Change in the Making
A few years after it almost merged with another institution, President Ed Wingenbach understands that Hampshire College isn’t out of the woods yet. But he believes the fight to rebuild the college’s brand and attract more students to the school is worth it, because he believes in Hampshire’s unique model.
“People care deeply about Hampshire and didn’t want to see it become sold off to somebody else that surely wouldn’t let Hampshire do what Hampshire does,” he said. “We’re getting more and more creative ways of connecting students with urgent challenges in ways that I think are really transformative for them.”
In 2019, Hampshire’s budget was “out of alignment,” Wingenbach explained, because enrollment was declining after a boom period from 2008 to 2013. The school had bumped up its budget to align with previous enrollment numbers, but soon was facing financial struggles when that enrollment wasn’t maintained.
With a structural deficit, Wingenbach’s predecessor, Miriam Nelson, decided a merger would be the best answer. During that period of time, she decided not to accept an entering class for the fall of 2019; only 13 new students enrolled that fall. Students staged a 75-day sit-in in her office when the merger plans were announced.
“That created a significant enrollment problem, because that goes for several years,” Wingenbach said. “So we’ve been rebuilding the enrollment and have adjusted all of our operating expenses to the point where, as we recover enrollment, we will eventually reach financial sustainability.”
Hampshire College currently has more than 500 students, and once the number is back at 1,100 to 1,200 students in a couple of years, Wingenbach said, enrollment revenues will match expenses. Until it reaches that point of sustainability, the college is spending more than it’s bringing in to provide the environment and resources students need.
That was the impetus behind launching Change in the Making, a five-year capital campaign to raise $60 million for operating support. Wingenbach told BusinessWest that higher-education campaigns are often aimed at building endowments, restricting the funds to particular purposes.
“We’re getting more and more creative ways of connecting students with urgent challenges in ways that I think are really transformative for them.”
“This is a campaign for operating support,” he went on. “We’re saying to people, ‘what we’re doing matters — you care about Hampshire College, you want to support the experiments that we engage in, you want to support the students that we have, you want us to be an independent institution, so what we need right now is direct support to our operating budget. So help us get to that point.’”
What Is Hampshire College?
Hampshire College was founded by its four sister colleges — UMass Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College — to be an experimenting institution. The idea was to figure out what higher education should be trying to do to make learning and work student-centered.
The college allows students to design their own curriculum; that means there are no standard majors or programs. The students decide what they want to study and how they want to study it by putting together a set of classes that will best fit their goal. There are also no grades given, just narrative evaluations.
Wingenbach equated the student evaluation to an employee evaluation on the job. It is a detailed narrative of what they did well, where the student needs to improve, and what the next steps should be for their education.
“Our mission is to transform higher education, to always try to figure out what people should be doing at other colleges, to adopt bits and pieces of that.”
Recently, that has meant shifting the way course work is offered so that students build their course of study around four “distinct, urgent challenges,” Wingenbach explained. Specifically, faculty teach half of each course around one of four shared questions the college has chosen to focus on:
• What is our responsibility in the face of a changing climate?
• How do we understand truth in a post-truth era?
• How can creative processes address trauma, whether historical, collective, or contemporary?
• How can we disrupt and dismantle white supremacy?
These questions serve as organizing principles for the curriculum in which students build their own course of study. Each one of the questions is cross-disciplinary, meaning one question can apply to many fields of study.
Wingenbach believes the point of a liberal-arts education is to prepare a student for a world in which they can’t know what’s coming.
“I mean, the jobs the students graduating next year are most interested in didn’t exist 10 years ago, 15 years ago. That will be true 10 years from now,” he said. “So to give students the experience of working with ambiguity and building and making sense of things while they’re students, rather than having a path laid out for them, part of the job is making sure they think like an entrepreneur.”
And that’s where the Change in the Making campaign comes in.
When Wingenbach stepped into the role of president in the summer of 2019, he knew the brand and identity of Hampshire College needed to be re-established.
It needed to grow enrollment, but also to inspire people who care about the college to support and nurture its role as an innovator in higher education. And both efforts have found success; enrollment has been growing dramatically with each entering class, and so have the donations and gifts sponsors are giving to the college.
The campaign has taken in $39 million in pledges and payments, and Wingenbach said that’s right on track to hit the $60 million goal. That includes several seven-figure gifts, including a recent gift from alumnus Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm. With the campaign seeing plenty of success with a large base of small donors, too, Wingenbach is confident in the model set up to get Hampshire College to the $60 million mark in the next two years.
“Part of what will help us is that success breeds success, so as we continue to attract large-figure donations as we have over the last couple of years, other people who are engaged with Hampshire look at that and think, ‘OK, this is worth supporting, and we’re getting farther away from the events of 2019. It’s looking like this is actually working.’”
He hopes that, following the example of a “savvy entrepreneur” like Hirshberg, others will donate and support the future success of the college. And he was proud to note that almost all of the $39 million has been raised remotely.
“We’re not out of COVID, but we’re coming out of people’s reluctance to meet in person. Now I’ve got this time to start doing more in-person fundraising, and I think that’s going to help as well.”
Invested in Success
Wingenbach believes students go to college for two reasons: to prepare for a successful life after college and because they want to engage in meaningful work.
The best way to prepare for meaningful work, he noted, is to engage in it during the undergraduate years, and to organize the college experience around collecting the tools, resources, and knowledge a student will need to face those challenges after graduation.
“When students direct their own education, they are more deeply invested in it, and they know why they’re doing it, so they tend to do better, higher-quality work,” he explained. “We know from research into how students learn and what’s most effective that the more engaged a student is, and the more control they have over what they’re doing while they’re in college, the more successful they are. To turn all of that responsibility and opportunity over to the student, it makes for a much more powerful education.”