The rescue mission for Hampshire College is now facing a fast-looming deadline. The region’s higher education accreditor has given the Western Massachusetts college five months to shore up its finances and stabilize its leadership.
The New England Commission of Higher Education announced Friday that it will make a decision on whether to place Hampshire College on probation or withdraw its accreditation in November.
The commission had been set to make a decision about the college’s status at the end of May but deferred that vote until November to give the alumni and administration an opportunity to make necessary changes. Instead, the commission placed the school on notice that it is “in danger” of losing its accreditation if current conditions continue or worsen.
In the coming months, Hampshire will have to hire a new president, improve its board governance, and put in place “realistic plans regarding fund-raising and discount rates, and enhancing its long-term sustainability,” the accrediting agency said in a statement.
Hampshire’s interim president, Ken Rosenthal, acknowledged that the college has a short time to accomplish much.
“But I believe our community is equal to the challenge,” Rosenthal said.
The iconoclastic college where students create their own majors and don’t receive grades was launched 49 years ago as an alternative to traditional higher education. But the past few months have called into question whether Hampshire’s approach is sustainable.
In January, then-Hampshire president Miriam Nelson made the stunning announcement that 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 the world of higher education.
That spurred student protests; arguments among faculty, alumni, and leadership about the best path forward for the college; and fund-raising efforts to help save the school.
In April, Nelson and the college’s board chairwoman resigned. The college announced that it would shift strategies and would try to remain an independent institution instead of seeking a merger partner.
Hampshire alumnus and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who is leading the effort to raise $20 million by next summer and about $100 million in five years for the college, said he is optimistic about its future.
Alumni and members of the Hampshire community have already pledged or given $7 million. Burns said he also will eventually approach philanthropic foundations to help raise the money.
“This is a crisis, but it’s a huge opportunity,” Burns said Friday during a phone interview. The accrediting agency is giving Hampshire some space and time to get the college on track, he said.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity to remake the college,” Burns said, adding that he expects Hampshire will retain its accreditation in November.
The college has also taken other steps to become more financially stable.
It shrunk its enrollment to 600 students this fall, about half its normal size. It will lay off some 24 staff members by the end of June and has reduced hours for some faculty from full time to part time. More than two dozen faculty have taken voluntary leaves of absence by taking visiting positions at the other nearby colleges.
The college is also developing plans to relaunch its admissions office and recruit freshmen for the fall of 2020. Hampshire had laid off its admissions staff this past spring.
Earlier this year, students who had applied to Hampshire College early were suddenly notified that Hampshire would not accept a freshman class, before the college reversed course. Fifteen students who had been offered deferred admissions or early decision are set to enroll in Hampshire this fall.
The regional accreditor is scheduled to vote on Hampshire’s fate in November, a few weeks before notices traditionally are sent out to students who are accepted early.
Still, Hampshire faces an uphill battle.
Many small, private colleges in New England are struggling to survive as the population of college-age students declines and competition to slash costs to appeal to more families heats up.
As last year’s abrupt shutdown of Mount Ida College in Newton illustrated, these closures can be chaotic and leave students, families, and staff in turmoil with few appealing options.
The regional accrediting agency is developing new methods to identify troubled colleges earlier. The Massachusetts higher education regulators later this month will also recommend changes for greater oversight and consumer protection of colleges.