The Sleep of Reason: The End of Hampshire College

The closure of small institutions of higher education such as Hampshire College symbolizes a shift in American education. (Courtesy of Facebook)

The closure of small institutions of higher education such as Hampshire College symbolizes a shift in American education. (Courtesy of Facebook)

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By Collin Bonnell

This past Friday the board of Hampshire College, the famous alternative college whose alumni include Ken Burns and Jon Krakauer, voted to limit the incoming freshman class to just 77 students.

The decision came amidst a time of economic hardship for the small liberal arts college, which has a meager $54 million endowment and relies on tuition for 87 percent of its funding.

Dr. Miriam Nelson, the president of Hampshire College, recently estimated that Hampshire would have to set aside $168 million in order to enroll another full freshman class, yet has an operating budget of only $42 million.

It is likely that the same experimental structure for which Hampshire is famous exacerbated its current crisis. Hampshire has long been famed for its alternative curriculum, in which there are no grades or majors, but rather one’s ability to graduate is determined by the completion of six projects throughout his or her college career.

While this experimental model has been criticized as “impractical,” it has allowed artistic and independent minds to flourish. Hampshire can boast that two-thirds of its alumni seek degrees after graduation, and a quarter become entrepreneurs. For comparison, less than 20 percent of Fordham alumni decide to enter graduate school.

Despite this high standard of student outcomes, Hampshire’s focus on the liberal arts and humanities contradicts recent trends among college students, who are increasingly majoring in what are perceived to be more profitable fields, such as business and medicine.

These trends mean that fields like teaching — a common path for Hampshire alumni — have shrunk from constituting 22 percent of college graduates in 1970, the year Hampshire was founded, to only 6 percent in 2011. Hampshire’s financial difficulties are not isolated, however, and mirror nationwide trends within higher education.

This past August, a Harvard business professor raised concerns when he predicted that half of American colleges and universities will go bankrupt in the next 10 to 15 years. His projection echoed a previous forecast by the U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service that closure rates for small American colleges and universities will triple and mergers will double in the near future.

While these rates have been inflated by the collapse of for-profit institutions of higher education across the United States, they also reflect the collapse of small liberal arts colleges such as Hampshire.

In response to pleas from alumni that the landmark experimental college should not shut its doors, Hampshire has pledged that it will avoid a full closure by seeking a “strategic partner” with another member of the Amherst area’s “Five College Consortium,” with the most likely candidate being the University Massachusetts Amherst.

UMass Amherst has been seeking to expand across Massachusetts, and drew attention last year when it purchased the campus of Mount Ida College in Newton, MA, for $75 million after that college abruptly closed this past May.

During the process, the administrations of both schools were criticized for providing Mount Ida’s student body with inadequate warning of the closure and not providing them any reasonable path to complete their education.

This controversy escalated in November, when disgruntled former students filed a class-action lawsuit against Mount Ida and its former administration, accusing them of committing fraud, misrepresenting their student body and violating the privacy of their students by illegally providing UMass with personal information.

While these charges should raise eyebrows about the handling of Mount Ida’s closure, they also raise concerns regarding the honesty of UMass Amherst’s administration and the morality of their expansion.

One of the central questions regarding the potential merger between Hampshire College and UMass Amherst concerns whether Hampshire’s alternative model of education — which is unique to the college and has been cited as the source of the success of Hampshire’s alumni — could be continued after a merger.

While Ed Blaguszewski, a spokesman for UMass, has pitched the prospect of a closer relationship between UMass and Hampshire as a simple “deeper collaboration” in which Hampshire may remain nominally independent, it seems unlikely that any relationship between Hampshire, which has a student body of only 1,175, and UMass Amherst, which has nearly 22,000 students, could be anything close to equitable.

Indeed, Dr. Nelson recently conceded that — in the case that Hampshire is able to find a suitable “strategic partner” to rescue it financially — it will likely abandon its self-directed structure and possibly its alternative curriculum. It has also been predicted that about 30 to 50 percent of Hampshire’s faculty will be laid off.

Regardless of how Hampshire emerges from this crisis, the collapse of the pioneering institution is deeply troubling.

Since the Great Recession, young people have been increasingly strained by the economy and have been forced to make hard choices in regards to their future.

Economic hardships have led some to argue that obtaining a college education is no longer a financially wise decision, and some have gone so far as to argue that college is a “waste of time” and that it is wiser to go immediately into the labor force or enter trade school. Despite their brutal honesty, these arguments miss the true point and beauty of a higher education.

The error which has caused the decline of liberal arts and avant garde institutions such as Hampshire is our assumption that a college degree is an investment.

Our belief that college students are paying tens of thousands of dollars which they do not have now in order that they may receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future. But the hope of future financial return is not the reason why we ought to pursue a higher education.

We ought to pursue a higher education so that we may develop an understanding of the human experience. So that we can learn to fully appreciate our world and everything in it. So that we may understand what it means to live — and not merely be alive.

To suggest that the value of a university education in the liberal arts can be reduced to an economic investment reduces knowledge to a commodity and constitutes hubris.

The value of institutions such as Hampshire is their knowledge of this truth. These institutions are important because they appreciate the fact that a university is not analogous to a job training program.

They understand that a liberal arts education does not simply improve our adult lives but rather is what makes them worth living. They embrace the sheer impracticality of a university education rather than lament it.

While politicians, demographers and economists often decry the “loss” of American economic dominance to other countries and blame this on our “impractical” education system, they miss the point. America has never been an empirically-minded nation. We are not scientists, engineers or mathematicians. We are artists.

America’s greatest export is our ideas, and these ideas cannot be produced through the objectified education systems which education reformers so often cite. Our greatest strength is and has always been our imagination and independent thought.

We ought to recognize the decline of liberal arts colleges such as Hampshire as a sign that these virtues are being lost in a world which values only the pursuit of material gain.

 

Collin Bonnell, FCRH ’21, is a history and theology major from Hingham, Massachusetts.