THE FULL EXCHANGE BETWEEN JEFFREY SONNENFELD OF YALE’S SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT AND JOHN COURTMANCHE, MEDIA RELATIONS DIRECTOR AT HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE
On February 27, 2019, Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, Lester Crown Professor of Leadership Practice and Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies at Yale University’s School of Management, wrote a commentary on the crisis at Hampshire College for Fortune magazine. The College pushed back on February 28, and then Dean Sonnenfeld responded via email on March 1. On March 13, Sonnenfeld wrote an OpEd piece to the Gazette in response to the paper’s story about the Public Relations firms retained by the administration.
As a service to all, I am posting here the full text of this exchange, with the most recent documents first.
March 13, 2019
Ms. Brooke Hauser, Editor in chief, The Hampshire Gazette
Mr. Dan Crowley Managing Local News Editor, The Hampshire Gazette
Dear Ms. Hauser and Mr. Crowley:
I would like to briefly address your insightful, lively piece from earlier this week by Dusty Christensen entitled "Crafting a Message: The Powerhouse PR and Lobbying Firm behind Hampshire’s Media Strategy." I admire the bold investigative work of The Gazette in obtaining the startling concealed plans contained in the private emails of Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson and her significant miscues with her distinguished fellow Five College Consortia presidents. I also admire this background piece on the school's messaging efforts, thus I do not criticize the piece itself. However, I would like to correct a misstatement in the piece attributed to a Hampshire College communications official.
The piece revealed the brilliant trio of public relations whizzes behind Hampshire College’s current leadership image within its community, before prospective students, and among national educators. These talented communicators included John Buckley, CEO of Subject Matter, whom Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson identified in a revealing trove of secret emails as the head of “our stellar WDC public relations firm. The article also identified Chief Creative Officer David Gibson as another architect of the school's imaginative communications campaign along with spokesman John Courtmanche, who, of course, was the actual public voice for their artful messaging. These three spin-meisters and their client President Nelson apparently resented my recent critical FORTUNE piece and posted an accusatory open letter to me on the school's website. Sadly, they seem to have been too busy to model good faith and post my extensive reply to their detailed seven questions - which I had promptly emailed back to them. Happily, various websites by Hampshire College community loyalists have posted my response such as https://campaignforhampshire.org/documents and https://www.facebook.com/savehampshire/posts/2638256226200995.
Mr. Courmanche explained that he and his team decided to attack my commentary on published reports of school events because "We were outraged by the notion that a Yale professor would snipe at Hampshire at its moment of pain, and even use his commentary to promote his consulting conference." Let me thus reassure your readers that Mr. Courmanche misinformed them regarding the nature of our programs, presuming he was accurately quoted. These non-profit educational programs at Yale University are not "consulting conferences" in need of promotion and certainly not at the expense of his controversial new boss. Furthermore, "snipes" are not an accurate term to describe critiques of leadership pathologies and instructive governance case analyses.
Over the past 40 years of studying leadership and governance, I frequently have published commentaries on abuses of power and governance failures across sectors while also celebrating outstanding leadership when merited. Sometimes these pieces trigger retaliatory snipes from the flacks of defensive but silent bosses. Regardless, these commentaries do not drive enrollment in our educational programs – which have no registration fees or consulting components. We also do no marketing to promote these programs which, over thirty years, have still drawn thousands of top leaders across sectors including several hundred college and university presidents along with board chairs as gratis participants. It is a pity that President Nelson was too busy plotting with her communications magicians to join such forums offering just the needed peer-driven wisdom which may have benefited her in new job and her present crisis of trust.
Thanks for your consideration of my above comments,
Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld
Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies
Lester Crown Professor of Leadership Practice
Yale School of Management
P.O. Box 208200 | 165 Whitney Ave.
New Haven, CT 06520-8200 | 06511
Phone: (203) 432-5955
Fax: (203) 436-9277
1. March 1, 2019: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld's rebuttal to objections raised by John Courtmanche, Media Relations Director at Hampshire College, to Sonnenfeld’s Fortune piece.
Dear Mr. Courtmanche:
I appreciate your thoughtful, detailed letter and the attention you have given to my FORTUNE opinion piece. Since you also immediately posted your private inquiries as a public letter on your website https://www.hampshire.edu/news/2019/02/28/letter-inresponse-to-fortune-magazine-commentary, I hope you will post my replies to your questions alongside the showcasing of your questions. While entitled to my expert opinion and interpretation of events, I have responded below to all items where you perceive the facts differently.
Of course the letters of the presidents of Amherst College and Mount Holyoke College, President Nelson's Five College Consortia peers, strongly refute the credibility of President Nelson's positions, highlighting her apparent effort to draw them into her plan to conceal a proposed merger with UMass. The forced disclosure of President Nelson's private emails and covert actions are quite disturbing to all Hampshire constituents, as I have learned in the voluminous supportive emails I have received. More uplifting, however, may be the perspectives of other peer college presidents who have contacted me with their own first hand knowledge of such a situation.
In fact, consider the private words of the successful current president of a resilient small liberal arts college:
"Hampshire College is a venerable institution. The recent decision was unbelievably ham handed, and anyone wanting to know the catastrophic cost of such bungled attempt should call us — we've been there.
The financial challenge Hampshire faced wasn't at all insurmountable — and the obvious solution to the challenge would have been to recalibrate its academic profile and its budget. Why that was not done is the damnable mystery you are trying to solve in your article."
Doesn't that say it all? If not, I have typed in blue, my more specific replies. Again, I hope you do post my replies to your posted questions.
Finally, regarding your generous offer of an interview with President Nelson, I do not believe that would make sense. Hampshire College must solve the set of problems it now has. I do not have a role in that, and I cannot divert the time from my Yale duties to serve as the consultant and facilitator for a much needed intervention, which should include many other valuable perspectives, including alumni, faculty and student leaders, past top administrators and others. (I would recommend the engagement of such national experts in non-profit leadership, governance and strategy overhauls as Paul Rosenberg or Jeff Bradich at Bridgespan.)
Please keep in mind that I am not the source of President Nelson's profound loss of credibility with her own constituents and peers. Her ability to reestablish that needed credibility with her constituents and peers is contingent on how well she engages with them in candid, informative, respectful ways. Attacking me does not advance progress on that all-important mission.
Dear Dean Sonnenfeld,
I'm writing in response to your Fortune commentary yesterday to offer you an interview with Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson and one or more trustees of the College. I was surprised to see that you published an essay about their leadership decisions without attempting even to ask any questions of them to confirm and clarify the realities informing their decisions. I believe if you had taken the time to engage them to discuss and try to understand the College's challenges and options, that would have helped you avoid some misleading, harmful errors in your essay, such as:
1. Hampshire did not, as you state, eliminate either its admissions or development offices. Hampshire announced layoffs this month of nine employees including seven from admissions and two employees from its development office. Nearly all of the development office is currently intact and working to support major giving to the College. For reference see https://www.hampshire.edu/news/2019/02/19/february-19-2019-a-most-difficult-day
There are two revenue centers at this school, the Admissions Office and the Development Office. It is effectively elimination when the number one and number two development officers were terminated with no search for their successors, and when the seven admissions recruiters were terminated just as the current term of the admissions dean expires. Administrative staffers are not senior development officers. Prominent wealthy alumni tell me they are not being solicited. The current dean of admissions, Kristina Moss Gudrun Gunnarsdottir was appointed in mid-2017 for a two year term by the prior president Johnathan Lash to allow the new president to conduct a search for her own admissions dean during her first year. There is no public evidence of a search underway and isn't Ms. Gunnarsdottir scheduled to depart after this spring? Do you have other evidence of a different plan than this?
2. In your essay you claim the majority of faculty voted no confidence in Hampshire's leadership. I hope you can be assured of a direct, accurate source for this statement because the faculty never publicly reported any results of its vote last week before that vote was invalidated on both technical and procedural grounds. This week, Hampshire's faculty overwhelmingly voted to table a vote of no confidence, on Tuesday, February 26, 2019, and also announced optimism at progress in their discussions with leadership. See https://www.gazettenet.com/Hampshire-College-faculty-table-vote-of-no-confidence-incollege-leadership-23769480
It was widely reported that a no confidence vote was taken. Faculty sources have told me that no confidence was the majority of those voting and the favorable sentiment towards taking this vote. I also said that the faculty vote was invalidated on procedural issues. One may conclude that the school's leadership would not have sought to invalidate the vote had it been favorable to the leadership.
3. You state that President Nelson is "pretending" to be leading an open search for alternative solutions to Hampshire's challenges. Essentially you're accusing President Nelson of lying about considering options, without citing any facts or sources. In fact she is actively leading an open search for options for solutions and has had direct contact with dozens of leaders of colleges and universities.
As reported on Public Radio and your local newspaper, the Hampshire Gazette, this was hardly a transparent process. Constituents were told one thing was happening late in the game while something else entirely was already underway. President Nelson did not publically discuss an open search for strategic partners until her January 15 public announcement. Meanwhile, President Nelson was pushing to close a signed agreement with a single entity—UMass—obviating the need for a simultaneous open search. I am told that prior presidents were not informed of this covert UMass plan as it was being developed, and that they heard about this search for a strategic partner only moments before it was announced. Meanwhile, the presidents of Amherst College and Mount Holyoke have both written letters of repudiation denying that they ever received a full plan and denying that they had ever endorsed President Nelson's plan, as had been suggested. I did not call that "a lie," but I invite you to suggest your preferred terminology for whatever the presidents of Amherst and Mount Holyoke College repudiated as inaccurate characterizations in President Nelson's private emails, which were published.
4. You claim that Hampshire's financial challenges were simply "budget stress." Stress is an understatement. Please consider:
As one college president of a small liberal arts college commented to me:
"The financial challenge Hampshire faced wasn't at all insurmountable — and the obvious solution to the challenge would have been to recalibrate its academic profile and its budget. Why that was not done is the damnable mystery you are trying to solve in your article."
Hampshire is a young school. In 1875, when Amherst was a few years older than Hampshire is now, they almost went out of business. Even Columbia and Yale were hemorrhaging in the 1970s. Perhaps you have not a chance to read the Forbes 2019 College Financial Grades by Matt Schifrin, which, happily, ranks Hampshire as middle of the pack for these financial statistics. Those getting by as going concerns with worse statistics include: Johnson & Wales; Albertus Magnus; Delaware Valley College; Mt. St. Mary's, Benedict College, Bennington. Scores of other colleges survive with far worse financial standing. Several college presidents this week looked at the wonderful location and lush resources of Hampshire and said they would happily trade places.
- Hampshire has had declines in enrollment from 1,390 in 2014 to 1,120 this year
Enrollment management is a common problem for small colleges these days. Well-run colleges have improved marketing and targeting new population segments. Perhaps President Nelson would have benefitted from learning from small colleges in far more remote locations who have managed this challenge far better than has she. Colby College in Watertown Maine and Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, Grinnell in Poweshiek County, Iowa and Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar Virginia have shown remarkable resourcefulness in addressing this challenge.
- Hampshire is dependent on tuition for 90% of its revenues
I have heard from many college presidents in the last few days who also are 90 percent dependent on tuition who are amazed that President Nelson would curtail such revenues by cutting an entering class for Fall 2019. Obviously, President Nelson's new strategy will cut revenues and burden the college with a larger deficit.
- Hampshire has a small, highly restricted endowment
These restrictions are not restrictions from sensible use but many, in fact, targeted to just the sort of needs the school faces. And, if necessary, restrictions imposed by living donors may be relaxed by them. Such flexibility is often negotiated elsewhere.
- Hampshire's operating revenues declined from more than $59 million in 2014 to less than $49 million in 2019
These were five years Hampshire could have been learning to manage expenses to economize appropriately in eager partnership with the Five College Consortia — Consortia — such as relying on the others to support religious and other underutilized administrative and counseling services, and departmental consolidations (such as returning to Hampshire's original four academic schools system instead of the more recently adopted five) brilliantly modeled by Sweet Briar College.
- Hampshire has faced operating deficits the past four years, and has only balanced its budgets thanks to a one-time endowment investment dividend and major rescue gifts from Trustees. These key donors made clear they would no longer be able to cover operating deficits moving forward
Is one of these major donors the chairman of the board who also is subject to this no confidence vote? Many major donors have not been solicited to fund strategic initiatives due to lack of strategic imagination. One prominent source told me "We have been waiting and waiting for that vision through the fall and nothing came." President Nelson has not used this past year to build confidence in donors as a new leader and did not give herself the time to forge these relations and cultivate key donors while withholding information.
- Annual revenue from tuition, room and board has seen increasing declines: it declined by 2% in 2015, by 7% in 2018, and by 11% in 2019
Isn't this just a restatement of the enrollment declines due to poor management in this challenging environment where prospective applicants may have been discouraged by the lack of vision by the school's new leadership?
- In this intensely competitive market, Hampshire has had to steeply increase its discount rate, to over 50% the past two years. One result: the percentage of students paying full tuition has dropped from 7% in 2014 to less than 1% this year
Surely you are not serious in this as a cause of alarm. How many auto buyers other than Tesla buyers pay the list price? Who pays the rack rate in a hotel? Do you care to guess what percent of Yale students pay the full listed tuition?
- The Board assessed that Hampshire faced a projected deficit of more than $5 million for next year, and a cumulative deficit of close to $20 million over the subsequent three years if we continued business as usual, raising the risk that the College would not continue to operate—or be able to educate the Fall 2019 class through to graduation. Standard Seven of the New England Council of Higher Education's accreditation standards requires a college or university to demonstrate "through verifiable internal and external evidence, its financial capacity to graduate its entering class." Our Board did not have confidence that we could continue to operate in four years without a major change to our model, and thus we could not fully meet the NECHE standard. On February 18, NECHE issued a statement praising Hampshire for its proactive steps to secure its finances before admitting a full incoming class. See https://www.neche.org/for-thepublic/recent-commission-actions/
This is an odd argument since, just spring, based on the school's reported numbers, Hampshire was granted a ten year renewal of accreditation. Further in a February 21 Hampshire Gazette piece, two retired professors at your college attempted to educate President Nelson on her misunderstanding of the timeframe and actual triggers in this accreditation concern. If you have misplaced that explanation, here it is:
Slow down Hampshire's fast-moving merger train
We question President Miriam Nelson's prediction of a stronger Hampshire College after the unprecedented decision to not admit an entering class in 2019.
Although she rightly cites the overwhelming wave of support for the college from alumni, former trustees and administrators, faculty in the Five Colleges, students, families, friends and community leaders, many of these supporters largely deplore the violation of academic governance processes through secrecy and the use of non-disclosure agreements, and debunk the notion that commonwealth regulations caused this disruption.
As the Gazette reported on Feb. 15, Suzanne Perkins, professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan, a Hampshire alumna and parent, offered a lengthy analysis of the misinformation being promulgated by President Nelson and the board of trustees as the rationale for their dismantling Hampshire College.
Professor Perkins contacted Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE); Chris Gabrieli, chair of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, and his legal counsel, Alex Nally; the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, Division of Non-Profit Corporations; and state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.
The people from the oversight departments assured her that Hampshire College was neither in danger of being put on probation, nor was it in danger of losing its accreditation, especially since they had just accredited it for 10 years. They noted that even though Hampshire's financial condition was weak, in their experience it was not dire.
Comerford told her that a bill in the Massachusetts Senate requiring a four year guarantee to incoming students at institutions of higher education was resoundingly defeated in committee. It is not the law.
Although President Nelson's Feb. 13 letter to the Gazette walked back her contention from two weeks ago at a Jan. 31 public presentation to the Hampshire community and again the next day at the fateful board of trustees meeting that decided to not admit the fall 2019 class, that Hampshire's precarious financial situation has put the college in danger of losing its accreditation, we now know that that isn't true.
It is part of a plan to put Hampshire on the fast-moving merger train that is threatening to empty the campus of its students, staff and faculty and thereby of its mission and integrity.
There is cause for national concern since Hampshire may, indeed, be the canary in the coal mine as nonprofit educational institutions are subjected to the ruthlessness of the new "merger" culture. The faculty at Hampshire was blindsided, but use of crisis and shock to further a plan to shrink assets and strip the remaining values of institutions that serve the public is easily exposed.
Russo is a professor emerita of critical theory at Hampshire. Tracy is professor emerita of history and American studies, also at Hampshire.
- The Board of Trustees and President Nelson decided not to admit a full class in the fall and instead announced a search for a partner or for a solution of drastically transforming its business model.
In short, President Nelson's approach to this problem is reminiscent of Lt. Calley's explanation about the My Lai Massacre, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
As is reported in many recent publications, 18 months ago, the president of Sweet Briar College inherited a far more dire situation: a $5 million deficit (in a budget of $30 million) and a 40 percent drop in the upcoming freshmen enrollment. They went to work reframing their academic reach reducing majors from 40+ to 17, with related personnel retrenchment, and reworked the tuition schedule. This tough love, transparency, and leadership vision succeeded as they now enjoy a balanced budget and enrollment soaring — up 35 percent with similar increases expected for next year.
5. In your essay you state, "Nelson never consulted her five living predecessors, faculty leaders, or other campus constituencies." In, fact, she met or spoke with the former presidents in 2018 about the College's financial challenges, and also consulted with presidents of many other colleges and universities. Obviously she was in close contact with her predecessor, President Jonathan Lash, who published an essay about their working relationship: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/love-not-anger-d4d543abd51a
She met with several of them to greet them but never consulted with them about the financial distress and her planned remedies. Yes, I have this first hand. This is similar to the clarification from the presidents of Amherst and Mount Holyoke who refuted President Nelson's characterization of their discussions (see attached full letters from each president). As for your representation of the nature of those exchanges with predecessors, you significantly overstate the reality. For example, consider this fresh statement from Greg Prince who served as president of Hampshire for 16 years:
"I alerted them that Point 5 was not accurate since I was not consulted in 2018 "about the College's financial challenges." In 2018, I met her once, at my request, just to meet her but also to provide a resume of someone who had no Hampshire connection but was a colleague of mine working in the high schools with I work and a true believer in what Hampshire could do for students of color coming out of those very under-served high schools. In discussing the three administrative openings that were listed and for which he might be a candidate, financial challenges were not mentioned. She had been in office only two months so that is not surprising, but I provide the detail since that is the only time I have met Mim in person. Ironically, I had sought out a meeting with her at the end of the year and it was scheduled for the Monday night before the Board's was to vote on the issue of whether to accept an entering class, which was announced in the press. Not surprisingly, the dinner was cancelled the Friday before."
Yet the experience of another former Hampshire College president was quite parallel to that of the above president and faculty accounts, "...a pleasant social occasions that included her husband, and that amounted to spirited conversation about Hampshire College's past. Nelson made no comment suggesting Hampshire was in a dire state, or that she was greatly concerned about the financial picture or had any plans to attempt changing or correcting the fundamental nature of the institution. I remember nothing being said about the gloomy admissions situation. What I do remember is asking and receiving assurance about a celebration of Hampshire's 50th Anniversary in 2020."
- Faculty and staff were regularly informed over the past three years of Hampshire's growing financial challenges. In the fall President Nelson reported financial challenges to campus through three open assemblies with faculty and staff, at faculty meetings, and at weekly meetings with senior leaders and the deans, and numerous other settings. In person and through multiple communications, Nelson briefed the campus on budget and enrollment shortfalls as the senior team prepared to respond to the College's financial challenges. These messages were tempered so as not to cause excess alarm, but made clear that the College would need to lead major change in order to reverse the trend of annual deficits.
In fact, it seems disingenuous to proclaim that President Nelson practiced open, candid, shared governance" in addressing the dire financial stakes. In fact the faculty attending President Nelson's Assemblies reported to me "She told that we should develop plans for imaging the success of the school for its 50th anniversary and only mentioned in passing that partnership opportunities might help. There was no mention of a mandatory partnership or we die and no mention of curtailing the incoming matriculation of a new class!"
You state that "Nelson briefed the campus on budget and enrollment shortfalls as the senior team prepared to respond to the College's financial challenges," but at the same time, as a January 10, 2019 email shows, President Nelson was planning to release this misleading cheerful public explanation for a Boston Magazine reporter: "Hampshire operates in the black,
our $52m endowment is performing well, and as Mim Nelson has told the Hampshire community, we're already planning how to use our 50th anniversary in 2020 to update our mission for the next half century." This reveals an intent to deceive by concealing the perceived existential threats, rather than sharing the dire financial straits you described above.
6. Hampshire practices shared governance like few others colleges and universities. The Board, which has fiduciary responsibility for the college, includes as full voting members: a faculty trustee, staff trustee, student trustee, and two alumni trustees, each elected by their constituencies. This breadth of inclusion is very unusual.
Yes, it is indeed unfortunate that President Nelson chose to undermine this celebrated Hampshire cultural legacy of shared governance through its reliance upon not the 31 members of the board, but rather the bureaucratic pathology of an over-involved executive committee and a curiously constructed ad hoc committee, as these bureaucratic devices often disenfranchise a full board. https://www.hampshire.edu/news/2019/02/23/hampshireupdate-on-strategic-options-february-23-2019. The term for such pathologies is "GroupThink" as labelled by Yale's Irving Janis - where dissent is equated with disloyalty. (Janis, Irving L. (1982). Groupthink: psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-31704-4.)
Hopefully, the participatory culture of Hampshire limits the decision making process from deteriorating to the point of GroupThink. Several mentioned a coercive quality to such exchanges with President Nelson. Faculty and past school leaders echoed the comment of one faculty leader who told me "We were so shocked at the February 1 board meeting that we asked them for just a two week delay before executing the cutback on the incoming class. We were never consulted or engaged and even when finally told what was going on, the message was compliance not discussion! This cynically undermines the principles of shared governance."
7. You state that, "Nor did [Nelson] appeal to alumni about her dire assessment of Hampshire's financial situation." In fact, President Nelson traveled the country in the fall: a third of her work days were spent meeting with groups of alums including numerous prospective major donors in major cities, and tested the feasibility of a major fundraising effort. Most fundraising in higher education does not support operating budgets, and most endowments grow when alums pass away and leave money in their estates. But Hampshire is a young college and over the past few years we have received almost no bequest income, as our oldest alums are still in their mid-sixties. Meantime the percentage of Hampshire alums that have made gifts to Hampshire annually has ranged over the past ten years from 18% to 29% -- last year it was 22%. The board and Nelson assessed that a major fundraising campaign would likely not grow the endowment enough to sustain the College for the coming decade or decades.
President Nelson needed to invest the time it takes to build trust with her alumni and sell a vision that excites and engages them. Sadly, your statement above indicates that she did not succeed in this vital task. Sure, there were plenty of avoidant discussions, but the plan she was actually pursuing was revealed only as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, which led to the public disclosure of President Nelson's secret emails to UMass Amherst. This is, again, the source correction from the presidents of Amherst College and Mount Holyoke College, as they were wrongly portrayed as co-conspirators in an effort to conceal information from constituents.
It is also noteworthy that these emails reveal that President Nelson was determined to tell different constituents paradoxical and misleading messages at the same time. I pasted in above the clear evidence of such deceptive practices in her intended message to Boston Magazine, reassuring the public of Hampshire's healthy financial status at the exact moment, with the same data you claim she was using to sound alarm bells of distress. That inconsistency does not enhance her stature or her credibility.
8. You state that Nelson backpedaled in her statement of February 23. There is no backpedaling in the statement. https://www.hampshire.edu/news/2019/02/23/hampshireupdate-on-strategic-options-february-23-2019
Prior to her February 23 forced acknowledgment of the UMass deal, President Nelson claimed to be in open discussions with numerous potential partners, but the forced disclosure in the newspaper and on public radio earlier that day forced her to admit that, in fact, she had been seeking a signed deal with a single partner. https://www.gazettenet.com/Hampshire-and-Mass-exploringpartnership-23670527
Yet at that same time, I understand that she withheld that information on January 30 12:30 pm during a Zoom call with key constituents, including former Hampshire presidents, among other key constituents. In addition, President Nelson's forced disclosure on Feb 23 revealed that she had been on a secret mission to secure a partner since November—which, as reported, was NOT previously known. https://www.wbur.org/edify/2019/02/24/hampshire-college-umassamherst-potential-partner-emails. That was not revealed to any parties in your itinerary of presidential social events. Thus, key information was concealed and opportunities for consultation were missed.
Dean Sonnenfeld, I look forward to hearing if you may be willing to speak with President Nelson and one or more trustees of Hampshire, and to consider a more accurate representation of the College's governance decisions. Please note the College is publicly posting its relevant communications for reference at http://updates.hampshire.edu.
Again, please keep in mind that I am not the source of President Nelson's profound loss of credibility with her own constituents and peers. Her ability to reestablish that needed credibility with her constituents and peers is contingent on how well she engages with them in candid informative respectful ways. Her attacks on me do not advance her progress on that all-important mission. It is each of her own actions now which will determine her legitimacy to lead which to many has been lost.
John Courtmanche, Media Relations Director Hampshire College
The two letters below were attached to Sonnenfeld's email to John Courtmanche. The first is addressed to the Amherst College community by their President, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin. The second is addressed to the Mt. Holyoke College community by their president, Sonya Stephens.
Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,
In today's Gazette, Scott Merzbach and Dusty Christensen report on conversations between Hampshire President Miriam Nelson and UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy about a plan to have Hampshire become part of UMass. I am writing because the article seems, perhaps unintentionally, to misrepresent some key points.
In January, President Nelson called for a meeting of the Five Colleges presidents. At the meeting, she announced that she and the executive committee of the Hampshire board had concluded that Hampshire is likely not financially viable on its own. She also announced that she had been in conversation with UMass during the fall about a partnership and that those discussions were ongoing. I was surprised to learn of these developments.
In the face of these announcements, it was important to me that the discussions between Hampshire and UMass not be presented publicly as though this had been a Five Colleges discussion or endeavor, or one that had been endorsed by the consortium, because it has not been. At no point have I been asked to endorse the partnership, either in my role as consortium director or in my role as president of Amherst College, and at no point have I done so. In the absence of more information and details, it would seem irresponsible to endorse a plan that is not yet a plan.
President Nelson and Chancellor Subbaswamy emphasized that Hampshire was also considering other options and that the UMass administration had not made a decision about pursuing the partnership. Both noted that neither UMass nor Hampshire would make a commitment without a public discussion.
Shortly thereafter, the presidents met again at a Five Colleges directors' meeting. Because of our concerns about possible conflicts between our roles as fiduciaries of the consortium and our responsibilities to our own individual institutions, the presidents of Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst, and the executive director of the consortium had our attorneys present for this second meeting. I understood that we were not there to make decisions in our roles as directors of the consortium. We were given an update by President Nelson and had an opportunity to ask questions.
We were asked not to share news of the discussions between Hampshire and UMass because the possible partnership remains only one of several options and is not a done deal. I have honored that request because we were also assured that public discussion would precede any definitive action. But I also believe, now that the news is public, that you should have an accurate account of my involvement or lack of it, my concern about the Five Colleges Consortium, and my hope that Hampshire finds a partner that allows a viable way forward, one that preserves its unique strengths.
As many of you know, we extended the deadline for applying to Amherst for Hampshire students. I also hope we will be able to help some Hampshire faculty and staff, where feasible, at least on a transitional basis, given the planned layoffs.
Dear members of the Mount Holyoke campus community,
Yesterday evening, The Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article citing electronic correspondence between Hampshire President Miriam Nelson, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, and members of the senior communications staff of both institutions. The plan in question concerns a possible future collaboration between Hampshire College and UMass. As written, the article seems to suggest more involvement on my part than is the case, and I thought it important that you hear directly from me about this matter.
On January 9, President Nelson informed the Five Colleges Board of Directors that Hampshire College would, due to financial constraints, be looking for a partner. It was also disclosed that there had been some conversations between the leadership of Hampshire College and UMass in this regard. This was the first time that I heard of these developments, and we were asked to hold this information in confidence.
During this January 9 meeting, I made it clear that any confidential communication regarding the planning between Hampshire and UMass should not represent the Five Colleges, or Mount Holyoke College, as having been party to these discussions. I also stated that Mount Holyoke could not endorse any plan about which we had no prior information, in which we had had and still have no involvement, and about which we neither had nor have any detailed understanding. Both President Nelson and Chancellor Subbaswamy emphasized that there was no concrete plan or agreement at that time and that Hampshire was still considering a number of paths forward.
During our most recent Five Colleges directors meeting on January 17, with legal counsel present, we received an update from President Nelson, and it was again made clear that we could not, either individually or collectively, endorse or express support for any plan between UMass and Hampshire, given our responsibilities to our own institutions, and our fiduciary roles as directors of the Five Colleges consortium. While a partnership between UMass and Hampshire might represent a possible path forward, and while I strongly support Hampshire's efforts to seek a viable and sustainable future, I have not offered an endorsement of any such plan.
I will continue to update the Mount Holyoke community as information becomes available. And we will continue to provide information to our Hampshire colleagues about employment opportunities on our campus, as well as to respond sympathetically to transfer requests that we receive from eligible Hampshire students.
Mount Holyoke College
2. February 28, 2019: John Courtmanche posted his email to Sonnenfeld and the editor-in-chief of Fortune magazine on the official College web site.
Letter in Response to Fortune Magazine Commentary
THE COLLEGE OFFERS FORTUNE MAGAZINE INTERVIEWS WITH PRESIDENT NELSON AND TRUSTEES
Dear Dean Sonnenfeld,
I'm writing in response to your Fortune commentary yesterday to offer you an interview with Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson and one or more trustees of the College. I was surprised to see that you published an essay about their leadership decisions without attempting even to ask any questions of them to confirm and clarify the realities informing their decisions. I believe if you had taken the time to engage them to discuss and try to understand the College's challenges and options, that would have helped you avoid some misleading, harmful errors in your essay, such as:
Hampshire did not, as you state, eliminate either its admissions or development offices. Hampshire announced layoffs this month of nine employees including seven from admissions and two employees from its development office. Nearly all of the development office is currently intact and working to support major giving to the College.
In your essay you claim the majority of faculty voted no confidence in Hampshire's leadership. I hope you can be assured of a direct, accurate source for this statement because the faculty never publicly reported any results of its vote last week before that vote was invalidated on both technical and procedural grounds. This week, Hampshire's faculty overwhelmingly voted to table a vote of no confidence, on Tuesday, February 26, 2019, and also announced optimism at progress in their discussions with leadership.
You state that President Nelson is "pretending" to be leading an open search for alternative solutions to Hampshire's challenges. Essentially you're accusing President Nelson of lying about considering options, without citing any facts or sources. In fact she is actively leading an open search for options for solutions and has had direct contact with dozens of leaders of colleges and universities.
You claim that Hampshire's financial challenges were simply "budget stress." Please consider:
Hampshire has had declines in enrollment from 1,390 in 2014 to 1,120 this year
Hampshire is dependent on tuition for 90% of its revenues
Hampshire has a small, highly restricted endowment
Hampshire's operating revenues declined from more than $59million in 2014 to less than $49million in 2019
Hampshire has faced operating deficits the past four years, and has only balanced its budgets thanks to a one-time endowment investment dividend and major rescue gifts from Trustees. These key donors made clear they would no longer be able to cover operating deficits moving forward
Annual revenue from tuition, room and board has seen increasing declines: it declined by 2% in 2015, by 7% in 2018, and by 11% in 2019
In this intensely competitive market, Hampshire has had to steeply increase its discount rate, to over 50% the past two years. One result: the percentage of students paying full tuition has dropped from 7% in 2014 to less than 1% this year
The Board assessed that Hampshire faced a projected deficit of more than $5 million for next year, and a cumulative deficit of close to $20 million over the subsequent three years if we continued business as usual, raising the risk that the College would not continue to operate—or be able to educate the Fall 2019 class through to graduation.
Standard Seven of the New England Council of Higher Education's accreditation standards requires a college or university to demonstrate "through verifiable internal and external evidence, its financial capacity to graduate its entering class." Our Board did not have confidence that we could continue to operate in four years without a major change to our model, and thus we could not fully meet the NECHE standard. On February 18, NECHE issued a statement praising Hampshire for its proactive steps to secure its finances before admitting a full incoming class.
The Board of Trustees and President Nelson decided not to admit a full class in the fall and instead announced a search for a partner or for a solution of drastically transforming its business model.
In your essay you state, "Nelson never consulted her five living predecessors, faculty leaders, or other campus constituencies." In, fact, she met or spoke with the former presidents in 2018 about the College's financial challenges, and also consulted with presidents of many other colleges and universities. Obviously she was in close contact with her predecessor, President Jonathan Lash, who published an essay about their working relationship.
Faculty and staff were regularly informed over the past three years of Hampshire's growing financial challenges. In the fall President Nelson reported financial challenges to campus through three open assemblies with faculty and staff, at faculty meetings, and at weekly meetings with senior leaders and the deans, and numerous other settings. In person and through multiple communications, Nelson briefed the campus on budget and enrollment shortfalls as the senior team prepared to respond to the College's financial challenges. These messages were tempered so as not to cause excess alarm, but made clear that the College would need to lead major change in order to reverse the trend of annual deficits.
Hampshire practices shared governance like few others colleges and universities. As one key example, the Board, which has fiduciary responsibility for the college, includes as full voting members: a faculty trustee, staff trustee, student trustee, and two alumni trustees, each elected by their constituencies. This breadth of inclusion is very unusual.
You state that, "Nor did [Nelson] appeal to alumni about her dire assessment of Hampshire's financial situation." In fact, President Nelson traveled the country in the fall: a third of her work days were spent meeting with groups of alums including numerous prospective major donors in major cities, and tested the feasibility of a major fundraising effort. Most fundraising in higher education does not support operating budgets, and most endowments grow when alums pass away and leave money in their estates. But Hampshire is a young college and over the past few years we have received almost no bequest income, as our oldest alums are still in their mid-sixties. Meantime the percentage of Hampshire alums that have made gifts to Hampshire annually has ranged over the past ten years from 18% to 29% — last year it was 22%. The board and Nelson assessed that a major fundraising campaign would likely not grow the endowment enough to sustain the College for the coming decade or decades.
You state that Nelson backpedaled in her statement of February 23. There is no backpedaling in the statement.
Dean Sonnenfeld, I look forward to hearing if you may be willing to speak with President Nelson and one or more trustees of Hampshire, and to consider a more accurate representation of the College's governance decisions. Please note the College is publicly posting its relevant communications for reference.
John Courtmanche, Media Relations Director
CC: Clifton Leaf, Editor in Chief, Fortune
3. February 27, 2019: Sonnenfeld’s piece in Fortune magazine:
How Hampshire College Hampered Good Governance
Not all colleges can survive the present shift in U.S. educational markets. Schools are threatened by increasingly discouraging immigration policies. State spending on public universities remains highly uncertain. Even philanthropic foundations have curtailed their traditional support for higher education. The situations, however, vary in each case and many have rebounded from adversity. The jeopardy facing the iconic maverick Hampshire College is not simply a lack of students or lack of finances but it's also the lack of leadership competence and responsible governance by the board.
Miriam E. Nelson, the new president of Hampshire College, was recently dealt a bad hand, but she, with the board's support, has just knocked the whole deck of cards off the table in panic.
This month, Nelson bewilderingly announced she was firing Hampshire's admissions and development staff with no plans for replacement—for a school that is over 90% dependent upon tuition revenue and has a modest endowment. At the same time, the Hampshire Board of Trustees announced to the stunned campus that it was curtailing the matriculation of a new freshman class while Nelson was met with a vote of no confidence from faculty.
The drama opened last May when newly appointed president Nelson learned from outgoing predecessor Jonathan Lash of a matriculation shortfall. This drop in yield followed several years of budget stress but, over the summer, she and the college board's executive committee framed this management challenge as an existential crisis instead and their actions have since created chaos. And rather than locate better ways to mobilize their own many assets—Hampshire's distinctive mission, the Five College Consortium community, a strong alumni network, and a largely successful existence as an innovative education model—to a recovery, Hampshire's leadership appears to have panicked.
Over the course of the fall, Nelson never consulted her five living predecessors, faculty leaders, or other campus constituencies. Nor did she appeal to alumni about her dire assessment of Hampshire's financial situation, a list which includes Stonyfield Farms chairman Gary Hirshberg, former CEO of Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender, renowned documentarian Ken Burns, and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes. Gregory Prince, who was president of Hampshire College 16 years, envisioned tapping such alumni for a recovery plan involving various interconnected institutes. But in the panic, consultation—a cultural necessity in a liberal arts college founded on participation and engagement—simply did not occur and this important resource was overlooked.
As revealed through emails obtained by New England Public Radio, Nelson was quietly negotiating to merge Hampshire with the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) months before there was any announcement of a financial crisis. Further correspondence published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette revealed President Nelson's zeal to formalize this intended deal with a written letter of understanding—just before shutting down Hampshire's admissions and development offices, claiming financial duress, and pretending to be conducting an open search for alternative options. Yet faculty, students, staff, alumni, donors, and other stakeholders were kept in the dark while concealed negotiations took place. Following the email revelations—and stung by a vote of no confidence that passed the faculty before it was invalidated for procedural reasons—Nelson backpedaled in a letter to the Hampshire community.
Nelson, however, had further sacrificed her credibility by implying to have the support of partner schools of the Five College Consortium for the merge. In response, Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College, and Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, both separately issued emails to the community countering Nelson's narrative.
While Nelson isn't to be blamed for the issues Hampshire accrued before her time, she must be accountable for the quality of her leadership. I do not personally know her, anyone on the board, or anyone on the faculty. I have, however, studied good governance and good leadership for 40 years and neither is evident here. I also created the U.S.'s first school for incumbent CEOs 30 years ago and, for the last four years, have run the Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit which draws 75 college presidents and board chairs each year. Therefore, I can confidently say that Hampshire presently offers a poor model of corporate governance in action: inadequate leadership, hasty decision making, and corrosion of credibility.
In 2014, I served on the National Commission on College and University Board Governance established by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Our recommendations addressed setting clear policies that describe the board's role and responsibilities as fiduciaries of their institutions, focusing on the changing finances of their institutions, delivering access to high quality education at a lower cost, and improving shared governance through attention to the board's relationships with the university president and faculty. The leadership of Hampshire College must not have gotten copies of our report otherwise the cash-starved school would have solicited the valuable advice of its own community.
Former Hampshire College president Gregory Prince told me in an interview that recapturing the underlying culture of Hampshire of working with the community can save the college: "The partnership principles which define this great school are the exact ones needed now to save it—even if the leadership has forgotten."
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management.
4. February 22, 2019: As background to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s piece, we include below the Gazette piece that announced their receipt of the emails President Nelson exchanged with UMass.
Emails show talks between Hampshire and UMass about possible partnership
AMHERST — While there has been extensive speculation about whether the University of Massachusetts Amherst would be an appropriate long-term partner for Hampshire College, emails the Gazette obtained from UMass through a public records request show
that there were not only conversations between high-ranking officials, but Hampshire leaders requested to expedite an agreement.
A Jan. 10 email, sent five days before Hampshire College President Miriam "Mim" Nelson went public with the search for a partner, reveals that she was already speaking to UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy about partnering and was ready to move forward with the signing of a non-binding letter of intent "in the not too distant future." But that didn't happen.
Nelson said Friday that she started conversations with Subbaswamy in November and discussed how soon a letter of intent could be issued, but "we're not at that stage yet," she told the Gazette.
"We've got other opportunities we're pursuing now to find the best partner for Hampshire," Nelson said. "We're very grateful to UMass to be supportive of us."
The new details about the extent of those conversations are revealed in emails between Nelson's and Subbaswamy's offices in recent months.
UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski wrote in a letter responding to the public records request that the option of a letter of intent was taken off the table by UMass officials.
"At one point, Hampshire expressed a desire to sign a non-binding letter of intent with UMass Amherst, but the university chose not to do so," Blaguszewski wrote.
And he characterized UMass as just one of many potential partners.
"Hampshire is now in the midst of deliberations within its own community about how best to chart a course for their future, including conversations with other institutions," Blaguszewski wrote. "Whatever direction Hampshire ultimately decides to pursue, UMass Amherst's consideration of a deeper collaboration with the college would need to be consistent with the educational mission of UMass, and, given UMass's budgetary constraints, could be achieved only if it is viable financially for the UMass Amherst campus."
Nelson said that she and Hampshire's board of trustees are looking for the best partner and one aligned with the college's values, with hopes of finding that institution by the end of the spring semester.
"We don't know where things will end up," Nelson said.
If and when a partner is found, that will be announced publicly. "Anything we would be doing would be a public phase," Nelson said.
Following Nelson's talks with Subbaswamy in the fall and early winter, the conversation expanded to others involved with both UMass and Hampshire. One email chain began Jan. 10 and included John Kennedy, vice chancellor for university relations at UMass; Chris Dunn, executive director of public and constituent relations for UMass; John Buckley, chief executive officer of Subject Matter, a Washington, D.C. public relations company; and David Gibson, Hampshire's chief creative officer. In that chain, Nelson wrote that she would be issuing a statement about the need for a strong partner for an impactful future for Hampshire.
"This public statement would then allow us to have more public discussions in the valley and the state about the logic of partnering with UMass," Nelson wrote.
In the initial communication, which was to be followed by a conference call originally scheduled that afternoon but postponed to the morning of Jan. 11, Nelson also noted that she would be keeping apprised the presidents of the other area colleges — Smith, Mount Holyoke and Amherst — and that those presidents had endorsed UMass as a partner to Hampshire.
"They very much support UMass and Hampshire's mutual interest in partnering," Nelson wrote. "But they want to be very cautious in how their support is conveyed as they don't want their constituents lobbying them to 'save' Hampshire and they don't want to be a part of any disingenuous statement."
The communication between Hampshire and UMass also states that both Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb were briefed by Nelson and "willing to roll up their sleeves to assist." Nelson said the state legislators are not involved in any of the ongoing dialogue, though they had been made aware of UMass being contacted as a possible partner.
In the days leading up to the announcement that Hampshire would be seeking a partner, Nelson was encouraged to tweak the contents of her statement, with Amherst College President Biddy Martin observing that the college's legal counsel asked that any reference to the Five Colleges, Inc. consortium be removed from that statement.
Throughout the correspondence, there is talk about crafting a public relations plan in advance of the college's Jan. 15 announcement, including the response to inquiries !om Boston Magazine about the possibility of Hampshire closing, and worries that sharing information by email could lead to leaks.
The emails also show the care in which officials crafted talking points when responding to Gazette inquiries, and how they shared information with each other, such as an alert to the Jon Krakauer op-ed (.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/31/opinion/higher-education-hampshire-college-.html) in The New York Times about whether an unconventional school like Hampshire could still succeed.
On Jan. 31, Sandy Genelius, the chief communications officer at Amherst College, expressed concern about a New England Public Radio report on Hampshire's conversations with UMass. After NEPR ran the piece intimating there could be close ties between Hampshire and UMass, Gibson, the Hampshire College official, and Kennedy, the UMass vice chancellor, described giving out "boilerplate" information about potential partnerships.
The same day, Kennedy, the UMass vice chancellor, wrote to Gibson and Genelius that, if asked by the press directly about UMass having conversations with Hampshire, he would "say 'yes' but that those conversations were preliminary, and that it is our understanding that
Hampshire has had conversations with other potential partners as well."
The first email correspondence dates to Jan. 8, when Nelson wrote a congratulatory letter to Subbaswamy about a Boston Globe Magazine piece entitled "'ZooMass' no more. Is turning UMass Amherst into an elite university what the state needs?" (https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2019/01/08/zoomass-moreturning-umass-amherst-into-elite-universityneeded/Xt1wgLom5TfKuZ7glLaPiO/story.html)
"UMass rocks!" Nelson wrote. Subbaswamy responded: "Trying to convince the Commonwealth of the importance of a strong flagship."
Scott Merzbach can be reached at email@example.com. Dusty Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. February 27, 2019: Ellen Fitzpatrick’s piece for the Atlantic frames Hampshire’s current crisis historically in light of the original vision of the founders.
Remembering the Bold Thinking of Hampshire College
Innovative ideas made the school a special—and fragile—place.
It's hard to believe that nearly a half century has passed since I stood on a hillside in South Amherst, Massachusetts, with Van Halsey, then Hampshire College's director of admissions, gazing at the rolling green farmland that stretched out toward Hadley, Massachusetts. "That is where the college will be," Halsey explained. I was 17 years old, entering my senior year of high school, and convinced that this largely invisible place—then mostly a collection of dreams and ideals—was the only college in the country where I wanted to study.
My enthusiasm for Hampshire was shared widely that year. The new college attracted a couple of thousand applications for the 250 or so places in its first class of students. The school had no history, no traditions, no graduates, no campus when we applied in 1969. And yet we couldn't wait to attend. The excitement I felt for Hampshire and all that it promised is as real to me today as it was on that spring day when I looked across that field and glimpsed the college's future, and my own.
Hampshire's core premise—that college-age students are capable of far more than what is usually expected of them—drew us to the college. We were invited to become active participants in framing our own education. Rather than selecting a major, we'd be asked to develop an area of concentration. Our progress would be measured not by grades, courses, or credits piled up, but by examinations across broad fields of knowledge. We'd be expected to create the architecture of our education, not passively wait for information to be delivered.
That message resonated with idealistic high-school graduates of my era. The prospect of taking charge of one's own education, guided by the wisdom of talented faculty, was exhilarating. The invitation to participate in "the making of a college" likewise offered us, as very young people, an invigorating sense of purpose. Additionally, the stress that Hampshire's literature placed on social responsibility as a critical dimension of a liberal-arts education converged with our historical moment in ways that enticed us. We were full of energy, impatient with authority, and shaped by the upheaval of the late 1960s. We imagined that we could change the society around us. What better place to start than at this fledgling college that emphasized adventure and innovation, and that made a virtue of possibility. Today that soaring sense of possibility has been brought to ground by harsh realities. Hampshire is currently embroiled in a crisis—rooted in daunting financial difficulties and the administrative decisions made about how best to deal with them—that threatens its survival as an independent liberal-arts college.
The current historical moment forms a backdrop to Hampshire's challenges just as another one did when the college was created. What wasn't as clear then as it is now was the degree to which Hampshire's founding era informed the willingness—on the college's part and on our own—to engage risk and opportunity. Hampshire's gifted founders, Franklin Patterson and Charles R. Longsworth, observed in their 1966 treatise, The Making of a College: Plans for a New Departure in Higher Education, "No major departure, no new and consequential venture, is made without a context and a vision." The vision of the college was obvious enough. What was less obvious were decisive elements of the context that shaped the college's origins and that illuminate its present troubles.
Hampshire owes its existence to a perceived crisis—both "qualitative and quantitative," as the founders' book outlined—in the late 1950s that fueled doubts about the "fiscal base and academic viability" of private liberal-arts colleges then deemed to be "everywhere precarious."
Rising costs; the soaring demand exerted by college-bound Baby Boomers; and the growing dominance and appeal of research universities, with their attention to graduate study and preprofessional training, were then transforming higher education. The changes these trends wrought appeared to threaten the venerable small private colleges whose primary commitment was to undergraduate schooling. A fear that private colleges might be stretched beyond their natural limits, thereby degrading the character and quality of the education and experience they offered, concerned their leaders. Some experts viewed with particular anxiety the rising hegemony of research universities, which they warned might well vitiate the influence of small colleges, or even render them obsolete in the not-too-distant future. They also anticipated that liberal-arts colleges would confront limited "teaching resources," given the ever-growing research imperative of larger universities and, presumably, larger faculty salaries. Public and private universities provided attractive funding and rewards for professors who devoted less time to teaching and more to producing valuable scholarship. Also at risk, liberal-arts-college leaders surmised in this Cold War era, was the perceived value of humanistic and liberal learning, given the emphasis on science, technology, and vocationalism in higher education.
Out of the maelstrom came Hampshire. In 1958, the presidents of Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts—four schools in the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachusetts—appointed a committee to "re-think the assumptions underlying education in the liberal arts." The goal was to map out a plan for a new college that would offer an "education of the highest quality at a minimum cost per student and with as small a faculty relative to the student body as new methods of instruction and new administrative procedures can make possible." Toward that end, the committee proposed a fifth school, radically different in structure and academic form.
The college conceived of by the "New College Plan" and then created by Hampshire's founders did, indeed, mark a notable departure in collegiate education. It encouraged an extraordinary level of independence among its students, allowing undergraduates a primary role in organizing their own education. Taught in small classes, Hampshire students were free of grades, required courses, rigid distribution requirements, lecture courses with periodic exams, fixed majors, and the predictable four-year college sequence. Instead, they progressed by examination through three divisions—the first allowing exposure to broad areas of knowledge, the second a concentration equivalent to a major but self-designed, and the third a time of advanced study of a topic that would usually consume most of the student's final year. Interdisciplinary work was encouraged; the college did not have departments organized by traditional academic disciplines such as biology, English, political science, or art. Instead, it established schools of natural science, social science, language and communication, and humanities and arts, to which faculty were assigned by expertise and interest.
Ironically, many of the innovations that Hampshire's founders proposed in order to answer the perceived problems of their day complicate the school's current crisis. The structure of the school's faculty provides a revealing case in point. The college's founders wanted Hampshire to have a young faculty, "relatively close to college age themselves," joined by a much smaller number of senior and midcareer professors. The cost savings in salaries of such a system are obvious enough, though the college promised competitive pay and benefits comparable to elite, private liberal-arts institutions. (That pledge gave way in time as financial challenges mounted.) All faculty would serve under a contract system with review before renewal; no tenure would exist at Hampshire College.
Amazingly, the appeal of the college was such that it attracted at its start outstanding professors from first-rank institutions who gave up tenure to teach at Hampshire. Salary compression in the academic job market has allowed the college to continue to recruit, hire, and retain talented faculty, even without the promise of tenure. However, the faculty turnover that college administrators expected did not pan out; Hampshire professors tended to stay at the institution. Although the contract system remained in place, it gave way to reappointments of longer duration such that 10-year contracts in time provided some semblance of the stability conferred by tenure. Amid the current duress, this structure augments the vulnerability of professors who face the downsizing, layoffs, and cutbacks that Hampshire's current administration is now pursuing aggressively.
Another innovation—the college's unusual model of governance—figures centrally in the present-day upheaval on the campus. Although Hampshire is overseen by a traditional board of trustees and led by a president with accompanying officers who set "basic policy," Hampshire's founders gave to "all of the community's constituencies" a primary role in determining "the internal governance of the College." "The major governing bodies of the community will be few," Patterson and Longsworth promised, "but students will have representation on each of them." The assumption was that anyone in the community could propose "innovations and evaluations." Members of the college community more than rose to these expectations over the ensuing decades—to the chagrin, no doubt, of its leadership on many occasions. Shared governance in nearly every aspect of college life became the norm, and a tradition of participatory democracy was thereby established, however imperfectly executed at times.
This history provides an important backdrop to the announcements earlier this year by the president and board of trustees that Hampshire is pursuing a yet-to-be-defined strategic partnership—presumably with a larger university that could help stabilize the college financially—and will not be admitting a full class of new students in the fall. The news came as a shock to most of the current faculty, staff, and students, as well as to alumni and friends of the college. A storm of protest has followed, with student sit-ins of administrative offices, including that of the Hampshire president. Ultimate responsibility over the college's institutional and fiduciary well-being has always rested with the board of trustees. Today it is a large body of 29 members, the majority of whom are alumni of the college. Nonetheless, Hampshire's long tradition of shared and decentralized governance offered little preparation for the top-down nature of decisions of such great institutional consequence.
A key factor in Hampshire's current vulnerability derives from what was a critical element of the planned experiment— the college's unorthodox financing. It was one of the proposed innovations that seemed most promising, if daring, at the college's founding. In making "a virtue out of the necessity," Hampshire sought to meet its costs primarily through tuition and fees—a bold move that would demonstrate that it was possible to offer, as the "New College Plan" suggested, a high-quality education at minimum cost.
Economies of scale were to be achieved at the new college in several ways. Financial aid would be limited to a modest number of mostly full scholarships based entirely on need. The college would instead meet what it felt to be its social responsibility through an "early-identification program," which would nurture a small number of poor elementary-school children who would subsequently be offered full scholarships to Hampshire. Student self-direction would, in theory, free up professorial time and allow for a smaller faculty. (In fact, students demanded and received a great deal of individual attention from a very hardworking and dedicated faculty.) Cost savings would ideally be achieved by having a relatively high student-to-faculty ratio of roughly 20 to 1. Five College cooperation would allow students from all five institutions in the valley to take courses at neighboring campuses. Hampshire would be especially advantaged by this opportunity, permitting the new school to escape the need of duplicating everything from obscure fields of study to library resources available elsewhere. There would be no formally organized, and expensive, system of intercollegiate athletics.
A $6 million gift (worth more than $48 million today) from a wealthy Amherst graduate launched Hampshire College in 1965. It allowed for the acquisition of a site for the school and, along with additional public and private funds, construction of the campus. The money raised at that time was not set aside as an endowment, given the need for capital expenditures for buildings and operating funds with which to get the school running. The latter would eventually be paid by the tuition garnered from a carefully selected and mostly full-paying student body, as well as by grants and gifts. That seemed workable in 1966, when prospective students from "affluent families" were believed to far outnumber available space at colleges, and when sources of financial aid, including federal student loans, grants, and work-study programs, were making "financing a college education…easier than ever."
Those assumptions were borne of a growth era, when brisk demand and expanding federal funds made higher education more affordable for college-bound students and their families. In that flush period, Hampshire's financial plan succeeded. Impressive success in raising private funds strengthened the college, as did steady applications from eager and talented college-bound students.
Yet the scheme would soon run up against constraints resulting from less congenial historical eras. Before Hampshire's first full class had graduated, national and local conditions produced storm clouds overhead with hurricanes possibly rising. On campus, the 20-to-1 student-faculty ratio proved unrealistic, given the individualized nature of academic instruction at the college. A somewhat larger faculty at a greater cost was thus mandated. It also became apparent that Hampshire's professors might well wish to age in place at the College. That eventuality would inevitably drive up salary expenses in ways that other private liberal-arts colleges already found onerous. Inflation in the mid-1970s increased the costs of virtually all operations. Finally, the expense of financial aid proved much higher than anticipated. A drive to increase diversity and to enhance "educational equality" mandated outlays that diverged substantially from the model advanced in the college's earliest blueprints. In a forthright 1974 report, Longsworth, then serving as Hampshire's second president, admitted that these complications would test the institution. "The fiscal future of the College," he wrote, "is uncertain." Hampshire had many strengths but lacked, he warned, the "financial reserves to survive a period of reduced enrollment which could result from a prolonged period of national economic recession." Longsworth's successors would face these very obstacles, as well as many others, over the next four and a half decades. They would do so in a much changed social and political climate than the one that had inspired Hampshire's founding. That environment had serious consequences for the experimental young college.
By the late 1970s, applications to Hampshire began to decline. A variety of factors undoubtedly caused the trend, including a normalized level of interest after the initial, extraordinary burst of enthusiasm that accompanied the college's opening. Of greater concern everywhere was the more risk-averse climate among middleclass Americans, who worried about economic stagnation, future job prospects for their children, and the affordability of higher education. Tuition costs across the country rose substantially. Meanwhile, federal funding became less rather than more generous, as conservatives succeeded in pushing legislative changes that promoted student loans as a favored means of higher-education assistance. Hampshire needed to contend with these realities, as well as with the chance that a rising generation of high-achieving college-bound students might be less drawn to the school and its unorthodox academic program.
Hampshire did so through the adroit management of its third president, Adele Smith Simmons, who served from 1977 to 1989. With considerable courage and a strategy that appeared counterintuitive, Simmons undertook a series of initiatives to both promote the college and steer it toward greater selectivity. She reduced the size of the entering class and focused on attracting a smaller number of excellent students who would thrive in Hampshire's unusual, self-directed academic program. Given that tuition and fees were the institution's major sources of revenue, it was a risky decision. But it paid off handsomely. Within a few years, applications to Hampshire rebounded. Simmons was lauded in a 1987 New York Times profile as a president who had "Hampshire feeling frisky again." The college had once more become a "hot school"—or at least a warm one—in an era when, the Times reported, "small liberal arts colleges are becoming an endangered species."
That breezy aside 30 years ago suggests that the survival of many small liberal-arts schools through the 1960s and '70s had done little to allay earlier anxieties. Predictions of small colleges' demise were a hardy perennial that persisted through seasons of plenty (the late 1950s and '60s) and want (the 1970s and beyond). To be sure, there is ample reason today for concern. Influential demographic studies, widely touted as compelling evidence that danger lies ahead, predict a coming bust in demand for these colleges by the mid-2020s. The falloff seems likely to be particularly acute in the Northeast and Midwest, where the college-age population is expected to shrink. Other experts insist that the expansion of digital and online learning will challenge the long-term viability of many colleges and universities. Ever-soaring costs coupled with rising tuition discounts are especially perilous for institutions such as Hampshire that rely so heavily on tuition revenue.
Elite private institutions, such as nearby Amherst, with an endowment valued in 2018 at $2.4 billion (Hampshire's endowment stands at $52 million), are not immune to such oft-invoked headwinds. But they are better positioned to weather the storms. Indeed, demographers have predicted that most elite colleges and universities will continue to enjoy rising demand in the decade ahead. The forecast for less wealthy, small institutions is a rising "failure rate" that will manifest in waves of closures, mergers, or acquisitions. Hampshire's fate in this climate is yet to be decided.
All of the college's presidents faced very difficult financial challenges and uncertainty throughout Hampshire's history. There was nothing easy about creating a "new institution with stated aspirations as high as those held out for Hampshire," Longsworth observed just four years after the college's opening. To believe that such an institution could succeed challenged expectations to such a degree, he mused, that it would be understandable if some sought refuge in "the assumption of failure … [which] restores a sense of rightness and sensibility." Hampshire has long had to live with unpredictability. "We faced trouble," Simmons put it succinctly in a recent conversation, "and we figured it out." Its oldest alumni are now aging, ala , but not fast enough to provide the kind of bequests that have so enriched its neighboring private liberal-arts schools, all of which were established in the 19th century. Hampshire's early leaders understood that it would take at least a half century before similar alumni gifts might be fulfilled.
That longer arc envisaged for the college by its founders has been eclipsed in recent months by a mood of heightened urgency and apparent pessimism among its current administration, couched though it has been in a rhetoric of new "visioning" and future possibility. Before Hampshire's newest president, Miriam Nelson, even took office in July 2018, she learned that the yield of admitted students for the fall had fallen significantly short of expectations. It was just the sort of reversal, comprising millions of dollars in projected revenue, that a place like Hampshire could ill afford to endure. By January, Nelson and the trustees had apparently concluded that the institution had reached its Rubicon. The college faced a stark choice between just two alternatives, it informed a group of influential donors and alumni: close, or find a "strategic partner." As of this writing, the college continues to weigh its options.
In the current Darwinian landscape, it is easy to conclude that only the very fittest (read, wealthiest) colleges and universities should survive—a judgment that rationalizes everything from institutional suicide to empire building and hoarding. Billions of dollars in donations continue to flow toward the very richest and most heavily endowed institutions. That was also the case, Patterson and Longsworth noted, when Hampshire was founded.
One thing about the current crisis in higher education is all but certain: It is unlikely to inspire anyone to create a new experimental liberal-arts college in New England. All the more reason, many of Hampshire's most ardent supporters have concluded, to ensure that the college survives to see its next half century.
The previous crisis in liberal education mustered the imagination and idealism that created Hampshire College and served as its wellspring for nearly 50 years. More than 11,000 students have graduated from Hampshire since the year I joined its first class, in 1970. Among them are entrepreneurs, scientists, composers, writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, social activists, inventors, architects, actors, and educators of remarkable achievement. (Some two-thirds of Hampshire graduates have gone on to earn advanced degrees.) They have surely put to rest the worry harbored by their progenitors that young people in the late 20th century would no longer find preparation for a useful life and engaged citizenship in a liberal-arts education. It turns out that the ideas that launched Hampshire's distinctive approach to learning and that have flourished there remain as true and evergreen as that verdant landscape I looked over a half century ago.
Ellen Fitzpatrick 70F is Presidential Professor of History, University of New Hampshire.