Hampshire College announced Friday night that it will admit as new students for the fall only those who were admitted early decision or were admitted last year and deferred enrollment for a year. Beyond those groups, the college will not admit new students.
Two weeks ago, the college announced that it would decide by Feb. 1 whether to admit new students. The college cited serious economic challenges making it unsure that it could provide a full four-year college experience to new students. The college also announced at that time that it was seeking partnerships that might allow Hampshire to continue in some form.
For nearly 50 years, Hampshire has operated as a college where students could lead their own educations, without the constraints of traditional departments. But last month’s announcement said that the model was not working financially.
The students that Hampshire said it would enroll include 41 who were admitted early decision and another 36 who deferred enrollment a year ago. But Hampshire has released early-decision applicants from their pledge to enroll if admitted, so it is unclear how many will enroll. A typical class of new students at Hampshire in recent years has been about 300.
It may be difficult for Hampshire to hold on to the early-decision admits, even if they are committed personally to the college and its approach to education. One parent of such a student wrote on Facebook that the letter from Hampshire said “only guaranteed enrollment for one semester, fall 2019. No parent in their right mind could support that.” A spokesman for the college said that officials hoped to provide a full education to such students. But he confirmed that the college was telling early-decision admits that only one semester was assured. “In the spirit of consumer protection expected by the state and our accreditors, the college felt it had to account to accepted students and their families that they’ll be enrolling to Hampshire facing some uncertainty and that their Hampshire experience will be fluid and changing, so yes we provided them that as a possible scenario,” he said via email. (Other colleges may gain students who would have gone to Hampshire. See article in Admissions Insider.)
In explaining the outcome on Friday, board leaders wrote to the campus that “we reached our decisions after considering many factors, including heartfelt and passionate discussions with the wider Hampshire community. The board believes in Hampshire. We believe Hampshire holds a special place in higher education, now and into the future. We believe that by enrolling a small fall 2019 class of early decision and gap-year students, the college will continue to be an experimenting and dynamic environment as we proceed with our plans for a partnership. The students who enroll this fall will benefit from the rigors and joys of the Hampshire experience.”
A college spokesman said that there was no information available on possible partnerships.
The board leaders’ statement said that “there were multiple, complex issues that had to be considered in making this decision, including … our moral and ethical obligation to the students whom we had already accepted as well as to our current students, and … state of Massachusetts higher education regulations and the college’s accreditation.”
The board statement pledged to support current students, but noted difficult times ahead for many employees.
“To our current students: We continue to be committed to supporting you on your academic path until you complete your education here. We’ll provide the advising, guidance, and the resources you need,” the statement said. “To our faculty and staff: We recognize there will be inevitable hardship as we move forward. We have charged the senior leadership team with developing plans — as swiftly as possible, to minimize uncertainty — to treat every employee with dignity and respect through this transition.”
Anger From Students and Alumni
On social media, many students and alumni criticized the board’s decision. Some saw the move effectively eliminating the chance for the college to survive as an independent institution, given the expected drop in total enrollment. Many others said that they were bothered by the short time frame (essentially two weeks) given by the college for alumni to raise money and contribute ideas on a path forward. Many said that it was antithetical to Hampshire’s traditions to have such important questions decided without votes of students and faculty members.
“It’s not the specifics of the decision I take issue with — it’s how the decision was made,” wrote one alumna on Facebook. “Hampshire College’s leadership has strayed far from our community’s values of transparency, accountability, and collective decision-making. We’ve always had to chart our own path, and the only way we can do that is to work together. The President and Board of Trustees have to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk — or resign and make space for those who can.”
A coalition of student groups issued an open letter to the board, just prior to the announcement of admitting only a small new class, calling on trustees to hold off on such a decision. Making the decision on Friday was “a failure,” the letter said.
Further, it urged the college’s board to do everything possible to preserve Hampshire. “The current political context makes it especially necessary for us to make space for unconventional schools like Hampshire College,” the letter said.
Campaigning for a New Class
In the days leading up to the decision, alumni and other supporters campaigned for a new class to be admitted. Some argued that the college hadn’t given supporters enough time to raise money or take other action to support its future — and that trustees should vote to accept an incoming class or put off the decision until more fund-raising efforts could be completed. More than 2,100 signed a petition calling for a decision-making process that would be more transparent and involve faculty and staff members. Students protested and staged sit-ins.
Supporters wrote about their own experiences at Hampshire and the college’s unique history. Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that when he enrolled in 1972, his father was angry enough to stop speaking to him. But Krakauer wrote glowingly of academics at the college.
“Creative problem solving was emphasized,” he wrote. “Our professors encouraged us to consider the big picture and the long view, and embrace risk as a life strategy. Failing spectacularly in pursuit of an ambitious goal was thought to be salutary, and the shellacking instilled some humility. Whatever success I’ve had is rooted in those lessons.”
Krakauer went on to detail how Hampshire has no majors and awards no grades. Instead, he wrote, each student devises his or her own course of study, and “attaining a bachelor’s degree might require four years of study, or six. Or three, for that matter.”
Hampshire was and is “too avant-garde” for many prospective students, Krakauer wrote. Still, its alumni include Ken Burns, the filmmaker, actors Lupita Nyong’o and Liev Schreiber, economist Heather Boushey, and theoretical physicist Lee Smolin.
Krakauer called the University of Massachusetts at Amherst “perhaps the best fit” as a merger partner. It is part of the Five College Consortium that allows students to take classes or use resources from any of its members. But a merger would lead to staff and faculty job losses, and there is “emphatic disagreement” with President Miriam Nelson’s actions, according to the author.
“Hampshire’s iconoclastic educational model is widely admired and deservedly praised,” he wrote. “Given what lies ahead, however, it is not at all clear how much of the Hampshire philosophy — to say nothing of the Hampshire soul — will survive.”
The college posted information addressing some of the concerns. A majority of its board members, 21 of 29, are alumni. A quarter are or have been parents of Hampshire students, and a faculty, staff and student trustee are all voting members of the board.
On Jan. 23, leaders on the Board of Trustees had written in support of Nelson, calling the moment pivotal for the college.
“We write to the entire Hampshire community today to say we’re confident in Hampshire’s future and in the prospect that we’ll be able to preserve, in any partnership, what we revere about this institution — its singular educational model — while addressing our long-term financial challenges,” they wrote.