that represents the largest known on any campus in New England and one of the largest in the Northeast.
It’s a groundbreaking development in many respects — again, Hampshire is the first residential college in the U.S. to go 100% solar — but it has been, and will continue to be a learning experience on many levels, in keeping with the school’s mission.
“The whole experience of reviewing proposals, shaping the contract, choosing where on our campus we were willing to put solar collectors, affirming the size of it and the ambition to go 100% solar, challenging and re-challenging the question ‘can you really do this in snow country?’ — students were involved in every step of that,” Lash explained, adding that this experience will serve them well.
“Students who have participated in this process and done this analysis, are going to go into the world really well prepared for answering the questions that society will need answered,” he went on. “If you take a highly entrepreneurial group of students who are already independent-minded and you give them this experience, they’re in a very good place.”
And moving forward, the installation can, and should, become both a classroom and an inspiration to those outside the institution who want to learn from it, he went on.
“Over the next 20 years, this is going to become a compelling environmental, but also business and technological question,” he explained. “The question of how we organize ourselves to provide low-carbon electricity will be central to the country.”
Which means he expects even more visitors to find their way to the Amherst campus in the years to come.
Already, many have come to take in the Kern Center, he explained, adding that he is one of many who will give tours to those representing institutions such as Yale Divinity School, which is contemplating a village of buildings with similar credentials.
“Three or four other universities have come to look, and other nonprofits that were thinking of building something but thought this was out of their reach have toured and realized it’s not out of their reach,” he explained. “You can watch when people come in the building and begin to look around and understand what it says and what it does — it influences them.”
And he expects the same will happen with the solar installations.
Study in Progressive Thinking
As one traverses the long driveway to the campus off Route 116, one sees meadows on both sides of the road — and for a reason; actually several of them.
“We don’t see why we should use the thousands of gallons of gasoline necessary to keep all that as lawn,” Lash explained. “But it also creates a habitat for an incredible number of birds and other creatures, and our science students study that.”
Thus, those meadows become yet another example of the school’s unique approach to learning, as stated earlier — that section in the fact sheet about ‘engaging in a variety of learning activities and environments that challenge their creativity, problem-solving, and discovery of ideas and meaning.’
Today, there are more such environments, with others, especially the solar installations, now taking shape on the campus. They both exemplify and inspire those traits for which the school’s students and alums are noted — entrepreneurship and a desire to not stop learning.
And they are textbook examples, in every sense of the word, of how this experiment in higher education is adding new dimensions to its mission, uniqueness, and commitment to sustainability.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com