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For unconventional Hampshire College, a chance to start over

Figgy Baby, a performer and Class of 2014 alumnus, spoke in a small group. On the day before classes started, Hampshire College held a meeting for the entire campus to "relaunch" the school after a year in which many feared it would close.
Figgy Baby, a performer and Class of 2014 alumnus, spoke in a small group. On the day before classes started, Hampshire College held a meeting for the entire campus to "relaunch" the school after a year in which many feared it would close.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

AMHERST — The new president of Hampshire College, in his first address to students, faculty, and staff Tuesday, did not sugarcoat the gravity of the school’s financial situation but expressed confidence that it is up to the task at hand.

“The work that was done last spring didn’t save Hampshire College; it gave us the opportunity to save it,” Ed Wingenbach said. “It will be a long process, but we are going to make it happen.”

He said the challenge will be to maintain Hampshire’s approach to education that is experimental and student-driven, with faculty as mentors and guides, but do so within a pared-down budget.

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He ticked off the budget deficits Hampshire has faced over the years: $3.5 million in 2015; $6 million in 2017, $8.5 million in 2018, and $9 million last year. When he started last month, this year’s budget deficit was $12 million, although now that’s now down to $9 million.

“That’s not sustainable,” he said.

Wingenbach sought to reassure a campus coping with an existential crisis, after a semester in which many feared it might be headed for closure.

Last year, he said, the college fundamentally was engaged in a debate over whether, given the financial picture, Hampshire should merge with another institution or make changes and remain independent.

“That debate has been resolved. We will now do the hard work to have an independent Hampshire — or we will close,” he said. “We’re going to make it or we’re not — and we are going to make it.”

Entering student Marielle Glasse, 19, one of 13 in the first-year class, confessed that amid her excitement to be at Hampshire after deferring admission last fall to take a gap year, she harbors concern.

“There’s a little seed of worry that I’m going to like it — and I already like it — and I’m not going to be able to finish my education,” said Glasse, from Austin, Texas. “I think it would be a bummer to start an education [at Hampshire] and then have to go to a normal college.”

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Sitting together over lunch in the Robert Crown Center, the new students appeared equal measures triumphant and embarrassed as Wingenbach gave them the rock-star treatment.

“We tried very hard to get them not to come, and nevertheless they persisted in coming to Hampshire College,” he said.

Flynn Caswell, 18, from Falmouth, said she was so excited by Hampshire when she visited that she applied early decision. Once accepted, she thought that was that — until she received word from the college Jan. 14 informing her that the school would not be accepting a full first-year class, suggesting she consider going elsewhere.

Caswell decided to stick with Hampshire after receiving an e-mail from Wingenbach over the summer.

“It made me a lot more confident. You can really tell that he wants to fight for the school,” she said.

Including the new students, Hampshire’s enrollment will be between 700 and 750, up from the 600 school officials had projected earlier this summer. For a school whose budget is reliant on tuition, these numbers matter a great deal.

Wingenbach became Hampshire’s eighth president following a whirlwind few months during which college trustees announced they would not take a full 2019 entering class while they searched for a strategic partner to get the college on sound financial footing.

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That sparked months of intense debate on campus, the longest student sit-in in college history, and in April the resignations of former president Miriam “Mim” Nelson and trustees leadership.

“I don’t think Hampshire College was in a crisis last spring, but it is now, and it’s one we have to address and solve,’’ Wingenbach told the crowd Tuesday.

In an interview in his office Monday evening, Wingenbach acknowledged that school leaders have their work cut out for them to revamp Hampshire, whose famous graduates include documentarian Ken Burns, actor Lupita Nyong’o, and writer Jon Krakauer.

“We face a very large challenge with a very quick deadline,” he said. “Now we have to solve the problem that we created for ourselves.”

In the coming weeks, Wingenbach said, he will devote himself to preparing the college for a November evaluation by the New England Commission of Higher Education, which in May ordered the school to hire a new president, improve its board governance, and develop a realistic plan for long-term financial sustainability by November.

Wingenbach said he has full confidence that Hampshire’s plan will receive approval by the accrediting body, and once that hurdle is past he believes he will be able to lead the college in recruiting a full class for fall 2020.

He acknowledged that part of his job is to rebuild trust in Hampshire.

“A version of what went on last year was the narrative we can’t survive. I don’t believe that,” he said.

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“I believe we can survive and, not only that, I feel we have to survive and thrive.”


Laurie Loisel can be reached at laurieloisel@gmail.com.