• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


A Salute to Hampshire

A struggling college and the success of community college transfer students.

January 16, 2019

Apparently Hampshire College is endangered enough that it’s looking at not accepting an entering class this Fall, and it’s looking for a merger.  

As a former New Englander and a veteran of both the New England liberal arts college scene and Western Massachusetts in particular, this one was a shock.

Hampshire is one of the “five colleges,” a group of well-known colleges in Hampshire County that also includes UMass, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and The College That Shall Not Be Named. (Fellow Ephs know why.) In my time at Holyoke Community College, I actually participated in an articulation agreement photo op with then-President Lash at Hampshire. We used to send a few students there every year, although it was never as popular or welcoming as Mount Holyoke.  

(The latest Jack Kent Cooke foundation report on the unheralded success of community college transfer students at selective four-year schools could easily have highlighted Mount Holyoke. It was always welcoming. The College That Shall Not Be Named wasn’t nearly as much…)

Hampshire’s claim to fame has been its 60’s vibe.  It was born in 1970, later even than Holyoke CC was, and it was very much of its time.  It has long embodied a sort of left Calvinism in which students scrutinize each other for signs of complicity with this form of domination or that one.  Why anybody would voluntarily pay for that experience was never clear to me, but some people seemed to like it. A few years ago it posted an ad for a “chief creative officer,” which occasioned some chuckling among the neighbors.  It was a very Hampshire thing to do.

Still, it has carried a strong reputation in its way for the last several decades.  While its culture was, uh, let’s go with “quirky,” its academics were strong and its students smart.  It was nestled among some of the most respected colleges in America, plus Amherst. It never occurred to me that it would be in trouble.

Demographics are ruthless.

Massachusetts has seen several colleges drop recently. Wheelock and Newbury Colleges are no more, although parts of Wheelock survive as part of a larger institution.  But Hampshire has national name recognition and draw far beyond what either Wheelock or Newbury had. And it’s still not enough.

If I were a betting sort, I’d bet that Hampshire will become part of UMass.  UMass is big enough to do it, and the two are literally in the same town. It wouldn’t be a stretch. I hope that happens; for all of its quirkiness, I’d hate to see Hampshire faculty and staff lose their jobs. 

I have to tip my cap to Hampshire for being aboveboard about its plans. Statements of doom can become self-fulfilling. That often tempts colleges in crisis to put on a happy face in public until the last possible moment, with the unintended effect of stranding students who unknowingly commit to something that can’t commit to them.  To its credit, Hampshire’s leadership has chosen instead to step up and avoid putting prospective students on a sinking ship. That could not have been easy. Whatever happens, I hope it’s able either to teach out its current students or to arrange soft landings for them at good places.

For the rest of us, especially in the Northeast, this is a red flag with flashing lights on it. Hampshire doesn’t have the endowment of some places, but it has a national name and a clear niche, and it couldn’t hold off demographic change.  A model built for 1970 failed to change in time, though, to be fair, I don’t know how hard it tried. The world caught up and passed it by.

Here’s hoping that on its way out, Hampshire teaches the rest of us a crucial last lesson. 


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