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Acknowledging Traumatic Six Months, Incoming Hampshire College President Looks Forward

A man stands behind a podium with a Hampshire College logo in a wooden structure
Josh Landes
Hampshire College President Ed Wingenbach addresses reporters in the college's Red Barn

Hampshire College introduced its new president today, at a critical moment in the college’s history.

Ed Wingenbach, 49, addressed reporters at the liberal arts college’s Amherst, Massachusetts campus just minutes after officially signing on.

“I am coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education," said the new president. "There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

Hampshire offers around 1,300 students an unconventional undergraduate degree that eschews grades for evaluations and offers an open-ended approach to learning.

“If you look at the things that Hampshire has done as an experimenting college, things that were invented or perfected here, the things like capstone research requirements for all students, inquiry based learning, problem based learning, student centered programs, student designed programs, faculty staff research, and the idea that an education should be entrepreneurial," listed Wingenbach.

As the college approaches its 50th anniversary in 2020, its efforts to confront declining enrollment and fiscal troubles have been chaotic. Though the college has a $52 million endowment, it is 90 percent reliant on tuition.  In April, Miriam “Mim” Nelson resigned as president after less than a year after her plan to pursue a strategic partnership for the college produced protest from faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Wingenbach acknowledged the toll that fears of the college’s dissolution, staff layoffs, and its decision to not admit a full class this fall have wrought.

“There has been a lot of trauma here," said Wingenbach. "This has been a very hard six months to a year. And part of engaging people is recognizing that, both within the community, but also I guess we’re also talking to the public. It doesn’t change that fact that this is a hard year and people have struggled. So we recognize that, and then say, well, now we’re going to continue to struggled but we’re going to do something constructive about it.”

Wingenbach comes to Hampshire after six months as acting president of Ripon College in Wisconsin. He declined to label the decision to not admit a full fall class a mistake.

“Whether it was a mistake or not a mistake, the response of the alumni and the community of people who care about Hampshire College and their immediate mobilization and their willingness to give of their time and their treasure was pretty remarkable and made it clear pretty quickly that we can support a class and we can stay open and we can thrive," he said.

The college says it’s raised $9 million in donations since February. Wingenbach acknowledged that it must reevaluate its cost structure, including the possibility of raising tuition.

Asked about the college’s ability to calm its accreditors at the New England Commission of Higher Education amidst the turmoil, Wingenbach said he had no concerns.

“I have a lot of experience with accreditation," he told reporters. "I think it was one of the things that people were interested in here. I was in charge of reaccreditation at the University of Redlands when it was successfully reaccredited in 2010. One of my first tasks at Ripon was the mid-cycle accreditation with HLC, I successfully lead them through that. I’ve been on visit teams, so I know the accreditation process from the inside and the outside.”

Wingenbach identified reexamining the college’s cost structure, building on fundraising, and working with the campus community on its reinvention as among his priorities. He also underscored the importance of communicating Hampshire’s core values to a new generation of potential students.

“You want to ask your own questions, you want to direct your own learning, you’re ambitious and engaged and curious, you want to spent four years around other ambitious engaged curious students and you want to work with faculty as a peer as you learn and produce projects, and you want to do things that are going to go out and impact on the world, and that education is going to be activist?" asked Wingenbach. "Well, not everybody wants that. But a lot of people do.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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