Johanna Alonso/Inside Higher Ed
AMHERST, Mass., Aug. 31—Move-in day for new students at Hampshire College dawned sunny and cool, catching some arrivals from the New College of Florida by surprise.
“My girlfriend’s mom set me up with a snow jacket. I had to put it on,” said Libby Harrity.
Harrity is one of nearly three dozen New College students who accepted Hampshire’s offer of transfer this fall in the wake of Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s move to transform the liberal arts college in Sarasota into a bastion of conservatism. With faculty fleeing New College in droves and students increasingly wary of the new leadership—which among other things axed the diversity, equity and inclusion office and eliminated the gender studies program—Hampshire’s offer of admission to any New College student in good standing quickly won notice and appreciation.
(Harrity’s situation was slightly different: she was accused of spitting on trustee Chris Rufo during a bill signing on campus but reached an agreement with the college that the charges would be dropped if she withdrew.)
Some students and their families arrived in Massachusetts by plane; others opted to drive to make it easier to move their belongings the 1,300-plus miles to Hampshire. Still others scrambled to adapt their travel plans after Hurricane Idalia disrupted their flights.
Hampshire president Ed Wingenbach greeted the students, handing out room keys as they arrived on campus. He insisted it wasn’t a special gesture to make the New College transfers feel especially welcome; he’s always been on hand during move-in day, he said, helping students unload boxes and cart them to their dorms.
Still, it made an impact on parents and students coming from New College, where they felt pushed aside to make room for new students, especially athletes, as the institution has striven to chart a new course and boost enrollment.
“I can’t believe how much this school reminds me of when they first started at New College, as far as the genuine kindness and the genuine caring. They genuinely want to help. They genuinely want to be there,” said Tracy Fero, the mother of a student who transferred to Hampshire and a vocal opponent of New College’s recent changes. “I forgot that because of the last eight months of fight or flight.”
Other parents and former New College students felt the same way.
“These people have been such a blessing. I had to go up four flights of stairs with all my stuff—I had five orientation leaders lugging everything up,” Harrity said. “Everyone has been overwhelmingly kind and welcoming and understanding. Even though they can’t have any idea what [we] have gone through, they are trying their best to be so empathetic and I appreciate that.”
The New College Cohort
As on any move-in day, the campus buzzed with energy. Orientation leaders and other upperclassmen scurried about, greeting friends they hadn’t seen since spring. New College students, too, greeted each other—in some cases with a cheery “I didn’t know you were coming!”
Throughout move-in, Fero encountered several names she recognized from a group chat of New College parents but whom she'd never met in person. She believes the camaraderie among the New College cohort will make the transition easier.
“It’s just so nice to feel like you’re a part, still, of a group of students that you fought so long with and you’ve fought so hard for,” she said, standing on the grass in front of the dining hall and smiling at other New College families as they came and went.
Indeed, many of the New College students were placed on the same halls in the dorms; they also were grouped together for certain orientation activities, including a discussion of the nonfiction book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
A great deal of preparation went into the process of transferring New College students to Hampshire. In many ways, it’s a match made in heaven: neither college uses traditional grades, for example, and both require students to finish a major project in order to graduate. But New College, unlike most of the institutions Hampshire transfers come from, does not have a traditional credit system, making it difficult to translate a New College student’s academic progress into placement at Hampshire.
Early in the process, Natasha Doherty, an associate director of admissions who works with transfer students, relied on New College students to help her understand how the college’s academic pathway mapped onto Hampshire’s, where the schedule is divided not into four years but three “divisions.” From there, she worked with each student individually to understand where they were in their studies and what they would need to do to complete their education at Hampshire.
The personal connection has been meaningful to the transfers, said Doherty, a Hampshire alum who was also a transfer student.
“I’ve seen a few students today. A couple actually stopped by to give me hugs, which was nice. I think I’m one of the few people that have met these students in person—some of them came up to visit—or have talked to them on the phone or Zoom,” she said. “Some of these kids are leaving Florida for the first time, so having a face that they recognize has been helpful.”
But it’s also important not to treat the New College students as traditional transfers, multiple leaders at Hampshire stressed.
“It’s easy for us to forget that they’re not here because they wanted to be here. They wanted to be at New College, and we have to be really respectful of that,” said Fumio Sugihara, Hampshire’s dean of enrollment.
Linked by the Liberal Arts
New College students have seen their college undergo a head-spinning transformation in the past year, from a progressive haven that resembled Hampshire in some ways to a tightly controlled institution promoting what DeSantis and his appointees are now touting as a “classical liberal arts education.”
Where New College, under the leadership of interim president Richard Corcoran, plans to introduce a core curriculum for all students, Hampshire has no majors or general education requirements. Where New College eliminated its diversity, equity and inclusion office, Hampshire considers the question of how to “disrupt and dismantle white supremacy” as core to its educational mission. Where Florida is home to some of the nation’s strictest anti-LGBTQ+ laws, including bathroom bills that disallow trans people on college campuses from using the facilities that align with their gender identity, the bathrooms on Hampshire’s campus are all gender neutral.
Until recently, New College and Hampshire were more similar than different. The colleges were founded less than a decade apart—NCF in 1960 and Hampshire in 1965—with a strong focus on individualized education. The original proposal for Hampshire even referred to it as “New College.”
That’s why Wingenbach saw New College of Florida as “kind of a sibling” to the institution he has led since 2019—and why he offered every New College student the opportunity to study at Hampshire this fall for the same tuition they paid at NCF.
Wingenbach said he first thought about extending the offer back in January, when DeSantis appointed six new trustees—including numerous conservative activists—to New College’s board.
“We thought, well, if they’re really going to destroy New College, and they’re really going to drive out everybody who actually wants to ask genuine questions about how racism works and how white supremacy gets reproduced and what it means to be queer or have a gender or not, then we need to try to help,” he said.
But he first wanted to check with the leaders of the Save New College movement, a group of students, parents, employees and alumni seeking to wrest New College back from its new leaders, to ensure that he wouldn’t be undermining their efforts.
The response, he said, was resoundingly encouraging. So, in March, the university officially extended an invitation.
“This opportunity is in response to the continuing attacks on New College of Florida intended to limit intellectual exploration, turn back progress toward inclusion, and curtail open discussion of race, injustice, and histories of oppression,” Hampshire officials wrote in the announcement. “By committing to impose a narrowly politicized curriculum on New College, the newly appointed trustees broke promises made to its current students to support a self-directed, rigorous education grounded in a commitment to free inquiry.”
A total of 89 former New College students applied, and 35 are attending Hampshire this fall; another 30 have deferred to the spring semester. Additionally, Hampshire plans to renew the invitation in the spring, appealing to students who weren’t ready to make the leap this fall. Wingenbach said that as leaders in right-leaning states continue to target higher education, more and more institutions that believe in diversity and inclusion will need to be ready to help whenever they can.
The move benefits Hampshire as well. Just a handful of years ago, the college seemed on the brink of closing. It faced significant fiscal shortfalls in 2019, after a conflict between admissions and financial personnel resulted in a severe enrollment deficit, according to Ken Rosenthal, one of the university’s founders who also held the position of interim president in 2019.
Miriam Nelson, Hampshire’s president from 2018 to 2019, sought to address the college’s struggles by seeking a merger with a larger institution—a solution that received strong pushback from alumni, students and faculty who saw such drastic measures as unnecessary and feared the college could lose its distinctive character. Nelson even paused admissions in 2019, resulting in an incoming class that year of just 13 students. Ultimately, though, the college’s trustees voted to remain independent, and Nelson stepped down.
Since then, the college has worked hard to rebuild. Those efforts include launching a $60 million fundraising campaign and pushing to restore enrollment to pre-2019 numbers, as well as making a concerted effort to manage expenses, according to Jennifer Chrisler, chief advancement officer.
One of Hampshire’s most notable alumni, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, serves as co-chair on the fundraising campaign, which has raised more than $40 million thus far—including a $5 million anonymous donation in honor of Burns.
Wingenbach said that the college has altered its fundraising strategy to mirror that of a public action group or activist nonprofit, telling donors, “This is what we’re trying to accomplish, in transforming higher education and setting this kind of example. If you care about that, give us money to support that, and if you care about Hampshire, that experience mattered to you and you want to have it available for other students, give us money to support that,” he said. “People have really responded to that.”
Officials have also been transparent with donors that the college is seeking only unrestricted funds.
Still, Rosenthal noted certain factors that have helped Hampshire recover from its financial struggles more easily than other small liberal arts institutions, which have become the face of college closures in recent years.
Hampshire’s position in the Five College Consortium—a partnership that also includes Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and UMass Amherst—meant faculty didn’t have to be laid off when enrollment plummeted because many were able to move to jobs at the other colleges.
Hampshire is also a young college, Rosenthal said, which—morbid as it sounds—means that there is likely a wave of funds coming its way when the earliest classes of alumni pass away.
“I’m optimistic that in the future, there are some very wealthy alumni who have Hampshire in their wills. I have Hampshire in my will,” Rosenthal said, noting the sum was nothing significant.
Although Hampshire did not admit the New College students explicitly to boost enrollment, the move certainly helped; total enrollment this year is between 700 and 725, up from about 500 last fall. The college hopes eventually to return to enrolling between 1,100 and 1,200 students annually.
The New College offer was a minor boon on the fundraising side of things, as well, Chrisler said, with a few alumni who don’t agree with the direction DeSantis and Corcoran are taking New College opting to switch their annual donations to Hampshire instead.
Welcome to Campus
Toward the end of move-in day, students and their families packed into a small auditorium for the welcome event, where Sugihara rattled off statistics about the incoming class, including how many languages they spoke, how many were first-generation students and even how many played Dungeons & Dragons. About a quarter of the incoming group identified as transgender, nonbinary or another identity outside of the gender binary, he noted.
He also gave a shout-out to the New College students, prompting a huge whoop from Harrity, clad in a blue New College T-shirt.
In his speech to the students, Wingenbach cited a quote by the Black feminist theorist bell hooks, which describes queerness “as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live,” noting that it describes liberal arts better than anything else he has ever read.
“A real education, a genuinely free education, should make everyone feel ‘at odds with everything around them’ while also nurturing their capacity to ‘speak and thrive and live’ within that tension. It should foster a broader sense of nonconformity, anxious empathy and challenges to established norms. The liberal arts empower individuals to express themselves authentically, to explore unconventional paths and to express unorthodox viewpoints,” he said. “You might even say that the liberal arts are fundamentally queer.”
After the speeches ended, students were ushered out of the building and onto the lawn. There, they donned color coordinated T-shirts and formed an H in the colors of what’s known as the progress pride flag—an LGBTQ+ pride flag that also incorporates colors representing trans people and the Black Lives Matter movement—for a drone photo. With the snap of the camera, the group became a permanent part of Hampshire’s history.
For some of the Florida families, the transition is bittersweet; while their children’s futures are secure at Hampshire, they worry for the students still at New College, and for the institution itself.
Fero, who has caused a ruckus at previous New College Board of Trustees meetings, said she has no intention of backing off just because her child is now a Hampshire student.
“I don’t want to say that it’s too late, although part of me thinks that [it is],” she said. “But at the same time, I just feel like we can at least save some other kids in schools from going through that.”