Alumni Try to Stomp on the Brakes

Organizers want to fight for the future of Hampshire and Green Mountain Colleges. They've been in touch with those who prevented Sweet Briar from closing.

February 15, 2019
 
Hampshire College

Protests were planned for today as Hampshire College prepares to put layoffs in place on the heels of its controversial decision to stop admitting additional students for the upcoming fall semester.

Alumni, staff, faculty, students and parents of students planned an on-campus protest to voice dissatisfaction with both the layoffs and what they see as a flawed decision by Hampshire’s leaders to seek a partnership with another institution, organizers said. They also planned to pressure the Massachusetts attorney general’s office to investigate Hampshire trustees’ decision not to admit a full entering class.

Their plans come as a diffuse opposition movement has been coalescing in the weeks since Hampshire -- a private liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., known as a great experiment in self-directed education -- announced in mid-January it was seeking a partnership in the face of intense enrollment and financial challenges. About two weeks later, Hampshire’s leaders announced a decision not to admit a traditional class of new students in the fall. Instead, the college will only enroll new students who had already been admitted under early decision or who had been admitted and deferred enrolling for a year.

Alumni are also attempting to raise millions of dollars they think can keep Hampshire operating as an independent institution. And those linked to Hampshire aren’t the only ones trying to find money to fight off a decision they don’t like about a private liberal arts college’s future. A group is attempting to enlist donors to keep Green Mountain College in Vermont from acting on plans announced last month to close at the end of the current semester.

The groups seeking to keep Hampshire and Green Mountain open and independent would appear to face nearly insurmountable challenges. Both colleges have struggled mightily in recent years and have signaled that they won’t admit any more freshmen for next fall, cutting off or curtailing their most important source of revenue.

But group leaders point to recent precedent after alumnae of Sweet Briar College in Virginia successfully prevented the women’s college’s board from closing it in 2015. A group called Saving Sweet Briar fought the shutdown plans in court and eventually won a deal to keep the college open under new management, even after its previous leaders had taken steps to wind down operations.

Some of those fighting for both Hampshire and Green Mountain have been in touch with those who fought to keep Sweet Briar from closing and rebooted the college.

Many higher ed experts remain extremely skeptical that the efforts to keep Hampshire and Green Mountain open and independent can be successful in the long term. Hampshire’s backers, however, believe that the college did not properly engage them before moving down a path that they think will eliminate its unique character. Now that they are engaging, they think they can find the resources to save the college. Those trying to raise money for Green Mountain, meanwhile, say they are making every effort to preserve the mission of an institution that is important to its small hometown of Poultney, Vt.

Despite their differences, the two situations demonstrate just how hard it can be to close or merge a college -- at least until it can't make payroll.

The technical steps needed to wind down operations or find a merger partner are hard enough. Then the human element can make efforts nearly impossible as alumni tightly clutch the memories of their alma maters.

Haggling Over Hampshire’s Future

Hampshire has not said how many of its employees it will lay off. The college currently has about 250 staff members and 150 faculty members. It plans to tell some of those whose positions are being eliminated on Tuesday. Then it will tell more on or around April 1 that they are being laid off.

The college expects some faculty members to be laid off later this year but has not made any decisions on that issue, according to a spokesman, John Courtmanche. Some layoffs would have been necessary even if the college hadn’t decided to stop accepting new students for the upcoming fall semester, he said. Hampshire was facing significant budget deficits because of decreased enrollment.

Some point out that the college’s president, Miriam E. Nelson, has written about layoffs being necessary as the college downsizes and doesn’t admit new students. They see circular logic -- the college is not admitting a new class because of enrollment and financial difficulties, creating further financial difficulties and requiring downsizing.

“Why not admit an entering class?” said Warren S. Goldstein, who graduated from Hampshire in 1983 and is now executive director of the Center for Critical Research on Religion in Newton, Mass. “By not admitting a new class, you’re losing about a quarter of your revenue.”

Goldstein is one of several people organizing Hampshire alumni to fight college leaders’ actions. In an interview, he discussed several options, including fund-raising, protests and possibly litigation. Hampshire’s outreach to alumni has been poor in the past, he said.

Now, many alumni feel that they weren’t kept up to speed on the college’s struggles and that they would have helped had they been given the right information. Instead, they believe college leaders announced a crisis after they'd already decided on a merger plan that would likely see Hampshire losing its unique identity after being absorbed by a large institution.

Hampshire’s historic identity as a college with no majors, no grades and students designing their own courses of study has likely contributed to a perception that its students and alumni would be difficult to tap in philanthropy. Although they may pursue careers that make an impact on society, they’re generally not viewed as among the wealthiest.

But Goldstein said he attended Hampshire alongside members of some of the country’s wealthiest families: a Rockefeller, a Newhouse.

“A lot of us have not pursued money,” Goldstein said. “But their families -- it’s inherited wealth.”

Hampshire’s president, Nelson, was not available for interview Wednesday. But the college pointed out that it is a young institution that only opened in 1970. Its alumni haven’t grown old enough to leave it money in their wills after they die.

Some donors have helped Hampshire balance its budget in recent years, the college’s spokesman said. But Hampshire hasn’t grown its endowment to a level that would shield it from falling enrollment. At $52 million, and assuming a common 5 percent draw, the endowment would generate $2.6 million per year for college operations. That’s only a fraction of the college’s operating expenses, which have been about $56 million in recent years -- and it doesn’t take into account that much of the endowment is restricted for specific purposes.

Hampshire has turned to layoffs, budget cuts and donations to close deficits in the past. In the 2016 fiscal year, it had a $1 million deficit, according to its administration. It went on to face gaps of $1.5 million in 2017, $2.3 million in 2018 and $5.4 million in the current fiscal year.

The college’s enrollment fell from 1,390 in 2014 to 1,120 in 2019. It struggled to enroll more students even while increasing its tuition discount rate for first-year students from 36 percent in 2012 to about 60 percent in 2018.

That discount rate was about five percentage points higher than a target under a financial sustainability plan, yet Hampshire still missed a target for new student deposits. It had been shooting for 345 but only received 286 deposits. The lower-than-targeted deposits came even though Hampshire exceeded its target of 2,200 applications by more than 100.

The financial sustainability plan had called for 400 or more deposits in each of the net three years while lowering discount rates.

Net tuition and room and board revenue dropped at Hampshire in each of the last four years. In 2014, 7 percent of the college’s students paid full tuition. By 2018, the percentage paying full price had fallen to less than 1 percent.

More can be done to attract students and to make the college less reliant on tuition revenue, Goldstein said. He suggested finding a wealthy board member and emphasizing programs that particular board member supports. He also suggested electing board members to make them less insulated from the alumni community.

Goldstein went on to argue that a decision Hampshire made years ago not to accept standardized test scores hurt the college by causing it to drop from national rankings. Another former Hampshire student, Steve Aronstein, also mentioned the effect the standardized test decision had on rankings.

Hampshire reported strong results in 2015, after its first full year of not looking at test scores and not being in U.S. News & World Report rankings. At the time, leaders pointed to a larger enrolled class, higher yield, more minority students and more first-generation students, even as high school grade point averages held steady.

But critics wonder whether the positive effects turned negative as the publicity wore off and successive classes of students didn't see the college's name when they looked at rankings. The test score change was the right thing to do, said Aronstein, who entered the college in 1989. But the college needed to work harder on marketing itself in the aftermath, he said.

Aronstein started a fund-raising effort that drew more than $250,000 in pledges as Hampshire was deciding whether to enroll a new class this fall.

Now, Aronstein is aiming to raise $10 million in the next several months. He thinks it would be an adequate down payment on $30 million to keep the institution open for the future.

Tens of millions of dollars would help the school in the short term. But Hampshire’s endowment would need to be boosted into the hundreds of millions of dollars for the college to be competitive into the future, said the college’s spokesman, Courtmanche.

Hampshire’s administration has said that donors wanted to support special projects but not operations. Aronstein retorts that he has spoken with major donors who had never been contacted leading up to the current crisis.

“We have donors who said they were contacted by people at the college this fall to give their usual donation,” he said. “They never said to them, ‘This is something existential, that we need to do this in October or in January we have to close.’”

Many of those connected to Hampshire feel they have been left out of the loop, Aronstein added. After the college made its decision on not admitting new students, grassroots efforts started growing quickly.

“Going forward, I think you’re going to see a more coordinated and cohesive effort,” he said.

Raising Money for Green Mountain

In Vermont, a group called SaveGMC is attempting to raise money to keep a much smaller institution from closing. Green Mountain College has enrolled about 500 undergraduates and collected about $18 million in total revenue in recent years. Budget deficits have been about $2 million or $3 million in recent years.

So far, SaveGMC doesn’t have a firm goal for how much it should raise. Numbers ranging from $5 million to $22 million have been discussed, said Kheya Ganguly, who is on the group’s strategic leadership team. The group’s website showed a short-term goal of $600,000 in pledges.

The group counted 197 pledges and 93 annual pledges as of Thursday night. It listed an annual five-year pledge total of $144,730.

“The message we’re giving the school is, yes, we need money,” said Ganguly, whose two daughters graduated from Green Mountain in the last five years. “We started out very small, trying to make this work. And now we’re starting to get people really jumping on board to be supportive.”

A few hundred thousand dollars in pledges might seem unlikely to materialize into an amount of money that can sustain a multimillion-dollar operation like a college. But the parents, alumni, students and other interested parties that are part of SaveGMC think it is important to preserve the college, which is critical to the health of its hometown of Poultney, Ganguly said. They also believe in Green Mountain’s environmentally focused mission at a time when climate change is becoming more and more of an issue.

“We went into this saying the only failure we see is not trying,” Ganguly said. “If we try and we don’t succeed, at least we’ll know we’ve given it our best shot to save the institutional values.”

Past Precedent?

Yet to be seen is whether those fighting to change the futures of Green Mountain or Hampshire can tap in to a similar energy -- or similar donor bases -- to what propelled Saving Sweet Briar’s success several years ago. Those who helped prevent Sweet Briar from closing can help the groups learn how to assess their situations, consider institutions’ viability going forward and marshal resources for potential legal battles, said Teresa Pike Tomlinson, who chaired the Sweet Briar board after it was overhauled.

Tomlinson thinks administrators at colleges that consider closing have sometimes been reluctant to take dramatic action like tuition resets or major curricular changes. Both have been deployed at Sweet Briar after the college’s reboot.

“People need to take heed and understand that this is a tough time for private higher education institutions,” Tomlinson said. “They offer a valuable resource in that they allow a very nurturing and rigorous educational environment for a lot of young people, and there’s no doubt these institutions are turning out leaders in their various fields. Yet we’re letting them sort of die on the vine, because the administrative leadership is not being bold and forthright about the threat they’re under.”

College officials are keeping their troubles too close to the vest for too long, she said.

“It is a stigma,” she said. “If the college is under distress, then it may discourage people from coming there and obviously would be counterintuitive to your efforts to keep the college open and healthy and growing. What seems to be happening is people get so closed that they don’t really open themselves up to their potential resources and alumni being able to give more robustly than they ever have before.”

Not everyone sees it exactly the same way. Brian Weinblatt is the founder and principal of Higher Ed Consolidation Solutions, a consultancy focused on college mergers.

“What we're seeing now at both Hampshire and Green Mountain Colleges is far too little, far too late,” he said in an email. “This applies both to the administrative efforts and those of the alumni, parents and others who are calling for external support for the institutions. The thoughts, well wishes and gestures of support are all well intentioned, however, they cannot realistically make a difference at this point.”

The institutions in question would have needed to make major changes much earlier if they were to survive, Weinblatt continued. A thoughtful leader should view discussions about mergers and consolidations as a chance to avoid closing the door on a storied institution with a rich history and not dismiss them as a failure, he said.

“Make no mistake -- for some institutions there truly will be no viable path forward,” Weinblatt said. “And some -- perhaps many -- will close in the coming years. But astute leaders who truly look at all available options can chart a path forward to continued existence and success and not find themselves in a place where they are announcing cancellations of incoming classes of students, desperation fund-raising campaigns or complete closures.”

At this point in time, perhaps Hampshire’s president, Nelson, put it best in a Feb. 13 letter.

“It’s been a painful month for the Hampshire community, to put it mildly,” she wrote.

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