Saving Hampshire College

Can Hampshire College rise, if not from the dead, from the higher ed death watch list? 

Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen has predicted that as many as half of all US colleges and universities will close or go bankrupt over the next decade, and a year ago it looked like Hampshire would be one of them. 

The Amherst college, founded in 1970 with a commitment to rethinking traditional liberal arts education, said it was in dire financial straits and would be seeking a “strategic partner” to merge with. The college, which depends almost entirely on tuition revenue to operate, seemed to push itself closer to the fiscal cliff by then announcing it would not accept a new entering class this fall. 

The news of Hampshire’s death, however, has been premature. 

Students, faculty, and alumni rose up in protest against the planned merger, and within months the college president who said it was the only viable path had resigned, along with the leaders of the college board of trustees who backed the plan. The remaining college leaders declared they would instead mount an aggressive fundraising drive and pursue other reforms to remain an independent college.

Now charged with leading that effort is Ed Wingenbach, who arrived in August as Hampshire’s new president. For a guy facing a very tall task, the veteran college administrator — most recently at Ripon College in Wisconsin — sounded enthusiastic and upbeat as he talked about the challenge on The Codcast.  The college has about 730 students after what Wingenbach calls the “self-induced crisis” of not enrolling a new class this fall. He says Hampshire will be back to 1,100 or 1,200 students within five years.