Hampshire College Professor Outlines Faculty Coalition's New 'Vision' For The School

Mar 12, 2019

It's been nearly two months since Hampshire College's president announced the school was searching for a long-term "strategic partner" to help the school as it faced enrollment declines and financial pressures. 

Some employees have been laid off — with more expected — as Hampshire prepares for an even smaller student body next year.

With all this going on, a group has coalesced on campus around a new vision for the school. Professor Christoph Cox is involved in the process, and talked with NEPR about what that vision will look like.

Christoph Cox, Hampshire College: So far, what we've been doing is compiling a lot of different ideas from a lot of different faculty members, and alums, and staff people and parents. It's a very broad coalition.

We're really interested in kind of capitalizing on Hampshire's reputation as a kind of undergraduate research college.

One idea that was proposed by a faculty member is that Hampshire organize itself around a set of flexible — and changing, as the time goes on — research clusters. Students would enter into these research clusters at the beginning of their time at Hampshire, and carry this through, at least for a few years afterwards. That's one of the ideas.

We have ideas for a much more collaborative among staff-faculty-student, both pedagogy and administrative structures.

There's been a proposal to try to make the lowest-paid faculty and the highest-paid faculty closer to one another. So there are a lot of different ideas.

Right now, we're just trying to sort those out, and see if we can put them into a compelling plan. I should say that we're not trying to get down into the nitty gritty right now. We're trying to sketch broad outlines that will be compelling to kind of all our constituencies, to really get energy behind it.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: In an early incarnation of the broad strokes of this plan, I read that your group was maybe looking at attracting students from schools that had recently closed. Is that something your group is pursuing? Is that a sustainable way to keep a thriving Hampshire going?

That's an idea that's been floated. It's not an idea that we're spending a lot of time with this week, as we sort of try to hammer out a plan. There have been various schools that have closed, and we'd be happy to attract those students, but obviously that's not a sustainable plan for the future.

We're more interested in really attracting people to a set of ideas that have been around at Hampshire for a long time. The idea of an experimenting college, the idea of a sort of a flexible, interdisciplinary college; but updating that for the 21st century. And we're also really interested in attracting a broad, very global group of students.

Whatever plan your group comes up with, it ultimately has to get the backing of the college president. And she said the plan is going to have to go quite a distance in order to be feasible. How do you know when you've hit that point?

We were very heartened to find out, just a few weeks ago, that a group of trustees had put together a plan for an independent Hampshire that had a number of elements that were quite similar to what the faculty were thinking about.

There were elements that we weren't so fond of, but we also find that those elements are not ones that we think the trustee plan was deeply committed to. In other words, they didn't truly affect the financial situation of the college, which is really where the trustees' sort of main focus is.

We're working with that plan right now, and trying to find structures that work for faculty, staff, student and alums, but that also keep within the financial constraints of that trustee plan.

So if we can manage to convince the trustees that our plan is a viable one — which we think we can do — then we will have done our job. The trustees are ultimately in control of the place.

Right. Now, although Hampshire's financial reports haven't been characterized as gloomy, the endowment has been characterized as small, and needing an infusion of cash. Where does the major money come from, in order to keep the college thriving? Are you leaving that up to the trustees, or is that going to be part of your plan?

No, that's very much part of our plan. We know that the trustees, and and even college advancement is working on that now. But there is so much energy among alums, and among just a broad array of the Hampshire community — parents, alums, even faculty, staff.

We never would have wanted these announcements to be as they were, and the situation of the college to be as it is right now, but the crisis has given us a set of opportunities, and has really galvanized alums — alums that hadn't been involved before, who really think that we can reach the goal that we need, at least to carry over Hampshire for another year or so, and then to allow for a real kind of reboot of the college.