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One Hampshire Story

"Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” 

                                    -- John Milton, Areopagitica

Warning: This shit gets personal.

As everyone here in Massachusetts’s Happy Valley—and much of the rest of academia—has heard by now, Hampshire College recently announced that it will not accept new students next year, except those it has already notified through its early admission program.

This past week, the college administration also announced its first layoffs: nine members of the staff from admissions and advancement. Much deeper cuts are reported to be in the works, estimated at thirty to fifty percent of faculty and staff. Since nearly ninety percent of the college’s operating budget comes from tuition, combined with fees for room and board, any decision to kill the incoming class effectively drains the college of its lifeblood. To then begin sacking the school’s admissions and advancement staff—the very people tasked with recruiting future students—is an attempt to inject embalming fluid. One imagines, in the moment after the Board of Trustees took the vote against accepting more students, someone muttering to themselves, Alea iacta est.

In response to these decisions, as well as the process by which they were decided, last Wednesday the Hampshire faculty passed a vote of no confidence in its president and the leadership of the board. Though at the last minute this vote was disallowed for technical reasons, the message sent was loud and clear. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, President Mim Nelson suggests this action by the faculty could endanger the fate of the college: “If uncertainty over changing leadership were to scuttle or delay a deal, she commented, ‘it could be very catastrophic for us.’”

In reality, delaying and even scuttling plans for such “strategic partnerships” may be the only way that Hampshire can be saved. There is a counternarrative to the official story of crisis, one which I’ll introduce below, but for now I simply want to push this argument farther: saving Hampshire College, I believe, may even be the last, best hope for keeping liberal arts education alive, in the country where it was invented.

Let’s get to what really pisses me off. You see, when subjects like college endowments, accreditation, financial solvency, demographic trends, and other number games get played out in the media, two things are inevitably accomplished: 1) the eyes of readers glaze over, and 2) an air of expertise and fiscal inevitability is established. The single technique behind all magic acts, misdirection is known to be effective. Here it is also nefarious: when we cede the lived experiences of actual human beings to the managers of data we allow Robert Strange McNamara and his ilk to get named as our Secretaries of War. What really happened this week is that nine people got notice that their jobs will end, sixty days from now.

As it happens, one of those nine is my friend Aaron Hellem, a former managing editor of the Massachusetts Review. Last year, on the second Friday in August, I got an email from a Hampshire staffer: Aaron had applied for the position of Assistant Director of Admissions and listed me as a reference. Could we two talk by phone on Monday? Absolutely, I replied, more than happy to do so, especially because this job was basically a perfect fit.

To folks who don’t know Aaron, and who haven’t taken a deep dive into the material practices of publishing, my response might seem a stretch. After all, what does marshalling writers, filing contracts, extorting royalties, setting proofs, not to mention keeping a battalion of editors and artistes in line have to do with being a fisher of students, with recruiting for an unorthodox college of the liberal arts? Stage-managing a magazine takes real organizational skill, but what it really requires is sympathy. And this is Aaron’s singular gift: he just plain understands where people are coming from. Back when Aaron was around, I remember how our office was a hub for every level of campus life: whether the maintenance guys we share the building with, the admin staff who get things done, those former students who still sought his guidance, or academics like me, inept for life outside the tower—Aaron was always their universal solvent.

Nothing could be more telling, when push comes to shove, of an institution’s character than those procedures it uses in hiring (or, for that matter, in firing). When I got that email from Hampshire asking for a phone consult, I was also sent a job description. Here, in particular, are the lines that seem resonant, given the current context: to become Assistant Director of Admissions, the “qualified applicant must be flexible and adaptable to changing environments; have effective public speaking and presentation skills; a belief in the value of a liberal arts education and passion for Hampshire's unique educational philosophy; and ability to knowledgeably communicate that uniqueness [. . .] The Assistant Director must be comfortable navigating challenging conversations; have a commitment to being a part of the larger Hampshire community; be receptive to feedback; and able to take initiative to solve problems as they arise.”

Some of this prose is by-the-book bureaucratese (“flexible and adaptable to changing environments . . . “effective public speaking and presentation skills”), but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Yet what impresses me in this description is its detail (I’m citing less than half of what I was sent) and the height of its bar (the “qualified applicant” must have “belief” and “passion,” and must “be comfortable navigating challenging conversations”). Back in August, I had no doubt that Aaron was born to do this job. Clearly Hampshire was convinced by him as well.

After the news last week came down, Aaron stopped by the MR office, so we had a few minutes to chat about this brutal turn of events. Frankly what came across first and foremost, as always, was his unflagging optimism, along with the persuasive and positive spin he still could muster. In other words, I heard testimony to his “belief in the value of a liberal arts education and passion for Hampshire's unique educational philosophy.” Such resilience is all the more amazing if you know why Aaron was on the job market in the first place. For a number of years, prior to his stint at Hampshire, he had been running nearly single-handedly the humanities coursework for a small community college in New Hampshire—until, that is, his entire program got downsized. In short, in little over a year, in the life of a single teacher, the philosophy of liberal arts education was sinned against twice.

Nonetheless, a couple of minutes into our conversation, Aaron was talking about the opportunity that this crisis presented, and about the turn that Hampshire College was now positioned to make. Where better than Hampshire, he reasoned, to square the circle that seems to imprison the liberal arts today? Why shouldn’t its partner institutions, the Five College Consortium, help Hampshire to become an experimental station devoted to finding out how to resuscitate the humanities and arts nationally? At that point, I stopped him, just to point out that he’d somehow recited, practically word for word, the exact idea I’d recently heard from a top administrator of another world-class institution, in an email exchange where we were discussing Hampshire’s fate. And as I later found out, Gregory Prince, a former president of Hampshire College, has also aired very similar ideas in print.

For this turn to happen, several steps need to be taken. First, and most important, the search for a “strategic partner” must indeed be delayed or scuttled. Why? Because before February 1, there may not have been a crisis. Suzanne Perkins and her fellow Hampshire alums at have argued that:

Hampshire College was not in a crisis when its leadership made crucial decisions changing the course of Hampshire’s future. We are not at risk of losing accreditation, and there are no state laws or regulations that threaten Hampshire’s status. Hampshire College does face serious financial challenges, but 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.

Enrollment, they note, has recently dropped, but this trend was both expected and planned for, and actually returns the college to recent levels. Accreditation has been certified for ten years, and Barbara Brittingham, president of the accrediting organization, confirmed that the college is “substantially in compliance with the standards of accreditation.” According to the alums, the idea—as reported yet again just a few days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article that relied almost exclusively on Hampshire’s President and the incoming chair of its Board of Trustees—that the New England Commission of Higher Education requires “‘a college must have the ‘financial capacity to graduate its entering class’” is simply false. The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education told Suzanne Perkins that “there are no new laws or regulations, no pending regulations, and no proposed regulations.” And, finally, as for Hampshire’s endowment, it actually grew from $33.2M in 2011 to $55.4M in 2018, which is very impressive, particularly for a fifty-year-old college where the alums have just begun to die off. That Chronicle article includes a table comparing Hampshire’s endowment unfavorably with that of its “peer institutions.” The average age of those so-called “peers” is over 135.

However, rather than extend yet another exercise in eye-glazing, for now let us leave truth and falsehood to grapple. Instead, I will return to the stakes at hand. In telling you a bit of the Aaron Hellem story, I have not by any means meant to suggest that his fate deserves special consideration. As a recently hired employee, by definition he has not toiled nearly as long nor invested nearly so much of his hopes, dreams, and creativity in this college as have many, many others. Think of it the other way round: Aaron’s is simply one Hampshire story, one brilliant soul with as yet untapped capacities; he is only one of the first nine, with untold numbers promised to come.

This has to stop. Those laid off should be immediately recalled, and they should be put to work recruiting future classes for Hampshire College, a liberal arts college for the future. The full incoming class of 2019 should be accepted, and they should be encouraged to take a leap of faith. Recent headlines will scare off some, but if prospective students are really Hampshire material, not only will they not shirk the challenge, they themselves will be part of the solution. If the alums behind are right, the Chronicle article is misguided, misinformed, and possibly disingenuous, and its title, especially its use of passive voice, is symptomatic. With no discussion of motives, actors, or agents, it purports to tell us “How Hampshire Was Brought to the Brink.”

To sum all this up, I’ll just say that I stand with Aaron. I actually believe that, with the support of its Five College partners, and the heroic activism, research, fundraising, and creativity of its alums, the faculty and students of Hampshire will be able to fix this thing, despite the damage already done. There is no one else better organized, situated, or trained, and no one with more talent, capacity, and conscience.

Time to drop the reins, and give this horse its head.

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.


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