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.