More Lessons of the Past

In Groundhog Day sad sack Bill Murray keeps reliving the same day over and over again, until finally he evolves to a different person, with a different outlook on life and solutions to its travails. As I observe Hampshire College from afar, it’s as if I were watching another version of Groundhog Day, with the college in Murray’s starring role.

Like everybody else who read the sobering financials and other data Hampshire College’s new president Miriam Nelson released earlier this month, I was shocked to see a rise then precipitous decline in enrollment over the last few years. How could it be that Hampshire fell into the trap of thinking that by growing enrollment it could solve its money problems? As if bringing in more students, with the spendable cash their matriculation represents, could somehow solve a problem that had nothing to do with the number of learners on campus. It pains me to say it, but how could they have been so stupid?

The college has experienced cycles of enrollment growth and decline many times over the years, enough time to have figured out “balanced” budgets that are the result of more students may allow for wage increases and maybe a few plasters on the worst of its decaying plant, but are chimeras of financial stability. Spending money as soon as it hits your pocket may help you meet a payroll, but in no way does it mean that your fiscal health is sound. Except for tiny handful of universities and colleges at the very tippy top of the higher ed food chain, every academic institution experiences boom-and-bust periods of enrollment. It does not take a genius to figure this out. All one needs do is glance at the census. I believe there is even a law of nature that applies to Hampshire’s situation: what goes up must come down.

So why didn’t Hampshire plan for the crash landing that now seems its destiny, hastened, as it seems, by the panicked decisions and disastrous public statements of the last few weeks? One answer that can be eliminated right away is lack of will. The employees, students, and board members that populate the college have worked unbelievably hard to keep the place viable. But all that hard work has not been enough to overcome the two greatest obstacles to Hampshire’s enduring prosperity.

Everybody talks about lack of endowment. Whether you call it a “structural deficit” or unhelpfully point fingers at generous donors who only want to give to their pet projects, a puny endowment stands between Hampshire and its ability to weather the next disaster, whatever and whenever that might be. How Hampshire got to the point of having no endowment to speak of is no one person’s fault, nor it is a collective failing, but growing an endowment—fast—seems to me to be the greatest urgency if the college is to survive. An endowment is the backbone of genuine forward mobility, while a “strategic partner” provides but an exoskeleton of security. One is permanent, the other is not. But perhaps it is too late for that. One question about growing endowment deserves an answer, though.

One of the pieces of fundraising advice I have heard throughout my career is, basically, “never, ever let them see you sweat.”  In other words, don’t admit you need the money. Hampshire’s announcements beginning January 15 have pretty much blown that advice out of the water, so one is forced to wonder, why didn’t the college at least try the fundraising tactic of last resort, rather than bypassing “go” and proceeding directly to, well, purgatory? Maybe they did, quietly and behind the scenes, but it sure doesn’t sound like it, given that in the fall of 2018 it perceived “no sense of urgency from donors, [who] want to support special projects, not operations.” Were these donors apprised of the “urgency”? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But what I do know is that had I been so apprised, then asked to make a gift to build Hampshire’s endowment, I would have gladly written that check. Or if I’d been about to make a gift for my “special project” and approached by a giving officer who asked if a portion of that gift could be tithed to endowment, I would have done that, too. Why did Hampshire let a good crisis go to waste by not seizing this now-or-never moment to wring endowment dollars out of its donors? I would really like to know the answer to that question.

Then there is the other question that dare not speak its name. Why were students leaving the college, apparently in droves, without graduating? The attrition numbers were the scariest, and most appalling, figures in the data released by the president. In this age of pre-test, post-tests, evaluation and documentation, did the college not know what was happening, or not happening, to occasion wholesale departures? Or did it know, but was unable or unwilling to tackle the issue? Again, I’m not there. I don’t know. But I suspect the answer is fear. Fear that probing too deeply might reveal something about the essence of the place—its curriculum, its philosophy, its pedagogy—that would mean radical change. The reality is, failure to face that fear has led Hampshire to the very place it did not want to be, a point of forced radical change.

The popular perception of higher education nationwide is at its nadir. You can’t pick up a tablet without reading about the “student loan crisis” or some company that has decided hiring college graduates is a waste of money. Never has the world furnished more grist for autodidacts to consume and digest. The moment for a new approach to post-secondary education is upon is. On-line education has been around long enough for us to know that it’s not the answer. Just like correspondence school wasn’t enough to solve the crisis brought on by the post-war boom in higher education. The time is ripe for a radical new idea. For Hampshire, that means honoring the spirit of its past, while letting go of tropes that are worn and “truths” that are, indeed, mutable. In other words, Hampshire College, learn the lessons of Groundhog Day.

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