On a sunny day in mid-April, a group of film and television professionals sat sipping drinks beside a deep blue pool in the Santa Monica backyard of writer and producer Victor Fresco.
The topic of the afternoon soiree? The fate of Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass. Despite the peaceful setting, these alumni were frustrated. They wanted to know exactly what had transpired during the most tumultuous semester in the school’s 49-year history and whether it had any chance of survival.
“For me and for a lot of people, it was just confusion,” said Fresco, who followed the news from afar.
That gathering was just one of many efforts by a patchwork of alumni across the country that have sprung up in recent months to try to save the alternative liberal arts college from collapse.
Fresco — like nearly all graduates — was blindsided in January when then-Hampshire president Miriam Nelson announced the school would need to merge with another institution to stay financially solvent. Two weeks later, trustees voted not to accept a full fall class of students, shocking everyone.
“Why weren’t we made aware of this problem before it was a crisis?” Fresco said.
But now, he and many graduates are pledging money to save the school. The main fund-raising effort, led by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, aims to raise $20 million by next summer and $100 million in five years. So far they have $4.5 million in donations and pledges, according to the school.
The turmoil at Hampshire, which included large student protests and a warning that the college is now in danger of losing its accreditation, reached a fever pitch in April when Nelson and board chairwoman Gaye Hill resigned.
Many alumni say they have donated precisely because Nelson left and they believe the new leadership agrees with alumni that the school should stay independent.
“I have given money because now I feel like everybody’s on the same page,” Fresco said.
But it will be a challenge. Hampshire plans to drop to about 600 students overall this fall, half its normal enrollment. It has also cut costs through layoffs and attrition.
Commencement is set for Saturday morning on the school’s 800-acre campus. During commencement weekend, donations of up to $250,000 will be matched by an alumnus.
Burns’s pitch to donors is simple — give four times the amount that hurts. The filmmaker said he attributes his professional success as much to Hampshire as to anything, and that makes him want to save the school.
“It’s definitely a significant, even existential crisis that we have to solve,” Burns said in a recent phone interview about his fund-raising efforts.
He is confident it will not close or need to merge.
To many, the crisis at Hampshire College seems all the more important because it takes place during a time of seismic change in the higher education industry. Small private colleges across the country depend largely on tuition for revenue, and they are struggling to survive as the college-going population shrinks and many families can no longer afford the high cost of such schools.
Hampshire, with its alternative model, is seen as somewhat of an icon of unconventional education. If it fails, it could signal a further stratification of the education system, with elite colleges at the top and everything else more focused on practical job skills.
These stakes seem to have made the Hampshire alumni even more determined to keep their school alive. The college was founded in the 1960s during a time of political upheaval and the type of training it gives students has never been more necessary than today, they argue.
“It offers us this opportunity to really dig deep into the core values that ought to survival and to modify them in a new century,” Burns said.
But Hampshire will have an uphill battle. The school is under close monitoring by the regional accrediting organization as a result of its precarious leadership and finances.
“The challenge of a place like Hampshire is that they don’t have the base of wealthy old alumni who are dying and giving money to Hampshire,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University who also studies higher education finances. He said the current situation could have been avoided by reaching out to prospective donors earlier.
The situation at Hampshire is not unlike that of Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s school in Virginia that seemed doomed in 2015 when its board of directors announced it would close because of insurmountable financial problems.
Then alumni, students, and faculty came to its rescue. This week, it will graduate its smallest class ever — 30 students — but it admitted 111 last fall and expect 150 this year.
Mary Pope M. Hutson, the school’s vice president for alumnae relations and development, said Hampshire will have to increase enrollment if it wants to survive. Like many small schools, its endowment of $53.6 million is of little use for daily operating costs. The other thing that will be vital is to keep alumni engaged, she said.
“We always kept the faith; we always knew that we could not only keep Sweet Briar open but make it into an excellent institution,” Hutson said.
Other fund-raising efforts are afoot. A group of four past Hampshire presidents recently published a letter in support of the attempt to stay independent and pledged to support the fund-raising.
Other events are taking place in New York and Boston, including an October gala in the theme of the legendary Hampshire Halloween party. And other small groups of graduates are reaching out to others they know to ask for donations.
But whether it will be enough is still anyone’s guess. Fifteen students are set to enroll this fall. Jake Pehle of central Vermont is one of them.
He took a gap year after high school, so by the time Hampshire announced its financial woes it was too late to look for another college. He is excited because he loved the students he met at the admitted students weekend, and he is excited to be able to take classes at the four other colleges in the Amherst area, which are part of a consortium.
Still, this summer Pehle is researching other colleges where he could transfer if something happens to Hampshire.
“I’m still in the middle of optimism and being really worried,” he said.