‘Hampshire Will Go On to the Next Thing’

Incoming president talks strategies for recovering from a tumultuous seven months.

July 22, 2019
 
Hampshire College
Ed Wingenbach

Edward Wingenbach is entering a high-profile, high-pressure situation when he takes over as president of Hampshire College next month.

Wingenbach, who was named the next president of the private liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass., last week, already faces a ticking clock. The New England Commission of Higher Education will decide in November whether to continue Hampshire’s accreditation after a tumultuous year.

How the new president navigates the next few months will be closely watched by many of those concerned about the future of small private colleges. Hampshire finds itself under many of the same pressures bearing down on liberal arts institutions across the country, and it has become a closely watched case since those pressures exploded in dramatic fashion earlier this year.

Hampshire’s previous administration announced in January that it was exploring merging the college into another institution. Alumni rejected that idea, leading in April to the ouster of former president Miriam E. Nelson and resignation of former board chair Gaye Hill. But before the leadership changes were put in place, Hampshire had already locked itself into not admitting a full freshman class for fall 2019.

That leaves the college expecting to enroll this fall just 15 new students who had previously signed up for early admission or deferred enrollment, far fewer than the 300 new students who normally would make up a new class. That’s exacerbating the same pressures that led its former leaders to explore a merger in the first place -- budget stress and enrollment challenges.

Wingenbach, who held leadership roles at Ripon College in Wisconsin since 2015, argues Hampshire can leverage its unique history as an educational experiment in order to recover as the higher education landscape changes. He spoke by telephone Friday about the college’s situations and his plans for its future.

The following exchange has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Q: What do you see as priorities after you start in a couple of weeks?

A: Hampshire is the essential institution of American higher education. It’s the place that has as its mission innovating and experimenting in ways that invent the future of higher education.

Many of the things that are now aspirational, high-impact practices that all of our colleges and universities are trying to do in various successful and unsuccessful ways -- most of those were pioneered at Hampshire and perfected at Hampshire. And so the role of Hampshire College at some level is to continue to invent the future of higher education and the future of student-centered teaching.

What is a priority for me is that Hampshire needs to, in a sense, recommit itself to that entrepreneurial spirit. A little bit of what’s happened here is, as often happens at institutions, you start to do a bunch of things well, and then you get attached to continuing to do them well, and after a little while they are not quite as innovative and exciting as they were at the start.

Q: Where could you could push those innovations?

A: I’ve got a whole series of ideas, and I’ve had conversations with people here on campus who have interesting ideas. I’m a little leery about exploring, in public, what those ideas might look like.

The faculty, the staff, people who are invested in Hampshire College, the students here at the college -- we have to map out what those ideas for innovation are going to look like, what kind of curriculum we’re going to embed here.

We need to be able to tell students who want to come and their families who want to come what experiment they are doing, and we also need to be able to speak with NECHE about that. So there are going to be some substantive answers to that question pretty quickly here, and I’m just leery about predetermining that.

Q: Effectively, what you’re talking about is making everybody feel they have a part in shared governance and a shared community. Is there a tension between shared governance and your tight accreditation timeline?

A: There really are three competing values in shared governance. There is participation. There is speed of decision making. And then there is the workload -- the work it takes to make decisions. If you’re willing to focus the work and energy of the community primarily on participatory shared governance for a period of time, you can be both democratic and move quickly.

I think Hampshire is in a position right now where it has to prioritize, as an entire community, the shared work of figuring out what it means to be an experimenting college in the 21st century. We have to do that work. That has to be our priority.

Everything else for the next several months has to be put, kind of, off to the side. We did that when I came to Ripon College in 2015. I came into an institution that was needing to reinvent its core curriculum in order to do something exciting that would attract more students but also because it needed to fit a curriculum that was much too large to a faculty that was shrinking and needed to shrink further.

And we managed to invent that new curriculum, one that Inside Higher Ed has covered, in four months, start to finish. But that’s all we did that semester. We met as a full faculty every week and put all of our committees behind that.

You can sustain that kind of engagement for intensive periods of time when something is really important. We’re going to have to do that here.

Q: How does that fit with recruiting new students? The Boston Globe reported you have 15 new students coming in for the fall. Anyone in enrollment management will tell you, you can maybe survive one year like that. Going forward, you just can’t keep taking such hits. How does your process fit with the need to recruit new students?

A: The first thing that’s important to say about that is we only have 15 students because there was a decision made not to take students who wanted to come here. When that decision was made, there were approximately 70 early-action students who had deposited. And the admissions office was on track to bring in a class of over 300 -- a typical-size class.

In the two months that followed that decision, the admissions office spent a whole lot of time dealing with angry or disappointed students or parents who really wanted to come to Hampshire College.

Had we been willing to take a class here, there would have been 300-plus people here this fall. So I have no doubt that we can get a class of 300-plus for the coming fall [2020]. People are interested in the kind of education that only Hampshire delivers.

Part of what we need to do is not just show people that we’re still here. We are a unique institution where, as a student, you can do things you can’t do anywhere else.

Q: The previous administration had what I’ll call a pessimistic outlook for the market and for the college’s prospects as an independent institution. It was set against a background where a lot of experts say it is not going to be a good decade for New England colleges. Are there steps you need to take to shore up finances or show folks that you’re going to be financially viable going forward?

A: Of course. One of the things we have to do is continue to fund-raise at the rate that we have been this year.

After the announcement by the previous administration that they were looking for a partner and not going to take a class, there was this just massive outpouring of support from alums and parents and people who just care about Hampshire College and didn’t attend here. There have been over $9 million in cash and pledges raised just since February, which is more than a year’s worth of normal fund-raising at Hampshire College. So we have to maintain that momentum and external fund-raising.

We also, though, have to adjust our cost structure. The problem that Hampshire College is facing isn’t and wasn’t that there aren’t enough students interested in attending Hampshire College. The problem that Hampshire was facing was an inability to imagine how to function within the means that they have.

There are a lot of places where the challenge is they can’t find enough students who want to come. And they can’t find students who have the means to attend. That is not Hampshire’s challenge.

Hampshire’s challenge is matching our expenses to the very stable level of student interest and revenue that is available to the college.

The short-term challenge is because we didn’t take a class this fall. That’s going to take four years to flow through. But four years from now, I have no doubt that Hampshire College will have more than 1,000 students and we’ll have a whole lot more external funding to support the work we’re doing.

Q: When you talk about aligning costs structures, does that mean faculty cuts or cuts elsewhere?

A: We have to build a budget based on our realistic expectations for tuition, room and board revenue, and other sources of revenue. And then work backwards from that to prioritize where we can spend our money.

Here is the size of college that we can consistently afford to be. How do we meet our mission within that? How do we prioritize together? How do we make those decisions? It’s like the innovation. I don’t want to get ahead of myself on that.

Q: Can you offer any sense of what size enterprise the college is likely to become?

A: I think the long-term goal here is a college that is somewhere around 1,200 students and maybe larger than that if there are enough students who are qualified and interested in the kind of experience we offer.

I think that student body needs to demonstrate the kind of diversity that is essential to Hampshire’s identity, and that needs to include socioeconomic diversity. We need to think about how we maintain access for students, particularly students who are potentially most likely to benefit from designing their own course of study being measured by faculty.

A lot of that depends on fund-raising, and so I think the goals that have been set publicly here, which include raising something like $100 million over the next five years and returning to a student size of about 1,200 -- I think those are reasonable goals, and we should strive to accomplish them.

Q: Did you examine any case studies of other colleges, or are you planning to call anyone up and ask how they navigated a similar situation to Hampshire’s?

A: There are places that are wrestling with these questions, including the institution that I’m coming from. In fact, I think there are more residential liberal arts colleges that are addressing and dealing with some version of the challenge Hampshire faces than aren’t.

What is distinctive about the situation at Hampshire and one of the things that I’m really excited about -- part of the reason I was willing to just jump into this -- what most small colleges who are facing financial challenges want and don’t have is something unique to offer to parents and students.

You hear a lot about value propositions and return on investment and standing out in a crowded marketplace and all of that kind of language. Hampshire doesn’t have to invent that. People know who we are. We know who we are. Nobody does anything like what we do. There’s a lot of excitement that can be harnessed around that, and so that’s a big advantage in trying to return to health, particularly when the drop in enrollment was self-imposed.

Q: Do you have any other thoughts on the broader market in the Northeast or nationwide? I talk to a lot of enrollment managers and consultants who are very concerned about what it looks like going forward.

A: It would be delusional not to be concerned about the marketplace, not just in the Northeast. Following 2026 there is a decline in 18-year-olds across the country. That’s acute in the Northeast.

Yes, it’s clearly a challenge. I think the thing about a place like Hampshire College is that in order to be a healthy and thriving institution, we only need to find 400 or 500 students a year across the country who want this incredibly unique opportunity. I think there are a lot more than 400 or 500 high school seniors who want to design their own course of study, ask their own sets of questions, engage in cooperative problem solving to deal with the big challenges of the world, in a place like Amherst, Mass., which is a great place for young people to spend four years.

Hampshire has all of the advantages to survive and thrive in that declining market.

Q: You have the Five College Consortium. Have you had discussions with any of its members?

A: Here’s another advantage that we have, apart from being an exciting place that has lots of colleges. That collaboration with the five colleges is really strong.

This fall, we’ve got a significant portion of our faculty who have taken visiting positions around the other four of the five colleges. And so we’ve been able, for the fall, to reduce the number of faculty that are full-time on the Hampshire College campus to a number that’s close to what we need to educate the 700 or so students that will be here this fall.

Mount Holyoke and Smith and Amherst and UMass Amherst have been really generous in finding full-time homes for many of our faculty who will still be available to our students to advise many of their independent projects and mentor them.

Q: Do you know how many faculty are doing that?

A: There are 19 right now that are full-time appointments across the other four colleges, which is a lot of people.

Q: What is Hampshire’s total faculty count?

A: Including the ones that are on leave, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 100.

Q: Is the idea that they’ll come back to Hampshire?

A: That’s the model. These are faculty who have taken leaves of absence from Hampshire to take visiting positions at the other colleges while we restructure our curriculum and recover our student body size.

There is another piece. A chunk of our faculty who are at Hampshire have taken reduced loads, as well, during the coming year -- voluntarily. They volunteered to take reduced loads for this coming year and therefore, the reduced load reduced their compensation.

There was a lot of cooperative work done here by the faculty to try to make the finances manageable through this period. It shows a level of commitment that was really impressive.

Q: Did you want to mention anything else?

A: Hampshire will continue to be the place that is trying to invent the next thing in higher ed, and I think we’re going to come up with some really interesting ideas that we, unlike almost anybody else in America, can make real. We have the ability to innovate and experiment based on our mission.

Literally, the mission of Hampshire College is to be an experimental college to transform higher education, and I am really confident that we’re going to be doing really very exciting things that other people are going to be simulating five years, 10 years from now.

And Hampshire will go on to the next thing it can invent.

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