Hampshire College revamps its educational model, abolishing traditional academic departments

President Ed Wingenbach said Hampshire College’s financial plan is sound. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

AMHERST — Hampshire College this week unveiled a new educational model that doubles down on iconic aspects of a Hampshire education, abolishing traditional academic departments, introducing team-taught seminars focused around a central, urgent question students and faculty come up with together, and more fully integrating academic and student life on campus.

Hampshire trustees approved the new model over the weekend with enthusiastic support from faculty. President Ed Wingenbach, with faculty, staff, and students who worked on the plan on hand, presented it at a press conference Wednesday on campus.

In August, Wingenbach took over as the eighth president of Hampshire, the experimental college founded in 1970 to rethink the way liberal arts colleges teach. His appointment came after a tumultuous period sparked last January when former president Miriam “Mim” Nelson announced that the college, in dire financial condition, was looking to merge or face possible closing, after which trustees voted to not admit a class this fall.

After much protest and organizing by alumni, faculty, staff, and students that included ambitious fund-raising campaigns, Nelson and several trustees resigned in April.

The announcement about Hampshire’s new educational program comes as Wingenbach prepares to convince the New England Commission of Higher Education, the college’s accrediting body, that the school has addressed concerns it raised in May about the school’s governance and long-term financial condition.

Wingenbach said he has no doubt the commission will agree that Hampshire’s financial plan is sound and board governance practices healthy.

The new educational model, which will launch in the fall of 2020, aims to make Hampshire, always interdisciplinary in approach, even more so.

“It’s the next evolution of Hampshire,’’ said Eva Rueschmann, dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs. “We’re really building the college around questions that faculty and students and staff will be collaboratively exploring.”

The change will eliminate the five interdisciplinary schools Hampshire currently offers. Instead, faculty will work with each other and students in a more fully integrated way.

“They can think together across their expertise,” said Rachel Conrad, professor of childhood studies who has been at the college for 25 years. “Yes, we had some flexibility compared to traditional institutions, but we’re going further. We want to think across knowledge and practices. It’s breaking down barriers more.”

Conrad said breaking down silos also applies to the traditional divisions between academics and student life as the college helps students cultivate skills needed to work collaboratively.

While Hampshire’s educational model of having students create their own majors has been a hallmark of the school, it also has a downside.

“Every student carries around their own major — you’re a department of one,” said Conrad. “That can be isolating.”

Efforts to integrate academic affairs more with student life, she said, will help students develop skills to work together in collaborative and innovative ways.

Wingenbach said he believes the new educational model will attract more students in the coming years after and on that front, he said early numbers are looking good.

So far, there are 45 applicants for the coming spring semester, compared to 17 who had applied at this time last year. For the fall of 2020, there are 102 applicants, compared to 74 at this time last year — though the application deadline is months off still.

He said the financial plan he will present to the accrediting body uses conservative estimates of enrollment that puts Hampshire back at full enrollment by 2024-25, with 1,100 students, and operating under a balanced budget.

By comparison, this year’s enrollment is 730 students.

The budget is reliant on revenue derived from tuition; rentals of campus facilities like the Red Barn, a popular wedding venue; and increased fund-raising (from about $6 million annually to about $9 million), Wingenbach said.

On the expense side, he noted, the plan requires a smaller faculty and staff than the college has fielded in recent years. He said for the next few years, the staff would likely need to stay at its current size, roughly 90 faculty and 200 staff, compared to last year when there were 130 faculty and 300 staff.

Wingenbach said he is working with trustees to think through additional sources of revenue, including possibly drawing students from other schools in for intensive eight- or ten-week courses offered under the new model.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Chrisler, chief advancement officer, said the college is poised to announce a multiyear fund-raising campaign dubbed Campaign for Hampshire, seeking to raise $60 million by the year 2024-25. That figure includes the $9.5 million already raised in donations and pledges since last spring in efforts to keep Hampshire afloat. She said the goal is realistic, especially considering the educational model Wingenbach presented.

“This is a big, bold idea that I think alumni, investors, and philanthropic organizations will get excited about,” she said. “You won’t find another college orienting itself this way, with the commitment and nimbleness this faculty has taken on.”

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

Continue reading for just $1
Only $1 for 6 months of unlimited access to Globe.com
Get access now