Hampshire College begins layoffs, tensions rise in community

BY MERYL PHAIR ’21

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Hampshire College announced that nine employees from their admissions and advancement offices would be let go, effective April 19, 2019. 

Hampshire’s Feb. 1 decision to put the brakes on recruitment efforts and the review of new incoming student applications seriously affected their admissions office. As of now, Hampshire’s incoming first-year class for the Fall of 2019 consists of 77 students who have either accepted the College’s offer to enroll via Early Decision I or were accepted last year and deferred entry. 

“We are losing valued colleagues and friends whose thoughtfulness and dedication have had measurable, and immeasurable, impact on our students, families, alums and the campus community. We will work to provide resources and support to ease their transition,” said President of Hampshire College Miriam Nelson in an email sent out to the campus community late Tuesday afternoon. 

More faculty layoffs and staff cuts will be announced in April but numbers for those cutbacks are not yet public, according to an article published by MassLive on Feb. 19. Hampshire’s 400 employees include 250 staff members and 150 faculty members. 

The layoffs have been met with a considerable response from student resistance organization HampRiseUp and the Save Hampshire movement, a group of alumni, parents and other community members focused on achieving clarity about Hampshire’s financial situation and evaluating whether or not the administration’s decisions are in Hampshire’s best interest. Save Hampshire wants to develop an inclusive and transparent process in which faculty, staff and students have a say in the College’s decision-making processes. 

On Friday, Feb. 15, Save Hampshire worked with students from HampRiseUp to hold a demonstration in Franklin Patterson Hall at Hampshire College. The event was a space for the community to continue conversations about what was happening at the College and for Save Hampshire to develop a coordinated strategy with students going forward.

“I was really impressed by how organized the student demonstrators were,” said Sarah Dauer ’20, a Mount Holyoke College student at the event. “In fact, one thing that has blown my mind about everything happening at Hampshire is how thorough and unified the student organizers are.”

Following the announced layoffs, the College’s faculty met on Wednesday, Feb. 20 for a vote of no confidence, a resolution expressing no confidence in the institution’s president, Board of Trustees and chief financial officer. 

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the vote was invalidated by the faculty executive committee because of technical and procedural problems. Hampshire’s executive committee said in a statement that during the vote they experienced “glitches and irregularities.” There was also a procedural question raised by Dean of Faculty Eva Rueschmann. 

According to Rachel Creemers, Save Hampshire’s  Communications Director, Hampshire’s affiliate chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) “was attempting to negotiate with the administration, including severance packages and the hearing of grievances.” 

Creemers said that the administration refused to work with Hampshire’s faculty affiliate. Hampshire’s AAUP Legal Working Group believes they did so because “they fear that [...] would run the risk of recognizing us as a legitimate bargaining body.”

Save Hampshire is concerned that the current financial crisis may be manufactured. A summary report of research backing their claim is posted on Save Hampshire’s blog and was discussed at the Feb. 15 demonstration. They are calling on the College’s administration to halt layoffs and accept a class for the fall of  2019 and following spring of 2020 until the discrepancies Save Hampshire, the AAUP and the student body have found in their research are addressed. 

Save Hampshire claims that Hampshire College was not in a crisis when its leadership made crucial decisions changing the course of Hampshire’s future, as claimed in the College’s summary report. Hampshire is not at risk of losing accreditation, and although the College is facing serious financial challenges, Save Hampshire’s summary report says “they are not at all of an order that requires the extraordinary measures of massive layoffs of staff and faculty and the decision to not admit a full F19 class.” 

“Moreover, we are concerned that since 2016, the Board of Trustees have not published their meeting minutes, as they are required to do,” said Creemers. Save Hampshire believes that the college has the capacity to have a slower, truly democratic and transparent process of determining its future.  

Meanwhile, Save Hampshire has asked the state attorney general to open an investigation into Hampshire College about their use of nondisclosure agreements (NDA). “The main reasons for the investigation is to determine if there is any conflict of interest,” Creemers explained. Was the Hampshire community being misled with misinformation or were not all of the facts provided? We are concerned that board members may have personal financial interests in a merger.”

Creemers said that Save Hampshire is working on a letter to both the Trustees of Hampshire College and the Massachusetts attorney general, asking the Trustees to disclose any conflicts of interests or conflict of interest checks that they might have conducted. Another letter will focus on the misleading and conflicting information the Hampshire community has received from the Board of Trustees and President Nelson. 

“We are also concerned that the Hampshire community has not been given the entire story from the Trustees, president and administration in light of the emails that were revealed by the Daily Hampshire Gazette on February 22, 2019,” said Creemers. 

On Friday, Feb. 22, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article containing emails sent from Nelson to Kumble Subbaswamy, University of Massachusetts Chancellor; John Kennedy, Vice Chancellor for University Relations at UMass; Chris Dunn, Executive Director of Public and Constituent Relations at UMass; David Gibson, Chief Creative Officer at Hampshire College; and John Buckley, the CEO of Subject Matters. The subject line read “Confidential.” 

The emails were retrieved from the University of Massachusetts through a public records request by the Daily Hampshire Gazette and contained information about Hampshire’s search for a strategic partner. 

Nelson’s email was sent on Jan. 10, five days before she went public with Hampshire’s search for what she called a “strong partner with whom we can move forward with a sustainable and impactful future.” 

Nelson said in the email that once Hampshire College was public about their intent, Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts would move to signing a non-binding letter of intent in the “not too distant future.” 

Nelson stressed the importance of the presidents of Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges being comfortable with Hampshire’s public announcement about the intent to find a partner. 

“They very much support UMass and Hampshire’s mutual interest in partnering,” Nelson wrote. “But they want to be very cautious in how their support is conveyed as they don’t want their constituents lobbying them to ‘save’ Hampshire and they don’t want to be a part of any disingenuous statement.”

“As written, the article seems to suggest more involvement on my part than is the case, and I thought it important that you hear directly from me about this matter,” said Sonya Stephens, President of Mount Holyoke College, in an email sent out to the campus community on Saturday Feb. 23, following the release of the Hampshire Gazette article. 

Stephens said that on Jan. 9, President Nelson communicated to the Five College Board of Directors that because of significant financial constraints, Hampshire College would be looking for a partner and there had been some conversations between the leadership of Hampshire College and UMass. “This was the first time that I heard of these developments, and we were asked to hold this information in confidence,” said Stephens. 

Stephens also made it clear that during the Jan. 9 meeting that conversation between Hampshire and UMass should not be taken to mean that any of the other Five Colleges “[had] been party to these discussions.” She also stated that Mount Holyoke would not endorse anything without a detailed understanding of the plan. “Both President Nelson and Chancellor Subbaswamy emphasized that there was no concrete plan or agreement at that time and that Hampshire was still considering a number of paths forward,” said Stephens. 

Stephens said that she will continue to update the Mount Holyoke community, provide information to Hampshire colleagues about employment opportunities and respond “sympathetically” to transfer requests from Hampshire students.

Mount Holyoke News

Mount Holyoke News , Blanchard Campus Center, 50 College Street, South Hadley, MA, 01075