Lessons of the Past: Boston State College Then and Hampshire College Now

Thirty-seven years ago, almost to the day, the Massachusetts State Legislature did what many higher education experts—then and now—would have thought impossible: it forced the consolidation of two very different campuses, the upstart University of Massachusetts Boston, founded in 1965, and the moribund Boston State College, a descendant of the 19th century normal school that trained teachers for the burgeoning public school system. The impossible became possible when the legislators simply voted to defund Boston State. In a poof, its operating monies were gone.  Three weeks, the Commonwealth told the two campuses, three weeks is the time you have to revise your spring semester schedule, re-register students, and get the new hybrid—henceforth known as the University Massachusetts Boston—up and running. The real miracle was—they did it.

How they did it was painfully simple: Boston State College was no more. Declining enrollment, growing attrition, bloated payroll, deferred maintenance on crumbling buildings made it all too easy to give the weakened campus a shove over the cliff, and that’s exactly what the Legislature did.

I was a UMass/Boston administrator back then, directing a small office of student services (academic advising). Shortly after the consolidation, I moved to the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs/Provost’s Office. The first lesson I learned was that the word “merger” was never, ever to pass my lips when talking about the forced marriage between these two institutions. “Merger,” I was solemnly informed by my superiors, implied equality between the two campuses, and this was certainly not the case. The University was top dog—its graduation requirements, its student code of conduct and disciplinary policies, and, most importantly, its faculty evaluation and reappointment (aka tenure) policies and procedures would obtain. Boston State College would cease to exist in all but the memories of its former students, faculty, and staff.  The University’s greatest concern in those days was to maintain the integrity of its standards and priorities. Two-thirds of the Boston State faculty were not given faculty positions at UMass/Boston. It was not a merger in name, nor in reality.

Of course I thought about this when I read about the turmoil currently taking place at another academic institution I care deeply about, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Hampshire has always had a tough row to hoe—opened by dreamers who thought their new idea about delivering a college education was so great that it could overcome any obstacle, including chronic lack of funds. For over fifty years, it did just that. But this past January, Hampshire’s board and administration decided enough was enough and that Hampshire would not admit a fall 2019 class as it searched for a “strategic partner.” Based on what I know from first-hand experience with academic partnerships, all I can say to the powers that be at Hampshire: be careful what you wish for. If the price of financial security means relinquishing the very thing that made Hampshire Hampshire—its labor-intensive educational process—what exactly has been saved? Will the Hampshire that survives be a named room tucked away in a library somewhere with no connection to its history and ideals?

My heart is so full of sadness for the staff and faculty at Hampshire. I know all too well the anxiety and despair they are feeling. That awful sense of inevitability that you will likely be forced to leave a place you love, a place where you built your career and thought you would leave your mark. A place you do not want to leave because it wormed its way into your being and became a part of you that cannot, ever, be excised. My heart breaks for staff and faculty because I can tell them that years—even a decade—will pass and that feeling of profound loss will not go away. A scab on the heart will form, only to tear away at the slightest wisp of memory. Indeed, the pain will be so great that if you should witness others going through what you went through, you will think you cannot bear it.

My father used to tell me at dark times such as these “it will all work out.” How I wish he were here to say those words so I that I could draw strength from them and share it with the good people at Hampshire.

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