Extended Conversation on the Fight for Hampshire College as Student Sit-In Enters 41st Day

Web ExclusiveMarch 12, 2019
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Extended web-only conversation about the financial crisis at Hampshire College and what it means for the future of higher education.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we continue our look at the financial crisis at Hampshire College, where students have entered the 41st day of a sit-in in the President’s Office, protesting what they fear may be the future closing of their school. In January, Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson announced the board of trustees and senior administrators would seek to merge the school with a, quote, “strategic partner.” The announcement was followed by staff layoffs in the school’s development and admissions offices, and news that the school would not be admitting a full class in the fall.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us are three guests. Margaret Cerullo is a professor at Hampshire College. She teaches sociology and feminist studies there, where she’s taught for 40 years. She has written a piece for The Nation magazine which is headlined “The Unmaking of a College: Notes from Inside the Hampshire Runaway Train.” We’re also joined by Desta Cantave, a senior at Hampshire College, member of Hampshire Rise Up. And joining us on the phone, William Null, a trustee of Hampshire College, a partner in the law firm of Cuddy & Feder, Hampshire College alum, as is his wife and his son, was a member of Hampshire’s third entering class in 1972.

We welcome you all back to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us for Part 2 of this discussion.

WILLIAM NULL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Desta Cantave, you have been among the students who are leading the sit-in at the President’s Office for 41 days now, well over a month. It’s one of the longest in college history in the United States. Can you talk about why you decided to take this approach?

DESTA CANTAVE: Yeah. Well, we—our demands are around shared governance. We want to have a role in everything that’s happening. We, as students, and the staff and faculty that we’ve been engaging with, all feel we’ve been blindsided and excluded in this whole process. And so, by occupying spaces like administrative spaces, like the Dean of Students Office and the President’s Office, we are putting ourselves directly in the middle of where all that work is happening. And although the people in the President’s Office have since stopped coming in to work, we—or, I feel, and I can only speak for myself, but I think that many of us agree, that that is a disruption to whatever work they’re doing, and our presence is felt.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: William Null, I wanted to ask you, this whole issue of a, quote, “strategic partner,” that the president has said the college is seeking, are you able to talk about—have there been any responses to this? And what would happen, and what would the trustees do, if the attempt to link up with a strategic partner does not happen?

WILLIAM NULL: So, there are several different options that are being explored. Basically, what we’re looking at, I mentioned to you, was a $5 million deficit next year and $20 million over the next three years. What we’re looking at is: How can we continue to fund and enable Hampshire College to continue as an important institution in the United States? We’re deeply dedicated to doing that. We need about $30 million in the next three years to be able to do that. And there are some very engaged alum, parents and donors who are potentially looking to assist in that. And we’re also looking at affiliating or merging with another institution. Of course, we have—key among our goals are preserving this important social justice institution and committing to the long-standing values of inclusion, equity and justice. And foremost, as I had said earlier, we’re committed to being able to continue the educational experience for these students, which obviously the disruption of the financial situation has substantially interfered with. And that’s quite unfortunate. The stress and anxiety created by this, and the difficulties created by the layoffs, is something that none of us ever wanted to confront and experience.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what about the issue of shared governance that the faculty raised, that if this was such a major crisis, why was the faculty not brought in, in attempting to come up with potential solutions, rather than announce it first and then begin to consult the faculty?

WILLIAM NULL: Well, as I had mentioned, last year we had this voluntary separation for 30 people from faculty and staff in order to be able to reduce overhead substantially. And so, the fact that Hampshire has been, year to year, living in somewhat precarious financial situation is not new. It’s been that way for decades. The situation of being down 300 students from 2014 is something that is new and adds to the problem, as well as the national trend of having a reduced number of high school students in the Northeast. And as you know, there are a number of colleges that have closed, which we’re not looking to do. We’re looking to continue. But Mount Ida, Newbury College, Green Mountain College and Southern Vermont College have announced closures recently. And there are others that have sought to merge and affiliate.

Back to your question, we’re working closely with a number of institutions that have shown interest in affiliating or merging with us. And we’re hoping that we’re going to get to a point of being able to open that for further discussion when we get to a point of having information and details to share. We’ve engaged faculty and staff. Faculty, students and staff, they’re voting members on the board of trustees. There are participating members on most of the committees, if not all of the committees, that have been formed to address this financial situation at Hampshire now.

AMY GOODMAN: Margaret Cerullo, your response?

MARGARET CERULLO: Yeah. I would just like to explain what it’s looked like from a faculty perspective. In the fall, we were invited to be part of what the president called a visioning committee, full of the optimistic, upbeat rhetoric of imagining Hampshire for the 21st century. However, in a departure from the traditions not only of Hampshire, which is particularly strong in this respect, but of shared governance in all colleges and universities, participants on the visioning committees were required to sign gag rules, nondisclosure agreements, which was to say that everything was and remains a secret. We have no idea who the potential strategic partners are. Even those who are on these various committees—and there’s a new one every month—no longer are elected by the constituencies, but increasingly appointed by the president, which really undercuts their legitimacy on campus. So, from our perspective, we are dealing with an autocratic, top-down, secretive and nontransparent administration process, that has continually, I would have to say, lied to us or actively deceived us about what their plans are.

And given that I’ve been at Hampshire for 40 years, we, as the presidents and founders, who are completely opposed to the current direction and have not been seriously consulted about it—as they have said, our financial underpinnings have always been weaker than our ideals and our ideas, but we have managed to survive in very creative ways over the last 40 years. Every time if we’re down 30 students, that’s a financial crisis for Hampshire, but one that we’ve been committed to figuring out how to address. What’s so alarming is that we are facing our 50th anniversary in 2020, which is an enormous fundraising opportunity, a moment when this long-term strategic situation could have become the subject of a major fundraising and reimagining and re-envisioning effort. That effort’s been cut off at the knees.

And as I really have to emphasize, the way in which the secretive executive committee and administration have been proceeding looks, to any observers, as though what is being merged with our prospective strategic partner is not a college, let alone Hampshire College, but real estate. And that’s not only my conclusion; it’s been the conclusion of every observer in—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

MARGARET CERULLO: Well, if we eliminate the faculty—

AMY GOODMAN: Strategic partner, I thought, meant another college coming in and Hampshire merging with it.

MARGARET CERULLO: Right. So, for example, UMass—what does it mean to merge? UMass, according to the statements from UMass officials, is really in need of land. They have nowhere to expand. And we’re down the road. It’s obvious that it would be wonderful to acquire some real estate. That’s not the same as the image of a strategic partnership that would preserve anything of Hampshire’s mission. Once the college is decimated—and “decimated” is not the right word; it’s really going to be cut in half, in terms of faculty and student by next fall—what is left of Hampshire College? So, it’s looking to us like this language of strategic merger and preserving the mission is a language that we have to really take—we can’t take seriously. And since we are cut out—and all of this talk about committees and participation on the board of trustees, that’s been long-standing. I mean, the places where—even the trustees were—many of the trustees were blindsided by the January 15th announcement. So, really, we have no seat at any table where decisions are being made. The only people who have a seat at that table are bound by gag rules of one sort or another. So, I’m afraid that I really have to contest the official narrative.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read to you about what some students accuse Hampshire College lacking transparency. The Daily Hampshire Gazette reports Hampshire has hired the powerhouse PR firm Subject Matter. The paper reports, quote, “Some in the Hampshire community have raised questions about the college’s ties to [John] Buckley [the CEO] and his firm. Subject Matter works for plenty of corporate titans. Lobbying records show clients that include some of the world’s largest corporations—Facebook, Ford, General Electric, Goldman Sachs and Visa, for example—but also include groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Pew Charitable Trusts.” Bill Null, can you talk about this company Subject Matter and this allegation that professor Cerullo is making about a strategic partner being real estate?

WILLIAM NULL: So, the most important thing, as I mentioned, most of the alums—most of the trustees are alums on the board, and the mission of the school is critically important to all of us. This is not an interest in a land deal, real estate deal, at all. We’re focused on trying to continue this institution, which was designed under The Making of a College, a book that was written before Hampshire first opened, to have a student-faculty ratio of 14 to 1. And we’re now at 8 to 1. We’ve got a very real $5 million, looking at $20 million, budget deficit. And that’s what’s motivating everybody to try and do something, to find the money to keep the institution running. I think we can all agree how critically important it is to have an institution dedicated to social justice and critical thinking in this time and age in America and in the world. So we’re looking to preserve that.

Unquestionably, there have been communications mistakes, and things could have been done better. And I understand that the loss of jobs that’s a result of this financial problem that we’ve got, deficit that we’re facing, is amazingly upsetting. It’s shattering to people who built their careers and dedicated their lives to Hampshire College. If there was a way around it, we would look to do that. But what we’re looking to do is to preserve the institution and not to sell off land. Nobody is profiting by this. We’re looking to do the right thing, the right way, for Hampshire College. And I’m sure that more inclusiveness would make more people feel as if there’s greater transparency, but we’ve put financial information on the internet, on our website, for people to review, and it’s a very real financial deficit that we’re facing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about the issue that professor Cerullo raised about the 50th anniversary being an opportunity to actually, perhaps, sharply increase the endowment of the college through a major fundraising campaign, and that this kind of cutback just before that really undermines any potential for that?

WILLIAM NULL: Yeah, good question. I’ve been on the board for five years. We had started a capital campaign well before that. Most capital campaigns actually don’t announce that they’re underway until you’re more than 50 percent there, so that you can start with a considerable amount of momentum. And we were doing very well. In 2015, we decided to change who we were accepting to the college and to focus on those who would succeed in the rigorous program that we’ve got. We called it the Thrivers Study. And we also went out to try and increase diversity. So we have more people now who are first-generation and more people who identify as people of color than we’ve had in years past. Unfortunately, we hit a point in time where there was a convergence with, as I was saying, demographic shift of fewer high school students. And when we’re down 300 students—Margaret Cerullo acknowledged that a loss of even 30 students would be significant to our finances. Well, we had a loss of 300. This is a very real financial situation. It’s not something contrived to try and move the school in another place. We’re all extremely committed to making this all work, and really quite upset that, as a result of where we are right now, it means layoffs for faculty and staff.

AMY GOODMAN: Desta Cantave, you’re a senior at Hampshire College. Talk about why you first went to Hampshire, what your experience has been.

DESTA CANTAVE: Well, yeah, I first went to Hampshire because I was really excited about being in a self-directed program and a program where I got to piece together my education based on my interests and my passions, and that I had a wealth of faculty who—that I would have a wealth of faculty who would be there as my advisers, as my mentors, and to help kind of shape the experience for me. And that was a huge piece of why I chose Hampshire.

And a little bit about how Hampshire’s academic structure works is that it’s built kind of similarly to a thesis-based program, where your first year you kind of have to take general classes, your middle two years you take classes on a focus, and your last year is spent doing a year-long essentially thesis project. And in order to do a year-long thesis project, you really need to have faculty who have expertise in what you’re studying, who have time and attention to give to you and your project, and to give you mentorship and to help you find resources and to really teach you how to conduct that kind of research, because, you know, that takes a lot of—it takes a lot of support to do that and to learn that. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your—what is your major, and what are you working on this year?

DESTA CANTAVE: My major is kind of a little bit all over the place, but I study kind of political science and ethics, and then I also study art. But, for me, preserving—to respond also in this question to what William and Margaret were saying, I think that this education is totally built by the fact that we have the amazing staff and faculty that we have at our school to support us. And laying off 50 percent of the staff and faculty, I would argue, totally disrupts what the institution is, that the institution cannot go on with half of our staff and faculty gone, because how are students supposed to continue to do these self-directed programs?

Even now, for the students—for students like me who are currently in their fourth year, our faculty are concerned about losing their jobs, and there’s so much going on right now that it is hard for us to focus on our projects. And yeah, it’s totally—you know, it was either the board of trustees or Miriam Nelson, somebody who said that the reason why we couldn’t accept an incoming class is because we couldn’t guarantee them the education that they paid for, but, I would argue, anyone who goes to Hampshire right now has been denied the education that they paid for, because of this whole mess. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: On this issue of what’s happening to higher education, UMass president—the University of Massachusetts not so far from where Hampshire is—the UMass president, Marty Meehan, said last week, “Make no mistake—this is an existential threat to entire sectors of higher education, and New England is, unfortunately, ground zero.” We just heard Bill Null talking about one school after another in New England that is going under, that will no longer be there, all through—let’s see, there’s Newbury College, another Massachusetts institution, announced in December it will close at the end of the academic year; Mount Ida College, located outside Boston; Atlantic Union College, outside Boston, announced it would close; the College of St. Joseph in Vermont nearly closed last year but said it would keep operating. And it goes on from there. Professor Cerullo, if you can talk about Hampshire in the context of this?

MARGARET CERULLO: Well, yeah, I’ve very recently begun to become much more informed about the broader context of higher education in the liberal arts, so I don’t pretend to be an expert. But as I believe the crisis at Hampshire has been largely fabricated—and I’m glad Democracy Now! listeners got a chance to hear the kind of corporate sensitivity training rhetoric about concern for jobs and livelihood, and transparency and shared governance, on the one hand, while facts on the ground are being created that completely undermine everything that is being said—I think that we also have to look very seriously at the crisis of liberal arts as a political crisis, another fabricated crisis, that is something that those of us who practice and believe in liberal arts education have to learn to analyze.

And I think that, you know, this has been a long-term attack. It began with the attack on political correctness. I think the current form that it takes is the attack that says that the liberal arts don’t produce people who are job-worthy in the current economy—precisely what they are not geared to do. The liberal arts are geared to producing critical thinkers and people who can engage in ethical reflection and undo their own positions. That’s what our goal is. And those are—it’s the production of that sort of student that I think that a neoliberal economy has no interest in. So I think this is a very—it’s a very political attack.

And I think that we cannot neglect the fact of the enormous withdrawal of federal support for higher education, which makes us have to rely more on tuition, on donors and fundraising, than we could on federally subsidized education. And I think that’s the issue that we have to face as a country, is: What kind of education do we want to subsidize? Because this sort of education has to be subsidized. And are we at a point of saying that this kind of critical education is really only for the elites? Is it only the most elite private colleges, that have huge endowments, that are going to be able to provide this kind of education?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, what you raised in terms of this issue of the future of the liberal arts is equally true for major universities—

MARGARET CERULLO: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —public universities or private universities, as, increasingly—

MARGARET CERULLO: Vocational.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the liberal arts portions of their curriculum are declining. Engineering, sciences, technology—

MARGARET CERULLO: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and business are the growth sectors.

MARGARET CERULLO: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, in fact, the universities divide their schools up into cost centers.

MARGARET CERULLO: That’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And if you’re not making money, in terms of your enrollments, then you are less in favor, even within larger institutions. So, this is—as you say, it’s the process of the entire neoliberal project on higher education.

MARGARET CERULLO: It is. And I think that now those of us at Hampshire, who have experienced what I’ve come to think of as a moral shock, because we thought we were insulated from vulture capitalism, and it turns out we’re not—I think that now we’re ready to join our colleagues across the country in public universities, as you say, who have begun to analyze exactly what you said, Juan. And I think the alarm has been sounded. It’s been sounded for us. And I hope we can communicate, more broadly, that we have to be extremely skeptical of what are presented as reasons, that seem to us, increasingly, to be rationales and opportunities to push through plans that have a kind of neoliberal market logic to them that undercuts the kinds of values that the liberal arts have stood for.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Null, I wanted to ask you more about Subject Matter. Just looking at the Gazette reporting, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, talking about John Buckley, it says, “Buckley has long worked in corporate PR. He ran communications and advertising at the government-backed mortgage company Fannie Mae from 1991 to 2001 and was executive vice president of communications at AOL from 2002 to 2007. [He also] served in senior communication roles in three Republican presidential campaigns—Reagan-Bush in 1984, Jack Kemp’s failed 1988 bid, and Dole-Kemp in 1996—though he told the Gazette he is no longer a Republican.” Can you talk more about the PR aspects of what you’re doing now and what the role of Subject Matter is?

WILLIAM NULL: I don’t have personal knowledge about that. What I can say is that one of the most unfortunate things about this very real financial situation is that, unquestionably, communications could have been better, and the way in which we have articulated the situation, from January 15, perhaps, on, I’m sure, could have been improved upon. But the bottom line is that we’re in a serious financial situation, with a $5 million deficit next year and $20 million over the next three. We’re looking to raise $30 million so that we can move forward and properly compensate faculty and staff, and provide for the sort of educational institution that we’ve been for the past almost 50 years, and perpetuate that, because, as you said, liberal arts education in this country, particularly critical thinking liberal arts education with social justice direction, is at serious risk of being eliminated. This is a very real crisis for Hampshire College. We’re looking to address that seriously with all different cohorts that we’ve got. We’re including faculty, staff and students, alums and parents, as well as others. And we would very much welcome any sort of financial support that could help us keep this institution viable and moving forward, exhibiting and helping with the strengths that were very well articulated both by Margaret Cerullo and by the student.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Desta Cantave, before we lose you on satellite, if you have a question for Hampshire trustee Bill Null?

DESTA CANTAVE: Yeah. I’m just—I’m curious to know how the communication could have—I’m interested in that statement, the communication could have been better, because I don’t think that that is accountable to the fact that it was completely inconsistent. We were given information about how the—we weren’t able to accept an incoming class because of potential legislation that didn’t even get passed, that would hold the accreditation firm to not accrediting the college because of the financial crisis, which was later just discovered to not be true, even though that was initially what we were told. Like all of these—like, you say that the communication could have been better, but I’m wondering if you can account for some of the specifics of how the communication went wrong.

WILLIAM NULL: So, I think people have misunderstood when we—what we said was the rationale for not enrolling a fall '19 class. Our commitment is to the students that are there today and being able to teach them out. There are two different institutions that are involved in regulating the college. The accreditation from New England, it's NECHE, New England—I’ve got to look at what the acronym is, but I’m not going to spend time with that.

DESTA CANTAVE: NECHE, NECHE.

WILLIAM NULL: NECHE, yeah. There’s a requirement that we be able to show we’ve got the financial wherewithal to teach out students that we take in over a 4-year period. Now, Mount Ida did not do that. Mount Ida accepted a class and then closed. We’re absolutely not at a point of closing, but we did not want to take in a class, a first-year class, that—where we were looking at reduced enrollment numbers. A first-year class at Hampshire, in order to [inaudible]—

DESTA CANTAVE: Right, but as an institution that is reliant—but as an institution that is reliant on tuition in order to survive, that feels really inconsistent to me, what you’re saying.

WILLIAM NULL: There’s a more nuanced analysis that explains that—

DESTA CANTAVE: To preserving—preserving the financial situation.

WILLIAM NULL: Yes. I know that you would think that all you do is multiply the number of students by the tuition, but it happens that you don’t get the full tuition. And the number of students that we had and the needs that we would have been required to meet for those students would have meant that we would have not been revenue-positive with a class at the size that we were looking at. We felt morally committed and, I think, correctly, ethically obligated to take those students who were accepted last year and deferred, and to also take those students that we had already accepted in early admissions, because, as you had said, this is an important school. It really delivers a unique brand and form of education. I benefited from it. My wife benefited from it, and my son did, as so many other people over the past 50 years. It’s thanks to the faculty and staff and the ability of the school to provide for critical thinking that we want to continue it all.

So, what was I saying about the communication? It’s a very complicated situation that put us in the place of being $20 million, over the next three years, in the deficit. We’re not going to be able to pull this out by short-term fundraising. It’s not likely at all, given the trends that we’ve had in fundraising previously.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cerullo, 30 seconds, last word?

MARGARET CERULLO: Well, I’m glad that you’ve all been exposed to what one of my colleagues described as “perfectly smooth speech, devoid of meaning, that uses the word 'ethical' in almost every sentence.” I don’t think this was a communications problem. I think this is a substance problem. And I would just underline that a deeper problem, I think, than the loss of students is an overinflated administration, the number of law firms that the college has recently brought on board, including a notorious union-busting firm, the mergers and acquisitions firm that they’ve employed, and the bloated administration that we are saddled with. Those are all issues that I think also ought to be considered when we look at Hampshire’s financial situation and its precarity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there, but we will continue to cover this issue, not only at Hampshire, but at other schools, and look at the crisis of education in the United States. We want to thank Desta Cantave, senior at Hampshire College, member of Hampshire Rise Up; Margaret Cerullo, professor of sociology and feminist studies at Hampshire College, where she’s taught for 40 years; and Bill Null, Hampshire College trustee and alum.

That does it for this segment. If you want to see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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