Remembering the Bold Thinking of Hampshire College

Innovative ideas made the school a special—and fragile—place.

Students walking across Hampshire College's campus in 1977
Students walking across Hampshire College's campus in 1977 (Courtesy of Hampshire College)

It’s hard to believe that nearly a half century has passed since I stood on a hillside in South Amherst, Massachusetts, with Van Halsey, then Hampshire College’s director of admissions, gazing at the rolling green farmland that stretched out toward Hadley, Massachusetts. “That is where the college will be,” Halsey explained. I was 17 years old, entering my senior year of high school, and convinced that this largely invisible place—then mostly a collection of dreams and ideals—was the only college in the country where I wanted to study.

My enthusiasm for Hampshire was shared widely that year. The new college attracted a couple of thousand applications for the 250 or so places in its first class of students. The school had no history, no traditions, no graduates, no campus when we applied in 1969. And yet we couldn’t wait to attend. The excitement I felt for Hampshire and all that it promised is as real to me today as it was on that spring day when I looked across that field and glimpsed the college’s future, and my own.

Hampshire’s core premise—that college-age students are capable of far more than what is usually expected of them—drew us to the college. We were invited to become active participants in framing our own education. Rather than selecting a major, we’d be asked to develop an area of concentration. Our progress would be measured not by grades, courses, or credits piled up, but by examinations across broad fields of knowledge. We’d be expected to create the architecture of our education, not passively wait for information to be delivered.

That message resonated with idealistic high-school graduates of my era. The prospect of taking charge of one’s own education, guided by the wisdom of talented faculty, was exhilarating. The invitation to participate in “the making of a college” likewise offered us, as very young people, an invigorating sense of purpose. Additionally, the stress that Hampshire’s literature placed on social responsibility as a critical dimension of a liberal-arts education converged with our historical moment in ways that enticed us. We were full of energy, impatient with authority, and shaped by the upheaval of the late 1960s. We imagined that we could change the society around us. What better place to start than at this fledgling college that emphasized adventure and innovation, and that made a virtue of possibility.Today that soaring sense of possibility has been brought to ground by harsh realities. Hampshire is currently embroiled in a crisis—rooted in daunting financial difficulties and the administrative decisions made about how best to deal with them—that threatens its survival as an independent liberal-arts college.

The current historical moment forms a backdrop to Hampshire’s challenges just as another one did when the college was created. What wasn’t as clear then as it is now was the degree to which Hampshire’s founding era informed the willingness—on the college’s part and on our own—to engage risk and opportunity. Hampshire’s gifted founders, Franklin Patterson and Charles R. Longsworth, observed in their 1966 treatise, The Making of a College: Plans for a New Departure in Higher Education, “No major departure, no new and consequential venture, is made without a context and a vision.” The vision of the college was obvious enough. What was less obvious were decisive elements of the context that shaped the college’s origins and that illuminate its present troubles.

Hampshire owes its existence to a perceived crisis—both “qualitative and quantitative,” as the founders’ book outlined—in the late 1950s that fueled doubts about the “fiscal base and academic viability” of private liberal-arts colleges then deemed to be “everywhere precarious.”

Rising costs; the soaring demand exerted by college-bound Baby Boomers; and the growing dominance and appeal of research universities, with their attention to graduate study and preprofessional training, were then transforming higher education. The changes these trends wrought appeared to threaten the venerable small private colleges whose primary commitment was to undergraduate schooling. A fear that private colleges might be stretched beyond their natural limits, thereby degrading the character and quality of the education and experience they offered, concerned their leaders. Some experts viewed with particular anxiety the rising hegemony of research universities, which they warned might well vitiate the influence of small colleges, or even render them obsolete in the not-too-distant future. They also anticipated that liberal-arts colleges would confront limited “teaching resources,” given the ever-growing research imperative of larger universities and, presumably, larger faculty salaries. Public and private universities provided attractive funding and rewards for professors who devoted less time to teaching and more to producing valuable scholarship. Also at risk, liberal-arts-college leaders surmised in this Cold War era, was the perceived value of humanistic and liberal learning, given the emphasis on science, technology, and vocationalism in higher education.

Out of the maelstrom came Hampshire. In 1958, the presidents of Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and the University of Massachusetts—four schools in the Pioneer Valley region of western Massachusetts—appointed a committee to “re-think the assumptions underlying education in the liberal arts.” The goal was to map out a plan for a new college that would offer an “education of the highest quality at a minimum cost per student and with as small a faculty relative to the student body as new methods of instruction and new administrative procedures can make possible.” Toward that end, the committee proposed a fifth school, radically different in structure and academic form.

The Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, near Hampshire College
(Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon / Getty)

The college conceived of by the “New College Plan” and then created by Hampshire’s founders did, indeed, mark a notable departure in collegiate education. It encouraged an extraordinary level of independence among its students, allowing undergraduates a primary role in organizing their own education. Taught in small classes, Hampshire students were free of grades, required courses, rigid distribution requirements, lecture courses with periodic exams, fixed majors, and the predictable four-year college sequence. Instead, they progressed by examination through three divisions—the first allowing exposure to broad areas of knowledge, the second a concentration equivalent to a major but self-designed, and the third a time of advanced study of a topic that would usually consume most of the student’s final year. Interdisciplinary work was encouraged; the college did not have departments organized by traditional academic disciplines such as biology, English, political science, or art. Instead, it established schools of natural science, social science, language and communication, and humanities and arts, to which faculty were assigned by expertise and interest.

Ironically, many of the innovations that Hampshire’s founders proposed in order to answer the perceived problems of their day complicate the school’s current crisis. The structure of the school’s faculty provides a revealing case in point. The college’s founders wanted Hampshire to have a young faculty, “relatively close to college age themselves,” joined by a much smaller number of senior and mid-career professors. The cost savings in salaries of such a system are obvious enough, though the college promised competitive pay and benefits comparable to elite, private liberal-arts institutions. (That pledge gave way in time as financial challenges mounted.) All faculty would serve under a contract system with review before renewal; no tenure would exist at Hampshire College.

Amazingly, the appeal of the college was such that it attracted at its start outstanding professors from first-rank institutions who gave up tenure to teach at Hampshire. Salary compression in the academic job market has allowed the college to continue to recruit, hire, and retain talented faculty, even without the promise of tenure. However, the faculty turnover that college administrators expected did not pan out; Hampshire professors tended to stay at the institution. Although the contract system remained in place, it gave way to reappointments of longer duration such that 10-year contracts in time provided some semblance of the stability conferred by tenure. Amid the current duress, this structure augments the vulnerability of professors who face the downsizing, layoffs, and cutbacks that Hampshire’s current administration is now pursuing aggressively.

Another innovation—the college’s unusual model of governance—figures centrally in the present-day upheaval on the campus. Although Hampshire is overseen by a traditional board of trustees and led by a president with accompanying officers who set “basic policy,” Hampshire’s founders gave to “all of the community’s constituencies” a primary role in determining “the internal governance of the College.” “The major governing bodies of the community will be few,” Patterson and Longsworth promised, “but students will have representation on each of them.” The assumption was that anyone in the community could propose “innovations and evaluations.” Members of the college community more than rose to these expectations over the ensuing decades—to the chagrin, no doubt, of its leadership on many occasions. Shared governance in nearly every aspect of college life became the norm, and a tradition of participatory democracy was thereby established, however imperfectly executed at times.

This history provides an important backdrop to the announcements earlier this year by the president and board of trustees that Hampshire is pursuing a yet-to-be-defined strategic partnership—presumably with a larger university that could help stabilize the college financially—and will not be admitting a full class of new students in the fall. The news came as a shock to most of the current faculty, staff, and students, as well as to alumni and friends of the college. A storm of protest has followed, with student sit-ins of administrative offices, including that of the Hampshire president. Ultimate responsibility over the college’s institutional and fiduciary well-being has always rested with the board of trustees. Today it is a large body of 29 members, the majority of whom are alumni of the college. Nonetheless, Hampshire’s long tradition of shared and decentralized governance offered little preparation for the top-down nature of decisions of such great institutional consequence.

A key factor in Hampshire’s current vulnerability derives from what was a critical element of the planned experiment— the college’s unorthodox financing. It was one of the proposed innovations that seemed most promising, if daring, at the college’s founding. In making “a virtue out of the necessity,” Hampshire sought to meet its costs primarily through tuition and fees—a bold move that would demonstrate that it was possible to offer, as the “New College Plan” suggested, a high-quality education at minimum cost.

Economies of scale were to be achieved at the new college in several ways. Financial aid would be limited to a modest number of mostly full scholarships based entirely on need. The college would instead meet what it felt to be its social responsibility through an “early-identification program,” which would nurture a small number of poor elementary-school children who would subsequently be offered full scholarships to Hampshire. Student self-direction would, in theory, free up professorial time and allow for a smaller faculty. (In fact, students demanded and received a great deal of individual attention from a very hardworking and dedicated faculty.) Cost savings would ideally be achieved by having a relatively high student-to-faculty ratio of roughly 20 to 1. Five College cooperation would allow students from all five institutions in the valley to take courses at neighboring campuses. Hampshire would be especially advantaged by this opportunity, permitting the new school to escape the need of duplicating everything from obscure fields of study to library resources available elsewhere. There would be no formally organized, and expensive, system of intercollegiate athletics.

A $6 million gift (worth more than $48 million today) from a wealthy Amherst graduate launched Hampshire College in 1965. It allowed for the acquisition of a site for the school and, along with additional public and private funds, construction of the campus. The money raised at that time was not set aside as an endowment, given the need for capital expenditures for buildings and operating funds with which to get the school running. The latter would eventually be paid by the tuition garnered from a carefully selected and mostly full-paying student body, as well as by grants and gifts. That seemed workable in 1966, when prospective students from “affluent families” were believed to far outnumber available space at colleges, and when sources of financial aid, including federal student loans, grants, and work-study programs, were making “financing a college education…easier than ever.”

Those assumptions were borne of a growth era, when brisk demand and expanding federal funds made higher education more affordable for college-bound students and their families. In that flush period, Hampshire’s financial plan succeeded. Impressive success in raising private funds strengthened the college, as did steady applications from eager and talented college-bound students.

Yet the scheme would soon run up against constraints resulting from less congenial historical eras. Before Hampshire’s first full class had graduated, national and local conditions produced storm clouds overhead with hurricanes possibly rising. On campus, the 20-to-1 student-faculty ratio proved unrealistic, given the individualized nature of academic instruction at the college. A somewhat larger faculty at a greater cost was thus mandated. It also became apparent that Hampshire’s professors might well wish to age in place at the College. That eventuality would inevitably drive up salary expenses in ways that other private liberal-arts colleges already found onerous. Inflation in the mid-1970s increased the costs of virtually all operations. Finally, the expense of financial aid proved much higher than anticipated. A drive to increase diversity and to enhance “educational equality” mandated outlays that diverged substantially from the model advanced in the college’s earliest blueprints.

In a forthright 1974 report, Longsworth, then serving as Hampshire’s second president, admitted that these complications would test the institution. “The fiscal future of the College,” he wrote, “is uncertain.” Hampshire had many strengths but lacked, he warned, the “financial reserves to survive a period of reduced enrollment which could result from a prolonged period of national economic recession.” Longsworth’s successors would face these very obstacles, as well as many others, over the next four and a half decades. They would do so in a much changed social and political climate than the one that had inspired Hampshire’s founding. That environment had serious consequences for the experimental young college.

By the late 1970s, applications to Hampshire began to decline. A variety of factors undoubtedly caused the trend, including a normalized level of interest after the initial, extraordinary burst of enthusiasm that accompanied the college’s opening. Of greater concern everywhere was the more risk-averse climate among middle-class Americans, who worried about economic stagnation, future job prospects for their children, and the affordability of higher education. Tuition costs across the country rose substantially. Meanwhile, federal funding became less rather than more generous, as conservatives succeeded in pushing legislative changes that promoted student loans as a favored means of higher-education assistance. Hampshire needed to contend with these realities, as well as with the chance that a rising generation of high-achieving college-bound students might be less drawn to the school and its unorthodox academic program.

Hampshire did so through the adroit management of its third president, Adele Smith Simmons, who served from 1977 to 1989. With considerable courage and a strategy that appeared counterintuitive, Simmons undertook a series of initiatives to both promote the college and steer it toward greater selectivity. She reduced the size of the entering class and focused on attracting a smaller number of excellent students who would thrive in Hampshire’s unusual, self-directed academic program. Given that tuition and fees were the institution’s major sources of revenue, it was a risky decision. But it paid off handsomely. Within a few years, applications to Hampshire rebounded. Simmons was lauded in a 1987 New York Times profile as a president who had “Hampshire feeling frisky again.” The college had once more become a “hot school”—or at least a warm one—in an era when, the Times reported, “small liberal arts colleges are becoming an endangered species.”

That breezy aside 30 years ago suggests that the survival of many small liberal-arts schools through the 1960s and ’70s had done little to allay earlier anxieties. Predictions of small colleges’ demise were a hardy perennial that persisted through seasons of plenty (the late 1950s and ’60s) and want (the 1970s and beyond). To be sure, there is ample reason today for concern. Influential demographic studies, widely touted as compelling evidence that danger lies ahead, predict a coming bust in demand for these colleges by the mid-2020s. The falloff seems likely to be particularly acute in the Northeast and Midwest, where the college-age population is expected to shrink. Other experts insist that the expansion of digital and online learning will challenge the long-term viability of many colleges and universities. Ever-soaring costs coupled with rising tuition discounts are especially perilous for institutions such as Hampshire that rely so heavily on tuition revenue.

Elite private institutions, such as nearby Amherst, with an endowment valued in 2018 at $2.4 billion (Hampshire’s endowment stands at $52 million), are not immune to such oft-invoked headwinds. But they are better positioned to weather the storms. Indeed, demographers have predicted that most elite colleges and universities will continue to enjoy rising demand in the decade ahead. The forecast for less wealthy, small institutions is a rising “failure rate” that will manifest in waves of closures, mergers, or acquisitions. Hampshire’s fate in this climate is yet to be decided.

All of the college’s presidents faced very difficult financial challenges and uncertainty throughout Hampshire’s history. There was nothing easy about creating a “new institution with stated aspirations as high as those held out for Hampshire,” Longsworth observed just four years after the college’s opening. To believe that such an institution could succeed challenged expectations to such a degree, he mused, that it would be understandable if some sought refuge in “the assumption of failure … [which] restores a sense of rightness and sensibility.” Hampshire has long had to live with unpredictability. “We faced trouble,” Simmons put it succinctly in a recent conversation, “and we figured it out.” Its oldest alumni are now aging, alas , but not fast enough to provide the kind of bequests that have so enriched its neighboring private liberal-arts schools, all of which were established in the 19th century. Hampshire’s early leaders understood that it would take at least a half century before similar alumni gifts might be fulfilled.

That longer arc envisaged for the college by its founders has been eclipsed in recent months by a mood of heightened urgency and apparent pessimism among its current administration, couched though it has been in a rhetoric of new “visioning” and future possibility. Before Hampshire’s newest president, Miriam Nelson, even took office in July 2018, she learned that the yield of admitted students for the fall had fallen significantly short of expectations. It was just the sort of reversal, comprising millions of dollars in projected revenue, that a place like Hampshire could ill afford to endure. By January, Nelson and the trustees had apparently concluded that the institution had reached its Rubicon. The college faced a stark choice between just two alternatives, it informed a group of influential donors and alumni: close, or find a “strategic partner.” As of this writing, the college continues to weigh its options.

In the current Darwinian landscape, it is easy to conclude that only the very fittest (read, wealthiest) colleges and universities should survive—a judgment that rationalizes everything from institutional suicide to empire building and hoarding. Billions of dollars in donations continue to flow toward the very richest and most heavily endowed institutions. That was also the case, Patterson and Longsworth noted, when Hampshire was founded.

One thing about the current crisis in higher education is all but certain: It is unlikely to inspire anyone to create a new experimental liberal-arts college in New England. All the more reason, many of Hampshire’s most ardent supporters have concluded, to ensure that the college survives to see its next half century.

The previous crisis in liberal education mustered the imagination and idealism that created Hampshire College and served as its wellspring for nearly 50 years. More than 11,000 students have graduated from Hampshire since the year I joined its first class, in 1970. Among them are entrepreneurs, scientists, composers, writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians, doctors, lawyers, social activists, inventors, architects, actors, and educators of remarkable achievement. (Some two-thirds of Hampshire graduates have gone on to earn advanced degrees.) They have surely put to rest the worry harbored by their progenitors that young people in the late 20th century would no longer find preparation for a useful life and engaged citizenship in a liberal-arts education. It turns out that the ideas that launched Hampshire’s distinctive approach to learning and that have flourished there remain as true and evergreen as that verdant landscape I looked over a half century ago.