Hampshire Visioning Project: Our Initial Plans

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been presenting our initial plans for the Hampshire Visioning Project, an initiative that will culminate with our 50th anniversary in 2020 and prepare the College to enter our second half century as strong and mission-driven and influential as ever.

It’s widely known that Hampshire’s singular academic model is a success story. I’ve heard and seen this in the voices and words of so many people since I was named president. As one example, I was among 150 college and university presidents at the inauguration ceremony for Harvard’s new president, Larry Bacow, last month. I was wearing Hampshire regalia, and I can’t tell you how many of my peers came up to me and said, “Hampshire is such an extraordinary place.” It made me very proud to be here.

I have now been at Hampshire for just over 100 days. Here are a few overarching reflections:

  • We have an exceptional educational model
  • We’re a community of brilliant, caring, and engaged people
  • We have prominent, successful alums around the world
  • We’re situated on a beautiful, 800-acre, 100-percent-solar campus
  • We have a fully supportive Board of Trustees
  • Hampshire is under-resourced and always has been
  • The Hampshire community is worried about the challenges we face
  • We have a significant opportunity to leverage the 50th anniversary

We Need to Be Open to Transformative Change

To envision and plan for the strongest future for Hampshire, it’s clear we need more than a strategic plan: We need to be open to transformative change. We’ll begin by posing a series of questions to our stakeholders. These big questions are analogous to what our founders in the 1960s were thinking about. These are questions we need to address, because small colleges like Hampshire with modest endowments are facing increased competition and challenging demographic and cultural trends.

Our responses will be informed by an infusion of the best ideas from inside Hampshire and the Five Colleges, and outside as well. To start, here are three interconnected questions to reflect on:

  1. What do we value most about Hampshire College?
  2. How can we progress our educational model and be more accessible?
  3. What can we do to contribute to the future of higher education that is relevant and compelling?

In answering these questions, we’ve identified related project goals. We seek to:

  • Prepare Hampshire for its 50th anniversary and envision its second half century
  • Articulate a clear and compelling value proposition
  • Establish financial sustainability
  • Guide transformational change

This project will be similar in some ways to the process by which Hampshire was founded in the 1950s and 1960s, when the presidents and faculty from UMass Amherst and Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges joined together to explore how to inspire students to take more ownership of and pride in their education and to lead their own education for a lifetime. Our founders drew on ideas, proposals, and research from literally hundreds of educators across the state, region, and country. We know they succeeded in authoring plans built on the best ideas of the time, published in our founding documents, The New College Plan, The Making of a College, and others.

We Need Your Voice

We need your voice and as many voices as possible in this effort, from all stakeholders: our students, staff, faculty, alums, Five College Consortium, parents and friends, and the Amherst community. We’re beginning to convene and engage our campus and community in a months-long process that will include:

  • One-on-one conversations
  • Small and large meetings
  • Surveys
  • Forums involving innovators in education from our community and across the country, and
  • Research materials compiled into an archive and bibliography

A 13-member ad hoc Campus Advisory Task Force comprising representative trustees, faculty, staff, and students will provide guidance to the overall process. Overseen by the Board of Trustees, the Task Force will be chaired by trustee Kim Saal 70F and myself. We’re currently working on its charge and the nomination process; nominations will be accepted for these positions through campus communications. The hope is we’ll convene this group before the end of the semester. In addition, a faculty group will be convened to guide the work related to innovation and our educational model.

Here Are the Phases

The project’s timeline is still being refined, but roughly speaking here are the phases:

  • Planning and Ground work (now)
  • Convening and Engaging Stakeholders (winter)
  • Quiet Phase (spring)
  • Communicating Findings (May/June)
  • Transition (next year to June 2020)

In his book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun writes, “Higher education is the usher of change. And change is the defining force of our time.” This is the right time for the Hampshire community to come together to envision our future and our continuing impact on higher education and society.

This blog will serve as a running diary of the project and a way for me to inform and update our community, bring accountability, and provide, at its conclusion, a record of where we’ve been and a road map of the vision for our path forward.

I’m excited to work side-by-side with you in this important work.

Respectfully yours,

Miriam E. Nelson

Community-Building and Communications

Now that we have returned from October break, it’s an appropriate time to share more about what I have been up to in my first months at Hampshire. I am focusing on four core areas: community-building and communications; campus health and well-being; strategic visioning; and fundraising.

My starting assumption when I think about community is that everyone at Hampshire is an educator—we are all teachers and we are all learners. Our relationships with each other require a foundation of respect for who we are, what we bring, and what we need. Over the past weeks I have been focused on meeting as many of you as I can. I have visited with four out of the five schools, with an appointment to meet with the Interdisciplinary Arts faculty later this month. I have met with different offices, attended two faculty meetings and a staff meeting, and have convened two staff-faculty meetings. I met almost all of the first-year and transfer students and many of the rising Div III students. I also have regular open office hours and have met with many of you in small groups or one-on-one.

I am learning so much from these conversations, and hope that more and more of you will, if you see me on a walkway, please stop me and introduce yourself, let me know how you are doing, and share your ideas and concerns.

My starting assumption when I think about community is that everyone at Hampshire is an educator—we are all teachers and we are all learners.

I need to hear from more students. Between our return from the fall break and Thanksgiving, I will be meeting with the RAs, hosting a hike, holding regular office hours, and attending many campus events. It was a pleasure to speak with Div III students during last week’s reception and to meet with Jacqui Patterson and hear her deeply thoughtful lecture on environmental and climate justice. I learned about dance justice and the role expressive arts play in advocating for change and social justice by Camille A. Brown, the keynote speaker at the Five College Dance Annual Fall Lecture. We are members of a culturally rich, intellectually stimulating, and thoughtfully critical learning community.

In terms of making sure our campus is healthy, I see this as something we must all be responsible for, working on multiple levels, from how the College functions as an institution to our individual wellness. For instance, I feel strongly about holding joint faculty-staff meetings on a regular basis, which I believe will improve morale and foster better communications. Likewise, I am very excited by the creative approach the Student Life staff is taking toward supporting the development of a student government, which is essential for effective student advocacy and agency. The “smoke free, breathe free” initiative is similarly remarkable in its focus on a healthier community—we are asking smokers on campus to use dedicated smoking areas.

What I’ve Been Thinking About

Strategic visioning is very much on my mind, and is something the Board will discuss intensively at their meeting this week. Please stay tuned for more information on that. In the meantime, I have been on the road, visiting with alums and other donors to seek their insights and to ask for their support for Hampshire.

As you can imagine, I’m thinking a lot about the College’s finances. As I mentioned at one of my joint staff-faculty meetings last month, people on campus haven’t asked me about the budget, but that was one of the first questions I got at an alumni gathering.

If you see me on a walkway, please stop me and introduce yourself, let me know how you are doing, and share your ideas and concerns.

Hampshire’s financial position is stable. The College’s endowment has grown from $33.2 million in 2011 to $55.4 million in 2018. Our Policy on Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing has resulted in a 14 percent one-year return. At the same time, the budget is very tight. Strategic steps were taken in FY18 to reduce operational expenses. The financial sustainability plan that Hampshire began last year involves a multifaceted approach to realigning our expenditures and priorities. Participation in voluntary separation and early retirement and the reduction in the employee pension contribution by 1.5% met our savings goal of $2 million. Importantly, we will balance the budget this year and there will be no cuts.

Upcoming Strategic Vision

I have been gathering input from a wide range of constituencies and am actively working with the Board of Trustees to develop a path forward for the College as we move closer to our 50th anniversary in 2020. Key initiatives undertaken in advance of this week’s fall Board meeting are:

Developing a $1M President’s Venture Fund that will:
• support professional development for faculty and staff
• enable engagement for the strategic visioning
• engage experts to support the effort

Other elements of the financial sustainability plan have not yet had a chance to show their viability. It will definitely take more than a year to turn the tide on applications, yield, and retention, as well as optimal models for financial aid. As a stop-gap we have slowed down some hires in order to focus our energy and resources on essential positions; we are moving full-speed ahead on other hires, such as filling school administrator positions.

I really want to hear your thoughts, and I ask you to be candid and frank. My email is president@hampshire.edu.

This is a watershed moment in Hampshire’s life and evolution, and I am thrilled to be part of it.



Greetings and a warm welcome as we embark on the new term! I hope summer has treated you well and that you’re feeling recharged and inspired for the semester ahead. Together we have much to look forward to at this gem of a college, which holds such a special place in higher education. As someone whose life has followed the cycles of an academic calendar for more than three decades, I’ve always experienced late August as a time of renewal—but never more so than today. Like our first-years and transfer students and their families and our new faculty and staff, this is my first semester at Hampshire. I have much to learn. You have much to teach me.

I hope to meet you on Tuesday morning at our Convocation festivities, when together we usher in the new academic year in an important ritual that grounds us and centers us as a community of learners. We’ll gather under the Library Quad tent for performances and a few words of inspiration before our all-campus lunch.

Together we have much to look forward to at this gem of a college, which holds such a special place in higher education.

Because this is my opening letter to you since being named president, may I take a moment to tell you why I’m here?

I’m here late, for starters. Had I known about Hampshire when I was a high school student in Pennsylvania, Hampshire would have been my top choice—I know now that this would have been the perfect place for me. I’m here because of the learning-intensive environment. I’ve never seen undergraduates so deeply engaged, faculty so intellectually nimble and supportive, and staff so dedicated and on mission. I’m here because our alums are living proof that critical thinking plus imagination plus the nerve to act can make progress for humankind and our planet. Hampshire people are courageous, that’s something I’ve learned from the many conversations I’ve had over the past four months. I think that’s because it takes guts for one to decide to be here—to study, teach, work, or send kids to a school that follows questions into unmapped regions instead of traveling familiar and well-worn paths. As a student, I encountered that only when I got to graduate school, so I find it thrilling to see—and now to help advance—this work at the college level. Inquiry-driven, learner-centered education isn’t easy. But is there any better preparation for tackling the world’s great challenges? I don’t think so.

So many of you have known that for years. A big part of my job will be to ensure it’s well known outside our campus.

I’ve never seen undergraduates so deeply engaged, faculty so intellectually nimble and supportive, and staff so dedicated and on mission.

Recently I was in touch with the head of a foundation that shares Hampshire’s values. I’ll be doing that a lot, speaking with potential funders who might support our efforts in addition to the many discussions I’ll continue to have with you and our alums. I explained how Hampshire was established during the tumult of the 1960s to be an intellectual and moral force in a changing culture, and how our two institutions were kindred spirits that way. I mentioned how our students, faculty, staff, and alums are unusually committed to social causes no matter their academic disciplines or professions, to resisting injustice in all its toxic forms, and to building equitable communities. I explained how we work to live our values: How as a college we invest ethically, the first to divest from fossil fuels and from South Africa. How we put education within the reach of under-served populations and first-generation students. How we’re committed to environmental justice, through 100-percent solar energy generation and a campus Living Building, the R.W. Kern Center, the seventeenth structure of its kind in the world.

“One of America’s great educational treasures,” is what this colleague called us, clearly aware of who we are and what we stand for. “Your history and mission are an inspiration to all who care about justice in America and the world.”

I know we’re all thinking about our history and mission right now, as we approach the 50th anniversary of our opening day, when we welcomed our first class. And soon, together, we’ll plan how to commemorate this landmark through a rich series of events. But if I were to sum up in a sentence my highest aspirations for Hampshire on the eve of our 50th year, it would be this: I want us as a community to rededicate ourselves to our principles of inquiry-based learning and artistic expression in service to a just and sustainable world. We have work to do. Nearly six decades after our founding, this country and world are, sadly, still deep in the throes of the social and environmental ills of those days. The stakes couldn’t be higher. I see our anniversary not only as a cause for celebration (and we’ll celebrate!), but also as a crucial means of visibility and influence around the true potential of higher education in this country, especially in these times. We can and we must take this leadership role. It’s why we were founded.

We know the huge challenges facing the liberal arts, too. Demographic trends, anti-intellectualism, doubts about our very purpose let alone effectiveness: those are all too real. But as I told the presidential search committee last spring, I truly believe this is Hampshire’s time. It’s Hampshire’s time because we’re not just any liberal arts college. It’s Hampshire’s time because no other undergraduate institution approaches learning this way to the degree that we do, and I’m convinced that there’s no academic model better geared to meet the challenges ahead than ours.

I want us to think that boldly as together we’ll take on the awesome, exhilarating responsibility of evolving education at Hampshire.

But this has to be our starting point. We have new work to do. This is an era of major disruption in higher education, and by all serious accounts, the field will look a lot different in five to ten years than it does now.

What will our future look like?

I’ll be asking the wider Hampshire community to engage with me, and with our trustees, in exploring that question. I’m convinced that this must be a visioning year for us, a year to envision our future firmly based in our values and core principles and greatest strengths and highest potential. This is about evolving education, and the moment is before us. I can’t think of a more Hampshire undertaking to launch us into our next half century.

As we anticipate the promise of our 50th, we shouldn’t forget that this year is also a Hampshire anniversary, and one of equal importance. Exactly 60 years ago, our founding text was published: The New College Plan: A Proposal for a Major Departure in Higher Education. In all my readings about Hampshire, a single line has stood out for me with clarity like no other, and it came from this amazing, visionary little booklet. In fact, it was the very first sentence:

It is acknowledged on all sides that American higher education is facing a crisis and that if we are to continue “the pursuit of excellence” on which our society’s growth, health, and safety depend, we shall have to bring to bear both great resources and great imagination.

I want us to think that boldly as together we’ll take on the awesome, exhilarating responsibility of evolving education at Hampshire. I know it won’t be easy and I expect it will be disruptive. But I can’t think of a community more suited to accomplish this work than ours. Who better understands the process of discovery—in all its dynamic, creative, and emergent messiness—that begins with asking a question that is both incredibly simple and frustratingly complex?

We’ll begin to put that process in motion now that the new term has begun. I feel so privileged to be working side-by-side with you in this effort and I can’t wait for us to get started.

With appreciation,