Hampshire College seeks strategic future partner

Photo by Grace Mercer ’22  Hampshire College community members have responded to recent news of financial trouble with a call for greater transparency as the College seeks a long-term financial partner.

Photo by Grace Mercer ’22

Hampshire College community members have responded to recent news of financial trouble with a call for greater transparency as the College seeks a long-term financial partner.

BY ELIZABETH LEWIS ’22

President Miriam Nelson of Hampshire College announced the school’s decision to seek out a long-term partner to ensure their financial sustainability on Tuesday, Jan. 15. Hampshire’s leadership is also “carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class this fall,” according to the official statement released by their senior administration. Nelson insisted that while change is underfoot, Hampshire has no intention of closing its doors.

While Hampshire is healthy for the moment, it needs to be sustainable to survive, according to Nelson’s statement. “At Hampshire our budget is balanced, our $52 million endowment has performed well, and the success of our educational model is confirmed by an array of stellar data,” Nelson said. “Seeking a strategic partnership is the right and responsible thing to do. And now is the time to do it.”

Nelson began as Hampshire College’s seventh president in 2018, and from the beginning of her first semester has made clear that big changes were on Hampshire’s horizon. Hints of a plan to merge, for example, can be found in Nelson’s outline for a new “Visioning Project” launched in the fall of 2018. At one point, the outline states, “We need more than a strategic plan: we need to be open to transformative change.”

The day of Hampshire’s announcement, Mount Holyoke College President Sonya Stephens released a response on behalf of Mount Holyoke in support of Hampshire’s mission. In an email to the Mount Holyoke community, Stephens wrote, “It is our hope that Hampshire College will find a path forward that allows them to continue to thrive as an innovative force in education.”

Hampshire is not the first college to consider large-scale transformation in recent years. Among the most recent institutions to merge, close or be purchased are Mount Ida College, Newbury College, Green Mountain College and Wheelock College. These schools all have something in common; a dependence on tuition for the majority of their revenue. This trait is by no means a death sentence — most liberal arts colleges rely heavily on their tuition — but [a school’s] endowment can still be critical in the event that an institution hits a rough patch. According to Shannon Gurek, Mount Holyoke’s Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer of the College, “if you aren’t hitting your class sizes, you aren’t bringing in the tuition dollars you need to run your operation […] We’re very labor-intensive places, so if you’re not getting enough revenue in, you can’t support the expenses.”

Those expenses are hard to reduce, especially for liberal arts colleges, where standards include low professorto-student ratios and more individual attention for students. As Gurek also pointed out, “there’s a demographic squeeze going on — and it’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse, especially in the northeast.”

Gurek added, “Schools like Mount Ida and Newbury College are very regional. They pull from the northeast, but not much further [...] and there just aren’t enough students in New England to fill all the campuses we have.” The crucial question is then how small private schools can keep their enrollment both reliable and geographically diverse.

“Hampshire is a little bit different in that they […] have a wider reach than some of these schools,” said Gurek. “But they’re also a school that doesn’t have some of those background resources.” Hampshire is relatively young for an institution, currently nearing its 50th birthday. As a result, they have had less time and fewer critical opportunities to grow their endowment.

“Institutions with really strong resources [are] often a hundred fifty, two hundred years old,” Gurek explained, “which are that many more years of building a financial base. They’ve had the ability to grow after the war years when there were lots more students coming to college, and then also when many schools went co-ed and women started enrolling as well.” It is important to consider what assets a school has when measuring its financial success — sometimes it’s age and legacy, sometimes it’s a large endowment, and sometimes it’s a massive draw of applicants from across the world. If a school struggles in too many of those areas, it could lead to the kinds of mergers and closures that have become increasingly common in the U.S.

Gurek said that Mount Holyoke is financially healthy. While the College is indeed very tuition-dependent — a rough estimate of around 65 to 75 percent of our revenue comes from tuition — it also has a sizable endowment, which makes up about 25 percent of revenue, to fall back on. The endowment is essentially “a perpetual fund of money that we receive to support what we’re trying to do,” said Gurek. “Our revenue streams are a lot more diversified than some of the schools we’re talking about, and those resources give us a cushion, should we have a couple bad years.” Applicant diversification has also been a main focus of the College in the last few years, the results of which can be seen in the sheer numbers of this year’s record-breaking first-year class.

A petition titled “A Response from Hampshire College Faculty, Staff, and Alumnx to Recent Announcements by Hampshire College Senior Leadership,” has been circulating online since the announcement and calls on the senior administration at Hampshire to “admit the Fall 2019 first-year class and to immediately put in place a process that ensures that faculty and staff will be truly and fully engaged in a transparent and collaborative decision making process that reflects Hampshire’s tradition of shared governance.”

The rest of the petition continues to emphasize that many students and faculty value transparency moving forward, as a lack thereof can be disconcerting to those who would be affected by these decisions. For example, in the case of Mount Ida College, the ultimately unsuccessful search for a merger was kept completely hidden from students and most faculty. As a result, the closure of the school was seemingly abrupt, allowing little time to accommodate and adjust. Those who would be affected by upcoming changes at Hampshire, particularly faculty, ask to be kept in the loop and be involved with the decision-making itself.

Among the petition’s 2,078 signatures, the names of four Mount Holyoke professors can be found. One such signature belongs to Mount Holyoke’s chair of Neuroscience and Behavior, Professor Renae Brodie, who stated that she signed “to support [her] Hampshire colleagues, who were as shocked as everyone else to suddenly learn that Hampshire College was considering the option of not admitting a new class next year.”

Echoing what seems to be the popular sentiment in much of the Hampshire community, Brodie also expressed disdain for a lack of transparency in the decision process, “which inevitably led to confusion and mistrust,” as well as her hope that “going forward, the Hampshire College faculty will be included in the problem-solving process that is needed to stabilize their gem of an institution.”

For nearly fifty years, Hampshire has been a prominent name in higher education, occupying a niche of its own. Known for its progressive approach to education and an impressive list of alums, Hampshire has made its impression on higher education in the relatively short time since its founding.

The best option, in Gurek’s eyes and many others, would be for Hampshire to find a partner that allows them to maintain their integrity as a unique institution.

According to Nelson’s statement, Hampshire College will announce by Feb. 1 whether they will be admitting a new first-year class in 2019.

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