AMHERST — Hampshire College has selected Edward C. Wingenbach, a longtime advocate for progressive higher education, as the school’s eighth president, citing both his passion for Hampshire’s unconventional educational model and his experience working with institutions experiencing precarious times.
Wingenbach, 49, who assumes office in early August, will be on campus to meet faculty, staff, and students Thursday, after trustees announced his appointment Wednesday.
“Even just seeing it on paper, we got this sense that this guy has been looking for Hampshire for a long time — he’s sort of created small Hampshires wherever he’s been. And the more we talked to him, the more we felt, as someone put it, ‘he gets us,’ ” said Ellen Sturgis a Hampshire graduate from Stow, who has been a trustee for a year.
“As much as he’s never been a Hampshire person, he really does embody a lot of what we stand for,” said Sturgis.
His appointment comes at a perilous time for Hampshire. Last month, the New England Commission of Higher Education gave the college five months to shore up its finances and stabilize its leadership. It will make a decision in November about whether to place Hampshire on probation or withdraw its accreditation.
The accrediting agency said Hampshire needed to hire a new president, improve its board governance, and put in place realistic plans for fund-raising and long-term sustainability.
Sturgis said the search committee wanted a strong, flexible leader who could turn things around. The consensus was that Wingenbach has those skills.
He was selected from a pool of 60 who were nominated by alumni, faculty, staff, and students. The search panel winnowed that group to nine candidates who were vetted by the search committee.
Three finalists came to campus last week for interviews with faculty, staff, administrators, and students — about 40 people who met with the candidates in various smaller group configurations, according to Sturgis.
“That group in the debrief process was very clear this was the guy they wanted,” said Sturgis.
Wingenbach has worked at small liberal arts institutions facing challenging times, helping lead them through a deliberate process that drew on people from all over their campuses, said Sturgis.
“He could map that out, how he did that and what he learned from it,” said Sturgis.
“We’re in a tough spot — it’s been a hard year and we needed someone who could hit the ground running.”
Trustees chairman Luis Fernandez said he believes Wingenbach has the right mix of skills to lead Hampshire through a difficult time.
“He has the energy to do it and he’s ready to roll,” said Fernandez. “This is not a new scenario for him. He’s seen it and he has ideas about how to turn the ship around.”
Hampshire’s interim president, Ken Rosenthal, said he met individually with the finalists, all of whom were excellent candidates, and felt Wingenbach was the right choice.
“He knows us, he’s known us for years, and he admires us,” said Rosenthal. “He’s all in with us, and we with him.”
Wingenbach was acting president of Ripon College in Wisconsin from January to the end of June. He was vice president, dean of faculty, and professor of politics and government from 2015-2019.
“I see my charge as helping to reinvigorate its proud legacy of innovation, because its example is too important, and there are too many students who need and want its high-impact, individualized, student-driven education,” Wingenbach said in a statement. He was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for an interview.
Sturgis and Hernandez said Wingenbach’s top priority will be to prepare for the accreditation evaluation.
Sturgis said trustees are prepared to work closely with Wingenbach in the coming year.
“Trustees have to be very much a working board. He can’t do it all,” she said.
Hampshire’s previous president, Miriam Nelson, who assumed office a year ago, sparked furor on campus when she announced last winter 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.
The announcements led to protests among students, faculty, and alumni, as well as the creation of working groups set on finding alternative paths for the college. Ultimately Nelson and the college’s board chairwoman resigned, and an interim president was named.
Since then, college officials have voted to keep the school independent. And Hampshire alumni, led by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, have spearheaded a fund-raising campaign in an attempt to set the college back on track.
At Ripon, Wingenbach worked to develop a campuswide strategic planning process and predictive modeling for enrollment, retention, and net revenue.
His research interests include contemporary political theory, democratic theory, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. His work has been published in books and journals of political science, including The Journal of Politics and the American Journal of Political Science, according to a statement from Hampshire.
Wingenbach previously worked for 15 years at the University of Redlands in California in various positions including professor and associate provost.