Hampshire College: Convergence?

Wow. It’s been too long since I’ve posted here. I’ve been busy with my day job .. and writing elsewhere (some recent stuff referenced here).

Now .. the topic of today:

Hampshire College. It’s not in a good spot. Lots of history here .. and here .. and here. Yesterday’s Boston Globe article is a short summary of the most recent events.

Why do I care? Because – well – Hampshire is an amazing place, doing amazing things, and the world needs it to be there forever. I spent three years there as a student, and one year there (a few years later) teaching and working in the admissions office. I did well there, and that empowered me to do well in medical school, residency, as a faculty member and Associate Dean at Albany Medical College, etc. What I mean when I say “did well” isn’t that I got good grades, because (for those of you who don’t know) .. Hampshire has no grades. “Doing well” in this context means (I think) that we move forward, have positive impact on the world, find happiness and share that positive impact with others as widely as possible. Hampshire discovered and fostered the “growth mindset” and reinforced it long before Carol Dweck started talking / writing about it.

This is a blog. It’s not a facebook post, slack channel or shared strategic plan. It’s a set of observations that I’m choosing to share with you. I’m just one person. F83, P10 (That’s Hampshire-Speak for: “I entered Hampshire in the Fall of 1983 and I’m the parent of a former Hampshire student who entered in 2010.” I give money to Hampshire. I’m ready to give more. Some of my guiding principles for this post, and how I’ve tried to approach the current challenge:

Be generous and assume best intentions. Decisions have been made. We don’t really know all of what went into the decisions. We may learn more. We may ultimately disagree with these decisions. But I refuse to judge anyone as evil, malignant, incompetent, etc. These words just don’t help. I’m going to assume that everyone here has the best interest of Hampshire in mind.
Engage with shared success as the primary goal. It’s not important to be right. It’s important to listen, learn, seek understanding, and find the right path forward together.
The Hampshire College that has been is not the Hampshire College that will be. Product-market fit has not been achieved in recent years. Many people will be unhappy with the changes that will need to happen. These changes include:
Administration / administrative overhead will need to change – ideally get (much) leaner.
Hampshire’s educational offering(s) will need to better align with the wants/needs of incoming students. Yes. This means that some faculty won’t stay. We may love them as humans, but if they teach stuff that not enough students want to learn – isn’t it our responsibility to invest in different mentors? This concept may threaten long standing principles of academia. So be it. This is Hampshire. We should do the right thing, not necessarily the traditional thing.
There are some elephants (frogs?) in the room. Resolving them is going to need to be part of any cogent solution.
The discount rate has been going up (and up). Translated: students who can pay full tuition are a small minority of incoming classes. The College therefore operates at a loss. While many colleges operate this way, Hampshire’s investments (endowment) doesn’t generate sufficient revenue to cover this gap. The endowment itself is restricted. It can’t be used to cover operating expense. Hampshire needs to attract more students so that it can be more selective, and (at the same time) bring in more students who can pay full tuition.
Some students have not done well at Hampshire. Ideally, Hampshire is the right place for students who will excel in an educational environment that offers more freedom in exchange for more responsibility. Accepting students who can’t manage this responsibility puts everyone in a tough spot: students struggle, retention is reduced, cost is increased (see above – as discount rate goes up), and demands on faculty are enhanced (causing the College to hire support staff – and pressure to reduce faculty: student ratio). The Hampshire of the future will need to attract the students who will excel at Hampshire. Hampshire needs to be the positive choice for those who will flourish, rather than the negative choice for those who don’t fit in elsewhere. It’s always been hard for Hampshire to find these students, but I believe that this is the only way for Hampshire to be sustainable long-term: get more selective. Focus on excellent applicants, not just unique ones.
What’s next?

I feel convergence in the air. There is growing consensus that an independent option may very well be viable. I see three key vectors – the latter two of which are converging:

Strategic partner. I’m assuming that this is the University of Massachusetts. Sure – other options are being considered, but UMass makes more sense than any other institution. Much to work out here, and there is huge risk that the true identity/purpose of Hampshire is lost in a merger (acquisition) with (by) UMass.
The Re-envisioning project. Watch this as a good overview. It’s good. Lots of thinking and selfless collaboration went into this initiative.
Hampshire2020. This project is smaller and quieter. Here’s their v1 deck. I hear there’s a V2 deck but I’ve not (yet) seen it.
You’ll notice that the re-envisioning project and Hampshire2020 are similar. They’re both great starts, but both of them rely on huge fundraising efforts to save the day right now. (See http://give.savehampshire.org for links to fundraising activities, and also support Davis Bates as he takes a 17 mile fundraising walk this week). Without a massive influx of $$, Hampshire can’t stay open in a form that will be attractive to the two populations most important to its future:

Donors. Humans, alumni (also humans!), foundations, and corporations. People give money for many reasons – but “save this dying ___” is rarely a compelling message. Rather – “make an investment in this ___ so that the world will be a better place” is generally much more successful. A healthy Hampshire College is indeed something that many could / would support. We need a clear, believable plan. My former boss (yes – that’s another story) Vinod Khosla offers what I think is the best overview of how to pitch an investor. We need to pitch investors with a strong story about how we’re going to make the world better with a new Hampshire College.

Students. Hundreds of thousands of these people select higher education options every year. Yes, there are fewer of them now, but there are still plenty of them, and plenty who would love Hampshire. Simply put, they are the customer. They make these choices based on a set of factors that are important to them, just like the customer at a restaurant, car dealership or online bookstore. I would argue that we need a core set of product management principles to be applied here. I’ve seen very little of this in the re-envisioning project – and only tips of this iceberg in Hampshire2020’s proposal. What are the market requirements? What resources do we have available to meet these requirements? How is our product differentiated? I’m concerned that we’re a bit too focused on the asset we have (the current faculty, curriculum, structure) and not the one we need. There’s compelling evidence (enrollment is the key metric, of course) that our current product isn’t well aligned with the market.
Doing – not just talking.

I’m ready to dig in. I’m ready to join the coalition of great people working toward an independent Hampshire. I’m ready to invest my time and my money in this initiative. What do I mean by “this initiative?” I mean the coalescence of re-envisioning Hampshire and Hampshire2020. I’m ready to bring what I’ve learned in ~ 30 years of work in health, health care, information technology, investing and government to help us converge. Because we must.

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