At Hampshire College, a Fight to Survive
‘Turmoil’ was already the best word to describe the scene at Hampshire College. And then things got even worse — maybe — with the resignation of president Miriam Nelson (it was announced April 5) and several board members over the past few weeks.
The college is now being led by one of its founders, Ken Rosenthal, and its future is cluttered by even more question marks than there were just a month ago — if that’s possible.
But even as the chaos has escalated, troubled Hampshire, facing huge deficits resulting from sharp declines in enrollment, seems to be in a better place.
We’ll explain. For months, Nelson talked of forging some kind of partnership with another college or university, something akin to arrangements that have helped rescue some other smaller private institutions.
When BusinessWest spoke with Nelson several weeks ago, she talked enthusiastically about finding a partner that could help provide some financial stability but also enable the college to retain some form of independence and still be, well, Hampshire College.
We listened to what she was saying, but with a great deal of skepticism. How could there be a partnership in which Hampshire remained the proudly alternative school that it has been for the past half-century? The quick answer is that there couldn’t be such a partnership.
The students on campus could see this. Alums could see this. Parents of students could see this. That’s why Nelson’s plans were received with not only skepticism but criticism and anger.
As she resigned, she said she had become a distraction from the “important work to establish a sustainable financial model for the school.” And in many ways, she had, although, to be fair, she inherited a serious problem for which there are no easy answers.
Her decisions to seek a partner and later not to accept a full class for next fall polarized the campus in some respects, but it also unified in one important way, we believe.
And that is that some form of consensus may have emerged — that saving a college isn’t the mission here; saving Hampshire College is the mission. There is still some division over what needs to be done, but it seems clear that most students and alums would prefer that, if Hampshire is to survive, it is to survive as an independent institution pledged to continue its unique style and operating flavor.
This was the vote taken by the board of trustees as they were also voting to install Rosenthal as interim president.
Whether the school can raise the money it will take to remain independent and continue operating remains to be seen. The deficits are large, and the problems facing Hampshire and other small private schools are very real.
But it seems that the school and its trustees are resolved to doing things the ‘Hampshire way,’ for lack of a better term, and thus there is perhaps reason for a little optimism amid all this turmoil.