On Tuesday, January 15, I received a message from Hampshire College president Miriam (Mim) Nelson with the subject line “Important Message from Hampshire College.” In it, Mim wrote of “our intent to find a long-term partner that can help us achieve a thriving and sustainable future for Hampshire” and said “As we embark on this process we’re also carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall.” (See additional FAQ.) [Edited to add, new FAQ, 1/21/19]
What? I was aware, of course, that Hampshire’s endowment is paltry compared to the other schools in the Five College consortium (Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and UMass), and that Hampshire tends to produce alumni with strong dedication to social justice causes; we’re more likely to become scientists, teachers, or documentarians than investment bankers. Thus, in addition to having a much smaller alumni base than many other liberal arts schools (Hampshire was founded in 1970), the alumni it does have don’t have the deepest pockets.
I forwarded the e-mail to some fellow alums, two of whom immediately and independently made the same joke(?) about Hampshire being acquired by Amazon. More likely, we thought, we’d be folded into UMass somehow, but there hasn’t been any indication of that. (Amherst’s president Biddy Martin released a statement saying, “I hope it will be possible for Hampshire to identify a positive way forward for its community and the greater good. The college has a valuable history of experimentation in teaching and learning and a longstanding relationship with our college.” ‘K, thanks. Smith’s president, Kathleen McCarthy, released a statement that said even less.)
News outlets picked up the story quickly; I saw it in Inside Higher Ed, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. The Globe ran a more detailed piece about the history of the college on January 19, “Protests, Frisbees, and Deep Thinking – Hampshire College Has Carved an Offbeat Path.”
The news also galvanized discussion in the Hampshire Alumni Facebook group, which also includes some current Hampshire staff (they graduated from Hampshire and now work there). No one has much more information, except that enrollment has been falling slightly – a problem many small liberal arts colleges are facing, as demographics change and high school graduating classes are smaller – and tuition is expensive. This is also true of many other schools, but Hampshire is particularly sensitive to even small fluctuations because its endowment can’t provide much of a cushion.
There are complaints about the PR, and how the announcement was made, but there have also been sensible responses to those complaints: chiefly, that the president and the board are being honest about Hampshire’s financial situation and are being proactive in seeking out a “strategic partner” now. Also, accepting an incoming class when it’s uncertain that Hampshire will be the same in four years necessities consideration from an ethics standpoint. (It’s true there have also been personal remarks and conspiracy theories. I don’t see a reason not to take Mim and the board at face value; the idea that anyone is working to bring down the college from within is ludicrous.)
I don’t believe there is one single perfect college for anyone; if you’re college-bound, there are probably plenty of places, or at least more than one, where you can learn and thrive and be happy. There are a lot of things that I learned and experienced at Hampshire that I would have found elsewhere too: meeting people from different places and backgrounds, discovering new music, exploring a different area of the country, maybe even frisbee (yes, I played ultimate) and slam poetry.
Any good education introduces you to new ideas and encourages you to remain open-minded enough to accept them; any good education should prod you to think critically, dig deeper, do your own research, question the answers, question authority. I don’t know the extent to which other schools do this, as I didn’t go to them (except, I did take classes at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and UMass; all Five College students can take classes at any of the other colleges, and I definitely took advantage of this. Those classes were academically rigorous – mostly – but more straightforward, more like high school).
Here’s what I got at Hampshire that I don’t think I would have gotten elsewhere: I learned to take the initiative and be persistent – good qualities to have in a job search or when doing a job. I learned to make connections where there didn’t at first appear to be any, and that I didn’t necessarily have to narrow my field of study if I could just make these connections; my thesis combined literature, history, and photography. I learned that I could write a thesis over 100 pages long, guided by a committee chair who mostly listened, then asked the crucial one or two questions that guided my next week’s worth of work (thank you, Aaron Berman).
I also met such interesting people who were incredibly passionate about what they were studying. No one had to jump through hoops for two years before they got to learn about what they were really interested in; you started right away. In high school, lunch conversation might be about the homework for this class or that, but at Hampshire, no one was ever doing the same thing: one person was studying math so far beyond my comprehension that now I just remember it had something to do with shapes (maybe?); someone else was welding metal in the shop; someone was building bicycles (and that wasn’t a class, that was just on the side); someone was taking a trip to the desert to study some kind of lichen(?) that grew on the rocks there; someone was writing, directing, and starring in a play; someone was studying the history of the AIDS crisis; someone built a telescope.
So I’m not surprised that “two-thirds of our graduates earn advanced degrees. And even as the world knows us by the success of our distinguished alums in the arts, the National Science Foundation ranks us among the top fifty schools whose graduates receive a PhD in science or engineering.” Hampshire students are intelligent, determined, fierce, funny, political, passionate. We’re curious in more than one sense of the word. (Yes, we also play frisbee and wear tie-dye and have all the hippie bumper stickers. I can always recognize a Hampshire car). But as Sig Roos, Hampshire alum and past board chairman, said in the Globe piece, “It seems like a time politically when people should be beating Hampshire’s door down to get in.”
Hampshire turns out problem solvers, free thinkers, people who have found their voices; in other words, precisely what the world needs right now.
All photos in this post were taken by me during my years as a student at Hampshire, 2003-2007.
Updated 1/27/19: See also “Cost Disease, the Demographic Cliff, and Hampshire College“