My Turn: Hampshire College defies the odds: A critical reappraisal of 'The Unmaking of a College' – The Recorder

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Hampshire College, which nearly closed in 2019, just welcomed its largest entering class since 2018. The film “Unmaking of a College,” which documented the crisis, recently became widely available on streaming platforms and DVD.
The film provides a launching point for understanding the factors that affect Hampshire and other small liberal arts colleges around the nation. However, there is a context beyond the film we need to understand better.
Produced by Amy Goldstein, a Hampshire alum, the film is an excellent primer for the public about external forces pressuring colleges to close or merge. These pressures favor programs that are geared toward providing job skills at the expense of small, unique colleges like Hampshire and other ones featured in the book, “Colleges that Change Lives.”
“Unmaking of a College” provides an overview and chronology, including archival footage shot by Joshua Berman, interviews with Dusty Christenson (a former Gazette reporter), Marlon Becerra and other Hampshire students, faculty and outside experts.
The movie shows the fighting spirit of the students and why the college mattered to them. However, it portrayed the fierceness of the students, who indeed were impressive, at the expense of a more nuanced view. The L.A. Times writes that at moments, “it feels more akin to watching a recruitment video for the college, rather than an urgent and prescient call to arms.”
From my firsthand knowledge as an ally of the students and participant in the movement writ large, there was an extensive range of experiences: from tedium, anger, frustration, and despair to fun, connection, and joy. Perhaps most laudable was that the students fought for their ideals even though the outcome was never inevitable, and they persevered despite conflict within and between various stakeholder groups.
The movie claims the student sit-in was the longest in U.S. history, although that distinction belongs to students from Medgar Evers College. Nevertheless, the one at Hampshire was still a monumental achievement, lasted 75 days, and helped to save the college.
The director has made it clear that she hopes protests and other progressive action will help save our democracy. The film mentions that national movements against war and for civil rights were led by students. The problem with the juxtaposition is that student occupations related to a college closure are unlikely to spark a broader movement because the purpose and demands are specific to each particular college.
The student occupation was instrumental in inspiring the rest of the opposition — exposing cracks in former Hampshire President Miriam “Mim” Nelson’s plans. It may indeed have stopped the acquisition by UMass from coming to fruition; however, the college could have still closed without fundraising and a go-forward plan made possible by groups such as Save Hampshire, Hampshire Future, Campaign for Hampshire, Re-envisioning Coalition, AAUP, Unofficial Parents Group, alumni groups in western Massachusetts, Boston, New York City and more.
Participants in these groups came from around the world. One of the reasons for the crisis was that top leadership believed that donor fatigue meant that the college couldn’t survive a dip in revenue from enrollment. By focusing on the students and a few famous alumni, to the exclusion of the rest of the grassroots movement, the film perpetuates some of the myopia that caused the crisis in the first place.
Goldstein has said that she wanted to show Nelson’s side of things. While the former president didn’t agree to an on-camera interview, the interview of John Buckley (head of the public relations firm Hampshire was using) depicted her in a sympathetic light. He is listed in the film’s promo materials as a whistleblower because he disclosed comments from UMass Amherst leadership that could partially explain Hampshire’s bombshell announcement that they were seeking a strategic partner and not accepting new students — but he didn’t disclose that until long after Hampshire’s leadership had resigned and internal emails had been made public.
Jeff Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale School of Management and an expert featured in the movie, told me that “It takes quite an imagination employing distorted knowledge to twist deceptive bullies into appearing as heroic forces or even as sympathetic victims. The heroic forces were bold loyal faculty, students, and alumni as well as crusading journalists at the local NPR member station and the Hampshire Gazette which, through their persistent FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] diligences, surfaced the documentation of Nelson’s pattern of deceit.”
The film also didn’t cover the vital and secretive role of Kim Saal, a highly influential proponent of the acquisition, the vice chair of the board, who was also instrumental in the merger of Cooley Dickinson Hospital with Mass General.
The jury is still out on whether the film will have any impact beyond Hampshire. I hope that it will help the general public to understand that when leaders claim a college has to close due to external pressures, it’s often a deflection of their own blunders. Fortunately, we know such claims can be proven false when confronted by a galvanized community and stellar new leadership.
Jonathon Podolsky was active in Save Hampshire, Save Marlboro, Save Guilford, and Save Mills. He is the moderator of Local Frogs: Hampshire College Alumni of Western MA and a journalist member of the Education Writers Association. Views here are solely his own.
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