Hampshire College Students React To An Uncertain Future
As Hampshire College grapples with its financial future, its student body is speaking out.
On Friday, the Hampshire College board of trustees voted to only admit early decision students and already enrolled gap-year students for the Fall 2019 semester. Citing legal pressures and financial insecurity, the school’s administration says it must find a “long-term strategic partner that can help [it] achieve a sustainable future.”
The Hampshire Board of Trustees said in a statement, “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.”
Surrounded by farm fields and woods just off Route 116 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Hampshire has a student body of around 1,300.
Since news of the college’s plans emerged in mid-January, students have occupied buildings, organized teach-ins, and communicated their concerns to the administration.
“Through deliberation with members of the Hampshire College community, we have come to the conclusion that making a decision about admitting a class for the Fall of 2019 today is a failure on the part of the Hampshire Senior Administration and the Board of Trustees,” said Sarahi Silva, a fourth-year student studying international political economy and Latin American studies. They’re reading from a statement issued by five groups: Students of Under-Represented Cultures and Ethnicities, Coalition of Students Affected by Ableism, Student Advocacy Network, Student Workers, and Members of the Student Body:
“We would like to make it clear that our constituency has never opposed the movement toward finding a sustainable financial path but rather, we have pushed for material evidence of collective decision-making through increased student, staff, and faculty inclusion in the planning process,” continued Silva.
The statement accuses the college’s senior administration including President Mim Nelson of hypocrisy and corrupting the school’s ideology.
“President Nelson obscured important details about Hampshire’s path toward fiscal sustainability," read Silva. "These details were shared only two weeks prior to the Early Decision admissions deadline, leaving staff, faculty, and students without adequate information, representation, and time to work through the process of finding a merger for the future for Hampshire College. As an institution that prides itself on, and directly profits off of, the language and unique philosophy of shared governance, this is unacceptable.”
“People are very, very afraid. I think we’re all afraid, especially those of us who aren’t graduating this year or next year," said Naia Tenerowicz. She's a second-year student who studies community organizing toward building peaceful communities with the arts and creative expression.
“We found out that the first wave of layoffs for staff, those staff will be notified February 15th," said Tenerowicz. "And those layoffs will go into effect April 15th.”
She says the faculty and staff have formed a crisis committee with six representatives from each group, and that students have pushed for that committee to be represented in the deliberations of the school’s senior administration.
“This is something that’s happening this semester, right now," Tenerowicz told WAMC. "This is something that’s affecting their livelihoods and our education and we were not given any input at all. They said that they would listen to our input, and they really didn’t. And that’s what this is about, the fact that we are not being represented in our governance structure.”
“There’s this word ‘transparency,’ that I don’t love – because everyone uses it and everyone seems to mean something different when they say it," laughed Memphis Washington. She's from New York City. Washington entered the school in the fall of 2017, and studies environmental science and archives.
“It’s just more about the fact that we were promised a certain amount of horizontality in decision making here that considered the entirety of the community, which includes students, staff, faculty, as well as our senior leadership like our president and the board of trustees, and we did not see that,” she told WAMC.
Washington, 20, is a resident advisor in a first-year dorm. She said she never imagined herself in this position.
“What it has been is in some ways responding to the uncertainty and we can say panic of people who just started at the school, and who are sort of unfamiliar with the breach in trust and process that this sort of reveals and who don’t really know how to move forward with things – while yourself not really knowing what’s going on," said Washington. "It’s been trying to reassure people when you have no one to reassure you.”
Media liaisons from the organized student groups tell WAMC they plan to continue protesting the board’s vote.
Below is the full statement Silva read selections from above:
Regarding the February 1st Deadline to Admit a Hampshire Class for the Fall of 2019
Board Members, Trustees, and affiliated concerned with the future of Hampshire College
Through deliberation with members of the Hampshire College community, we have come to the conclusion that making a decision about admitting a class for the Fall of 2019 today is a failure on the part of the Hampshire Senior Administration and the Board of Trustees.
We believe that the community-involved decision-making model promised to us has been deeply compromised by the lack of transparency and conversation surrounding the financial and structural issues that the college is facing. This includes the Board of Trustees’ self-imposed deadline to announce the decision.
We would like to make it clear that our constituency has never opposed the movement toward finding a sustainable financial path but rather, we have pushed for material evidence of collective decision-making through increased student, staff, and faculty inclusion in the planning process. The goals and demands of these groups have been misinterpreted and/or dismissed by the senior leadership, and this has taken a toll on establishing a line of communication with the entire board.
We believe that President Nelson’s announcement for a merger did not allow for open lines of communication such that the Hampshire community would be informed in a timely manner. This made it clear to us that the administration does not respect the representative democracy they chose to be a part of. The discussion around securing Hampshire’s future began prior to President Nelson’s appointment. Despite this, staff, faculty, and students, were notified at the same time on January 15th demonstrating the lack of information moving between the president and faculty, staff, and students.
President Nelson obscured important details about Hampshire’s path toward fiscal sustainability. These details were shared only two weeks prior to the Early Decision admissions deadline, leaving staff, faculty, and students without adequate information, representation, and time to work through the process of finding a merger for the future for Hampshire College. As an institution that prides itself on, and directly profits off of, the language and unique philosophy of shared governance, this is unacceptable. To know is not enough.
While we appreciate the efforts on the part of the administration to secure Hampshire’s financial future, we must highlight the hypocrisy in the desire to sustain the colleges investments while ignoring the needs of its students. Over the past 4 years, we have observed a slow degradation of the ideals Hampshire claims to defend (i.e. anti-racism, representative democracy etc…). When students have spoken out and taken action in the form of demonstrations, occupations, and direct discussions with the administration and our constituents, we have been dismissed as disrespectful and idealistic.
The current political context makes it especially necessary for us to make space for unconventional schools like Hampshire College. The nuanced conversations with faculty, staff, and alums have proven that we, amongst ourselves, have found a way to practice a distributive governance dialogue and hope the administration will follow suit. We have hope that the board is at least considering that this decision will have an impact not just on Hampshire college and our community but will set a precedent for liberal arts colleges across the US. We demand voting rights for the staff and faculty crisis committee, as well as a delay in the decision on whether or not to admit a class for the fall of 2019.
Constituents of SOURCE (Students of Under-Represented Cultures and Ethnicities), COSA (Coalition of Students Affected by Ableism), SAN (Student Advocacy Network), Student Workers, and Members of the Student Body