The president of Hampshire College has reiterated his commitment to keep the liberal arts school independent, following the release of a trove of e-mails detailing previous merger discussions with the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In a letter to the college community on Friday, Ed Wingenbach said correspondence acquired by the Daily Hampshire Gazette through a public records request reveals new information about negotiations between the two Amherst institutions.
Last December, officials were discussing UMass acquiring Hampshire. One condition that was broached called for Hampshire not to accept a fall 2019 class, Wingenbach said, citing the newly released e-mails.
Internal UMass communications indicated that “UMass leaders envisioned one scenario in which Hampshire would close after a teach-out period, and that any successor UMass entity would not be required to continue Hampshire’s mission or educational program,” he said.
“Importantly, Hampshire’s board of trustees never endorsed a partnership with UMass on these, or any other, terms,” Wingenbach said in the letter. “If Hampshire entered into any partnership with these conditions, we would have given up our autonomy, control, and identity.”
Wingenbach, a longtime advocate for progressive higher education, was selected in July as the school’s eighth president. His appointment came at a perilous time for Hampshire, which is known for its alternative curriculum and free-spirited students.
In January, then-President Miriam Nelson announced that financial pressure had forced the school to seek a merger partner. Two weeks later, trustees voted not to accept a full fall class of students.
The announcements led to protests among students, faculty, and alumni of the private college that admitted its first class in 1970. Working groups were created to find alternative paths for the college.
Ultimately Nelson and the college’s board chairwoman resigned, and an interim president was named. In April, college trustees voted to keep Hampshire independent, the Globe reported.
The New England Commission of Higher Education in June 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.
In his letter, Wingenbach acknowledged that the decision not to enroll a new class presents “an immense challenge to maintaining a sustainable, independent Hampshire, as we’re facing significantly reduced enrollment and revenues for at least the next four years.”
He said the school is projecting a fall enrollment of 700 to 750 students. Previously, enrollment had hovered around 1,400. The fall term begins Wednesday, according to the school calendar.
“Let’s be clear: The only way Hampshire can sustain its distinctive mission is if we succeed in working together to remain independent and secure a long-term, sustainable financial model,” he said in the letter.
In the coming months, he said the school plans to “design an academic program representing the future of higher education,” continue an ongoing fund-raising campaign, and recruit and enroll a new class of students for 2020.