At a press conference on January 15, Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson announced the small, liberal arts college was seeking a "strategic partner." She didn't specify any potential partners, or say whether it would necessarily be another school.
"When we look at what the precedent-setting is right now in higher education, it would likely be someone in higher education," Nelson told reporters. "But it's such a disruptive time that that doesn't mean we would rule out another type of partner."
Emails offer some details
At that point, Nelson did have at least one potential partner in mind: UMass Amherst.
Hampshire and UMass had been in discussions since last November. That's according to emails that New England Public Radio recently requested through the state public records law, which covers correspondence to and from university officials.
In a recent interview, Nelson said Hampshire was not ready to name possible partners at that point — or indeed, today.
"I don't think we were far enough along," she said. "Whatever partner we end up going with, there will be a very open public engagement as a both communities would decide whether this is a good match. And we simply haven't gotten there with a partner yet."
Nelson said the release of the emails means she's now free to talk about why UMass would be an effective partner.
"It's a burden off my shoulders to be able to talk [about] the fact that we've been having conversations with UMass," she said.
In some ways, UMass and Hampshire are not an obvious pairing. Hampshire has a much more flexible academic approach than UMass — for example, there are no grades. But Nelson pointed out UMass helped found Hampshire 50 years ago.
"They have been a close partner of Hampshire's since 1970," she said. "It's a flagship, elite public institution. So the public mandate and the accessibility is really, really important to us."
UMass-Hampshire merger talks slowed
But at the same time, Nelson said things have changed considerably since those earlier email exchanges. For one, Hampshire's public announcement has led to conversations with "a handful" of other institutions, all in academia.
"We really are in multiple discussions with potential partners, and we're really trying to identify what is the best partner for us at this point in time," she said.
In one released email, Nelson suggested that UMass and Hampshire sign a nonbinding letter of intent.
But UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said UMass decided against it.
"There really wasn't enough detail for us at that stage to continue down that path, to know what the paramaters might be," Blaguszewski said.
Blaguszewski said the conversations with Hampshire have since been put on pause — mostly, he said, so that Hampshire can figure out what's best for its community.
"If the time and the place comes where they want to engage with us again with some ideas, we're happy to do that," he said. "But it's not the time and the place right now."
Trying to keep an early news story 'at bay'
The emails also revealed a timeline for how the news of Hampshire's situation became public. Nelson had always planned to publicize the search for a partner, but she moved up the announcement after a Boston magazine reporter asked if Hampshire was considering giving up its independence.
At that point, Nelson told the reporter the college had "heard that rumor for time to time for years. Our formal answer is we don't respond to rumors, period."
When asked why she didn't own up to the UMass conversations at that time, Nelson said in an interview, "They were confidential conversations that we were having."
Encouragement — and concern — from the other Five Colleges
UMass and Hampshire are both members of the Five College Consortium, and the released emails show some anxiety on the part of the other schools about the partnership discussions. Nelson alluded to this in a January 10 email to public relations officials at UMass and Hampshire.
Referencing the presidents of Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, Nelson wrote, "They very much support UMass and Hampshire's mutual interest in partnering. But they want to be very cautious in how their support is conveyed as they don't want their college constituents lobbying them to 'save' Hampshire and they don't want to be a part of any disingenuous statement."
That concern was demonstrated in a January 11 email from Amherst College President Biddy Martin. Citing advice from legal counsel, Martin asked Nelson to remove any reference to the Five Colleges in Hampshire's letter announcing it was looking for a partner. Nelson consented, and it was removed from the draft.
Later in January, after NEPR reported that UMass and Hampshire had discussed a "deeper collaboration," Amherst College's chief communications officer, Sandy Genelius, sent an email to public relations officials at the two schools.
"I am completely sympathetic to the extremely complicated situations both of you are in, and I do understand that navigating the public face of that is incredibly difficult," Genelius wrote.
But "in the spirit of the Five College partnership," Genelius asked them to give her a heads-up about future stories to help "us manage the sensitivities and reactions of our own communities."
Current turmoil and the next steps
A lot has happened since Hampshire's public announcement. The administration decided not to admit a full class of students for next fall, and nine staff members have been given layoff notices — with more likely in April. There's also been a challenge to Nelson's leadership and that of the board of trustees, including a faculty resolution that could lead to a no-confidence vote.
Nelson said those messages make it harder to negotiate a future partnership, which she and the board say is critical to preserve the college.
"People need to understand we're facing an existential threat at this point in time because of three years of low enrollment," she said. "Right now, we have to act, and we can't just wait."
Nelson said she hopes to announce a possible partner — and get public input on it — within the next month or two.