Pit Stop #10: Hampshire College

It’s October 22nd in Western Massachusetts, temperatures in the mid-70s, and delightfully sunny. I suppose it will get colder soon, but the glorious day allowed me to sit outside at a cafe off Route 9 with the President of Hampshire College, Ed Wingenbach. We were talking about his rather extraordinarily challenging first fifteen months on the job.

Tree with Hampshire College sign

Hampshire has a fascinating history that began in 1958 with an idea that came from some visionary neighboring faculty at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst and UMass Amherst. The plan was to create a new college that would provide an alternative kind of education, where students could design their own programs of study and take responsibility for their own education in new and innovative ways. From that brainstorm (that took a while to congeal) Hampshire College was born in 1970, and the Five College Consortium was founded. 

Thankful Grateful sign
Pretty much the early ethos of Hampshire.

Quirky, creative and unique, Hampshire established a beachhead for students who thrived there, in a way they might perhaps nowhere else, but financial pressures were always threatening to upend progress. Almost fifty years later, Hampshire’s President and Board of Trustees made the momentous decision that the college couldn’t overcome its financial challenges and needed to close. That decision was eventually reversed, with that President and a number of trustees resigning — and oodles of alumni rushing in to try to rescue their beloved alma mater– but the damage had been done. The entering class in 2019 consisted of only 13 students, and one year later Hampshire’s total enrollment (this fall) was just over 500, down from a peak of 1,500.

Hampshire buildings
A beautiful (if rather empty) campus

Enter Ed Wingenbach, a man on a mission. Even with all the headwinds facing Ed and Hampshire (many of which still remain) there has been an incredible amount of progress in the past year and a half. One of the things we discussed is how difficult it is for a college to hold onto a spirit of entrepreneurism and experimentation through the years, even when the institution was founded on those very principals of radical innovation.

Hampshire's mod dorms
Rather radically cool dorms.
Mod dorms
And these are dorms, too!

It sure looks like Hampshire has recaptured a lot of that spirit — and of course, the dynamically modern buildings, on-campus museums like the Yiddish Book Center and adjacent Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, plus gorgeous landscaping add a lot to the picture. (Betty always loved Hampshire for its lush apple orchards, which she used to pillage from her next-door campus at UMass.)

Yiddish Book Center and red tree
The on-campus Yiddish Book Center (which is not a dorm).

An ambitious capital campaign is off to a very strong start, the curriculum has been completely revamped, expenses have begun to be re-aligned with revenue, and a new marketing plan is about to be launched. And happily, it seems the unique Hampshire ethos is still firmly in place.

garden at Hampshire
Lots of green thriving.
scary halloween hut
And that insouciant unexpected touch!

Ed’s energy and belief in Hampshire is contagious, and he is indefatigable. I very much look forward to watching their progress. 

Listen to my conversation with an optimist and true believer below:

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