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The Fight for Hampshire College: How One School’s Financial Calamity Exposes a Crisis in Higher Ed

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Students and faculty are fighting to save Hampshire College from unprecedented financial crisis and potential collapse, following a series of devastating cuts and administrative decisions. In January, Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson announced the board of trustees and senior administrators would seek to merge the school with a “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. We host a discussion with Hampshire professor Margaret Cerullo; Hampshire senior Desta Cantave, who is also a member of Hampshire Rise Up; and Hampshire College trustee William Null.

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

AMY GOODMAN: “No Name #3” by Hampshire alum Elliott Smith. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we turn now to Massachusetts, where students at Hampshire College 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. This is Hampshire College student Ola’i Wildeboar with the group Hamp Rise Up, which has been organizing the protests.

OLA’I WILDEBOAR: We’re fighting for transparency, better representation and an educational system that listens to us and actually serves our best interests. … It’s really tragic, the fact that schools like this are closing down so rapidly. And now that we’re here in the midst of this movement, I realize how important education is and how essential it is for these places to exist.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Many of Hampshire College’s faculty, students, alumni and staff have criticized President Miriam Nelson for her handling of the crisis, saying they were caught by surprise that the school was in financial trouble. Critics say it runs counter to Hampshire’s unique mission as a progressive liberal arts college committed to social justice.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by three guests. Margaret Cerullo is a professor at Hampshire College, joining us in our New York studio, professor of sociology and feminist studies, where she’s taught for 40 years. Her recent piece for The Nation 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, a member of the Hampshire Rise Up. And joining us via Skype is William Null, a trustee of Hampshire College, a partner in the law firm of Cuddy & Feder. He is a Hampshire College alum, was a member of Hampshire’s third entering class in 1972.

We welcome you all. Let’s begin with Margaret Cerullo. You have written this article called “The Unmaking of a College: Notes from Inside the Hampshire Runaway Train.” What is happening, what’s your understanding, at Hampshire College?

MARGARET CERULLO: Well, it’s taken us a bit of time to figure out what’s happening, because we’ve felt ourselves to be or experienced what’s felt like a shock doctrine kind of attack. Everything happened extremely rapidly, starting on January 15th, when the first announcement was made that Hampshire was seeking a strategic partner and might not accept a freshman class. That news was absolutely devastating. It was confirmed on the 1st of February by a decision of the board of trustees. Devastating because Hampshire is tuition-dependent. So, failing to take in a class means, automatically, the necessity to cut 25 to 50 percent of faculty and staff almost immediately.

That was followed by an utterly bizarre letter to the early-acceptance students, because the college had legal obligations to them—they had already been accepted—inviting them to come to Hampshire, but warning them that there would probably be no dining hall, no dorms, few faculty and none of the services that one could usually expect from a liberal arts college, such as sports, clubs, a study abroad office or even on-campus jobs. So that was another cold water bath, that said to us that not only was the college discouraging an entering class, but, having seen that letter, it seemed to be a spur for all the rest of the students to transfer, get out, as quickly as they possibly could, absolutely eliminating, or virtually eliminating, our revenue base.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, William Null, you’re a trustee of Hampshire College. Could you talk about—because at least throughout the fall, the financial situation at Hampshire College, for anyone who was looking from the outside or even the faculty, was in good shape. So what happened to suddenly create this financial crisis?

Oh, I’m sorry, we’re having some problems—we’re having some problems with William Null. So, I will ask Desta. Desta Cantave, could you talk about your reaction and the reaction of the other students when you heard the sudden announcement?

DESTA CANTAVE: Yeah. So, the announcement that first came out actually came out during winter break, and so a lot of the students weren’t around. But once students returned from winter break, there was meetings with the students to talk about what was going on. And students reacted by—in protest, by, on January 31st, marching to the Dean of Students Office and President Nelson’s Office in Cole Science Center. And the students have been occupying the President’s Office since then. And we occupied the Dean of Students Office for some time, and we conceded the Dean of Students Office after what we thought were making headway in negotiations about a list of demands that we created in our protest. And those demands are radical transparency, shared governance and overall equity—none of which have been met. But when it looked like things were going to be met, we stopped occupying the Dean of Students Office. But we are still in Cole, and we’ve been there for, as you said, 41 days.

AMY GOODMAN: Margaret Cerullo, can you tell us what’s special about Hampshire College, for people who aren’t familiar with it at all? I mean, you’ve been teaching there for 40 years.

MARGARET CERULLO: Well, Hampshire is an extraordinary place. It should be said, it was founded on the heels of the 1960s, the student movements, and it’s always had a very explicit, upfront social justice mission. So we were the first college in the country to divest from South African apartheid, winning us a letter of recognition from Nelson Mandela from jail. We were there first college to divest from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In 2001, the entire college community voted against war with Afghanistan. So, there’s been a consistent history, both on and off campus. And as I said in my article, I think it would be hard to mention a progressive project or social—including Democracy Now!—or any social movement of the last 49 years that hasn’t seen the active participation of students, faculty, alumni and staff from Hampshire College. So, I would say that, at Hampshire, confronting, naming social injustice, and acting on it, is part of the DNA.

The one other thing that I would like to say, that’s perhaps less well known, is that Hampshire has also been a refuge for political and intellectual refugees. So, for example, Basker Vashee, who was a Zimbabwean revolutionary imprisoned by the Rhodesian colonial government, who I wrote petitions about when I was a student in England, 10 years later was my colleague at Hampshire. Yusef—these are not political refugees—Yusef Lateef taught there, and, of course, James Baldwin. And our truly beloved Eqbal Ahmad, who, again, had no place in the American university system after his political engagements during the Vietnam War and in favor of the Palestinian people, had found a home at Hampshire and taught there for 15 years. So, I mean, that’s been an extraordinary place, because the presence of those people has enormously enriched the educational experience for all of our students.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I think we have William Null now. We lost him on Skype, but we have him on by phone. William Null, as I said earlier, you’re a trustee. What happened between the fall and then early January and February for such a drastic change in the announced position of the college on its finances to occur?

WILLIAM NULL: Right. Well, I want to say, to begin with, I agree with Margaret Cerullo’s comments about how important Hampshire College is and the situation. I’m an alum. My spouse is an alum. My son is an alum. This is in the DNA of—in my DNA. And most of the trustees on the board are also alums or parents of alums. So the mission of the college as a social justice institution is incredibly important, and it’s something that we’re very focused on continuing. That’s essential.

The challenge here is that, in the face of a $5 million deficit next year and $20 million over the next three years, Hampshire was faced with a situation of not being able to continue to sustain the reliance—87 percent reliance—on tuition, room and board, and reliance on donors’ generosity, in order to balance its budget. And what we wanted to do was to make it very clear and transparent to students that our first commitment was to them and graduating them, and to the faculty and staff, and continuing to keep the institution moving forward, not to bring in another class where we didn’t have the funds, that we were confident we didn’t have the funds, to continue and teach them out over a 4-year period. So, when we made the announcement in January, it was having confronted the fact that we had 1,400 students in 2014, we were down to 1,100 students in 2018, 2019, and we were looking at a continuing falling enrollment, which is a trend in the U.S., a demographic shift, with less high school graduates, and the colleges in the Northeast, in particular, are competing for these high school graduates. With the lower endowment, we don’t have the money to essentially provide greater financial aid. And we focused our financial aid on trying to increase diversity at the school, which we’ve been successful at, and to try and get what we call thrivers—the students who can succeed at this very rigorous institution.

I have to say that this is a terrible situation for Hampshire College to be in, that the loss of faculty and staff, who are deeply dedicated to the mission and have dedicated their career, is one of the worst things that any of us have faced. And the disruption for the students and their education is something that we’d all like to avoid. What we’re looking to try and do is to steer the ship to a safe landing and a place where we can continue this important social justice mission for years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me get comment from professor Margaret Cerullo. Your response to Bill Null, the trustee?

MARGARET CERULLO: Well, one of the things that’s been the most puzzling to all of us is: Why the dire financial straits that the administration and trustees are now claiming faced Hampshire? That that information was not made known to Hampshire’s extraordinarily loyal trustee—excuse me, alumni, who are, you can—understandably furious, because they weren’t told that we were facing what’s now called an existential crisis, and are being blamed for not being willing to be contributors. So that’s a great puzzle, for one.

WILLIAM NULL: We’re not looking to blame faculty or staff. Last year, if you recall, there was a—voluntary separation agreements were entered into, so that we could have early retirement for about 30 people. And at that point, we were looking at a $3 million deficit, that was funded through a one-time dividend from one of the investments in our endowment. So we basically got by on that deficit at that time. And that was discussed with faculty and staff. In fact, there were many people who sought to take advantage of that voluntary separation. The fact that Hampshire has, year to year, been in a challenging financial situation is considerably a result of such reliance—almost 90 percent—on tuition, room and board. So, there have been years when we’ve had reductions—

MARGARET CERULLO: If I could interrupt, maybe, to tell—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Desta Cantave back into the conversation—


AMY GOODMAN: —and ask what Hamp Rise Up’s demands are right now. You met with the president.

DESTA CANTAVE: Yeah. So, I would also like to clarify a little bit about our demands, because I think they kind of work in response to what this trustee is saying, which is, we’re asking for overall radical transparency, which none of this financial information was clear to members of the Hampshire community prior to January 15th. And if it was made in any sort of way known, it was not to the degree at which we’re being told about it now. So, everyone was kind of blindsided, I think, by the fact that all of a sudden the school could not go on without not accepting an incoming class and without making these huge changes.

We also asked for shared governance, which there were two—there are or were two vacant seats on the board, and we asked that two students be elected onto that board. And we also asked—there’s an options committee, which is a search committee for the potential strategic partner that might be coming in to help us, and we asked for two elected students to be on that options committee. Two students were appointed by Miriam Nelson, but they were not elected by the students. And we were declined to have two students added to the board of trustees, that were elected.

And then, our third, overall equity, was protect programs like the James Baldwin scholarship program, Office of Accessibility Resources, the cultural center and other sort of affinity spaces that have been prioritized. And in our last meeting around our demands with Miriam Nelson—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

DESTA CANTAVE: —she was claiming—she was claiming to have met some of those demands, which she had not. And she even said that the overall equity demand, those affinity-based programs, were important to the college, but they were not nonnegotiable in the strategic partnership. So that was really disappointing for us to hear.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion, and we’re going to post it online. Desta Cantave, senior at Hampshire College, member of Hampshire Rise Up; Margaret Cerullo, professor of sociology and feminist studies at Hampshire College, been there for 40 years; and Bill Null, Hampshire College trustee.

I’ll be speaking in Denver at East High School on March 15th. That’s Friday night at 7:00. Check our website at

We also have an immediate job opening for a full-time junior systems administrator here in New York. Check

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