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Chapter 4: Reflections on Hampshire's Origins

* Interview with Calvin Plimpton (1986)
* Interview with Robert C. Birney (1986)
* Interview with David Truman (1986)
* The Origin of Division I Exams (1989)



Interview with Calvin Plimpton
Conducted by Amy Mittelman
April 23, 1986

AM: ...when you became President of Amherst, were you aware of the New College Plan?

CP: Yes.

AM: What did you know about it?

CP: Well, I just read the thing that had been put together, particularly by Phil Coombs under a Ford Foundation Grant, as I remember.

AM: And what did you think of it?

CP: Well, sort of "ho-hum". I was not wild about it, but it was something that had been thrown into my lap. There was a new President at Smith called Thomas Coleman Mendenhall. He'd beat me by about six months. There was a new President at Mt. Holyoke, Getell, who'd been there for about three years, relatively new. There was a new President at the University of Massachusetts, John Lederle who arrived in about the summer of 1960. In other words, we were all relatively new, and we all had gigantic problems of our own. I was unable to even get a hundred thousand dollars out of the Ford Foundation to set up some sort of a board or something to start.... So we put the whole thing on the back burner.

AM: So, basically, it languished because of lack of funds, rather than lack of interest, or would you say it was a combination of both?

CP: I don't know whether you could say it "languished". That implies it was already up and going. It was just a piece of paper. So, I wouldn't use the verb "languish". I would say we were not ready to do anything about it or give it any serious thought.

AM: So, how did the situation change?

CP: Well, we all had capital programs to run, and we were all equally discouraged about it... And then in February of that year--oh, I can't remember what year it was--1963, something like that--I was down in Florida visiting Harold Johnson, and he had already been very generous to Amherst College, and we could see that by June we'd make our twenty-five million, so that he suddenly popped the question to me--"Would you be willing to start a new college?"--and I gasped a little bit, and then he said--I think the figure was-- "If you'll start it, I'll give you six million dollars!" And at that my mind went over in a corner and vomited for a little while. And I finally stomached my nausea and said, "All right, I'll take it." So that meant that we came back and Stanley Teale was then Treasurer, and he and Chuck Longsworth and I all sat in our corner together. Chuck was the man who raised the money for Amherst, and so we peeled him off and he went around buying up Polish farm land... and we began to think a little more seriously about why we got into this thing, and the reasons after you think about it a little bit...was that it sounded as though we might be able to do a little experimenting as far as education was concerned. And you can't do very much experimenting at Amherst--it's pretty traditional--and you can't do very much with Smith and Mt. Holyoke, because Bennington and Sarah Lawrence are doing it anyway, and the University is the University--it has to take care of consumers. So perhaps a new thing like this, located in the middle of us all, might be sort of an interesting idea, might be fun--just do some experimenting. And we went on from there....

AM: Would you have preferred for Harold Johnson to give the six million to Amherst College?

CP: Oh, natually, naturally! You never heard anybody turn down money before, have you? [p.1-2]

AM: Once Hampshire was set up and Franklin Patterson was hired, what was the financial situation in terms of the money it had available to it?

CP: ...Well this was a very funny thing. We thought that... we then stuck him with Chuck Longsworth. Chuck Longsworth was a big money raiser at Amherst and one of the finest men ever, ever, ever. And so we said, "Here's Patterson, this woolly-eyed Ed. D. from Occidental or somewhere like that. He won't know anything about the real world, raising money, but we have Longsworth in there, and he'll do it." Well, nothing could have been further from the truth. Patterson turned out to have a Midas touch. Foundations were lining up to give us money. There wasn't a foundation that could call itself a foundation that wasn't giving money to Hampshire College. Money poured in from all directions--a remarkable financial achievement....[p.6]

AM: How did you feel about the fact that Hampshire wasn't going to have tenure?

CP: Heavens, I pray, as I lay in my bed at night, that they keep that going. We were ahead of our time with that. Because now of course, around the country, slowly, slowly, slowly, it's changing, I think....[p.18]



Interview with Robert C. Birney
Conducted by Amy Mittelman
April 29, 1986

Amy Mittelman:

Why don't we start with how you first became involved with Hampshire College?

Robert Birney:

My involvement with the idea of the college occurred in 1958, in the summer, when the four college representatives who wrote the New College Plan did so at the Amherst College campus. It was their custom to take a break after a two-hour session in the morning, come down to morning coffee, and more often than not, they would bring with them the conversation they were just finishing. So these gentlemen would come down bubbling over with whatever their latest notion was, and the faculty that were working there in the summer would also gather for a coffee break. And then they would turn to us and say, "Well, what would you...what do you think of this idea?" And so for the whole summer of 1958, I listened to Shannon McCune and Joe Barber, and those guys hammered away at the 1958 plan. So I had some familiarity with the premises of the New College Plan.... Then in 1965 the first Board of Trustees of Hampshire College was created. Charles Longsworth was Secretary of the Board, the first employee, and the four colleges decided that they would create a committee to review and re-write the 1958 plan. And so, Cal Plimpton asked if I would be the Amherst College representative to the 1965-66 committee, and we produced what's known, I guess, in the Archives as the 1966 Report...of the Educational Advisory Committee.... So it meant that each of us was very close to the ideas, and that in turn led Pat Patterson to decide that at least in my case, since I was so intimately associated with these planning ideas, I should be the person to come and be the Dean of the School of Social Science and do them. I took the opposite view and argued that ideas have to make it in the market place and that there was a weakness in the proposition that if I'd convinced myself of the validity of a certain set of ideas about how to teach Social Science, that I should then be given the task of making all that happen...So, Pat and I had this discussion. I had gone off to Germany to teach at Ruhr University for the year 1966-1967, and when I got back, Pat came to see me and asked that I help as a consultant with the presentation of The Making of a College ideas to some of the people around the countryside that he thought needed to hear it, and so I travelled on behalf of the college, went to some of their conclaves that they had where they were, quote, "testing the ideas of The Making of a College, " and in that sense I was being drawn in to represent the ideas.

I did that in 1967--1968, and in the spring of 1968, somewhere in that period, along about May, I think, Pat broached the idea for the first time that I be the Dean...So he came and asked if I would consider coming, and I told him for the reasons I just stated that I didn't really think I should. And I felt that I wanted to be square with Cal Plimpton, so I visited Cal and told him what he already knew, of course--that Pat had chatted with me and that I had told Pat that I didn't think I want to do that--and Cal leaned back in his chair and said, "Well, Bob, I really think you've got the right idea. There's nothing really that you could do at Hampshire that you can't do right here at Amherst College." Well that remark really hit me like a ton of bricks, because in the last five or six years at Amherst College I had watched my colleague, Ted Koester, who was the chairman of the Psychology Department before he turned it over to me, literally break his sword on two major curricular reform committees at Amherst College, each of which had the reports voted down by the Faculty. I really had learned a lot about Faculty coalition politics and realized, at least, that I was in a state of mind where I was convinced that the forces of departmentalism and specialization and a kind of inertia with regard to questions of learning had combined to guarantee that really nothing new was going to happen in the curriculum at Amherst College--that after getting off to this extraordinary start with the new curriculum in 1946, the circumstances had really changed at Amherst and that there was no way that some sort of institutional creative response was going to occur in the late sixties to the circumstances they faced. So I went home and really thought about his remark, and the inevitable conclusion was that it was totally false--that not one iota of the interesting, exciting things that I'd thought about for Hampshire could possibly be done at Amherst. That really, I think, loosened me up, but I still thought I was correct in my fundamental assumption that ideas should sell themselves. Pat asked me to come back and talk to him one more time. It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning. Before I left, I said to my wife, "Well, he wants to see me one more time. I'll tell him again I'm not coming, and this will be over and done with."

So I went down and sat in the upstairs room of the old Stiles House around the big round table, and we chatted, and I repeated my position, and then it was clear that the conversation was over. And there was a long pause and he finally said, "Well, you know, I guess what I think is if you don't come to Hampshire now, you're going to regret it for the rest of your professional life," and I sat there and looked out the window and I could literally feel the hair curling on the back of my neck, because I knew he was right, and I also had this horrible feeling that I knew what I was going to do. And so I looked at him and I said, "Well, I think you're right. So, I'll come." So I got in the car, and I drove home, and I thought, "How am I going to tell my wife this?" I walked in and I said, "You're not going to believe this, but I'm going to Hampshire College."

So that was the big turninq point, and I think there were other personal, contributing factors to the fact that a moment like that could occur. One of them, I think, was that I had really been seduced by the ideas and the ideas were beginning to exert their pull, and Pat had somehow just put his finger right on the nerve, and that was that I'd really begun to develop an enormous, if you will, curiosity, to see if the ideas were right--I mean to just see if they could be made to work. And so I joined the faculty in the summer of 1968, thinking the college was going to open in 1969. Then, of course, it was delayed by the federal budget crunch for student housing, and we opened in 1970. But that time was spent in very intensive planning. And planning is a very seductive and enjoyable enterprise. Planning is just far enough away from reality, that you don't suffer frustrations in planning that are even remotely like the frustrations you're going to suffer when it's time to do it. I'd been mixed up in planning by this time for about two and a half years, as we all had, and planning, you know, was like playing chess--I mean it was just a marvelous sort of intellectual exercise, and the world was one of your own making, and you made it easier on yourself in the way you thought about things, and it was very seductive....

Much later I looked back on this and realized that there's a terrible failure in the planning processes of most of these kinds of institutions. And that is that we do not have the analogue to war games. We never at any point said to ourselves: "Okay, if this is how we have things arranged, we want the following two people to make believe that they are--pick anybody--students, faculty, whatever you're talking about--and we want the people to have the following characteristics: They have to be self interested, they have to be relatively unaware of what you all have in mind, they have to be concerned about mundane things--jobs and various of those kinds of things. Now, confronted with a curriculum of this kind, how do you think they're going to behave? Show us how you'll behave." We never did any of that. We never simulated worst-case possibilities or options. And so, when the thing begins to unfold, you make this terrible discovery, and that is that most of your steps, most of the implementation that you're after goes reasonably well. I mean, you've talked everybody into it, everybody's for it. You've made a decision you're going to have appointment by contract, and it's been idealized, and people really believe in it, and they've all accepted it, and it's going to happen. But what nobody is able to do is correctly anticipate all the stuff you didn't think of. And it wasn't so much that you got it wrong--it was that you had it incomplete and so as the process begins to unfold, you discover you've got this incredible learning experience taking place, in which for the first time you not only see the consequences for your actions that you anticipated and wanted, but you see all the other consequences of your actions that nobody successfully told you would come down the pike. And there were dozens of those....[p.1-4]

Amy Mittelman:

In terms of tenure or lack of tenure--the contract system--was that an idea that your committee developed, or had that started in the New College Plan?

Robert Birney:

It's not in the New College Plan, although there's a hint. They played around with a Master Faculty, and they would be permanent and in residence, and they would be appointed for their educational skill and their proven interest in questions of learning. And then the notion of a rotating Junior Faculty, these people who would go to the R and D experimenting institution, be taught and inspired to become interested in these ways of educating young people, and they would go off and seed the rest of higher eduaction. My memory is that the four School Deans, and I really think that it was Everett Hafner, as I recall--began talking about contract as a possibility. And the thing that I think persuaded us was we were greatly concerned about what happened if these initial appointments didn't work out, and we thought there'd be a natural gravitational pull back to conventional forms and conventional solutions. And as the radical pioneers, we really didn't want to see that happen to what we were talking about, so we were looking around for a way to keep all the faculty fresh and moving, and above all, to be able to muster out people who either gave up on it or never caught on in the first place. That impulse, I think, got itself allied with the realization that if we didn't do it at the outset of the college, we'd never have a chance to do it. So, we put those two things together, and my memory is that we were up at Pat Patterson's house up on the hill with the Trustees, when the School Deans proposed to them that we go to appointment by contract. The greatest, enthusiastic supportive outburst that night came from Tom Mendenhall, who really believed we ought to try it, because we'd never get another chance. I don't remember too much about how we got ourselves into it after that, but that much I do remember.

Amy Mittelman:

Do you think that's one of the ideas that worked out in practice or maybe suffered from having been developed in the abstract without playing what you called "war games" earlier?

Robert Birney:

There were numerous cases, but that was a clear case of an idea that was fraught with all sorts of unexpected consequences that had to be dealt with one at a time. To me the most astonishing thing is that it's still in place, even in modified form, and the system has solved a lot of those questions about how you deal with what happens to people and despite the burden it clearly puts on the participants, the participants remain willing to do it, because I think they see that it's really worth it, it's really worth doing. That's an astonishing outcome to me. I would never in my wildest dreams have thought that employment by contract would be alive and well at Hampshire College fifteen years later. I really didn't think that was going to happen....[p.12-13]



Interview with David Truman
Conducted by Amy Mittelman
April 18, 1986

AM: ...Perhaps, Mr. Truman, we could start with how you first got acquainted with Hampshire College.

DT: Well, it was mostly an ex-officio acquaintance, because as soon as I took on the Presidency of Mt. Holyoke in 1969, I automatically became a Trustee, although actually I had known about the plans for the college and had talked to Charlie Cole and Tom Mendenhall and Toby Dakin back as early as 1967 about some of their plans....[p.1]...I started my teaching career at Bennington when it was quite new. I went there in 1939 and their first class had just graduated three years before. And it was in the process of still shaking down. And I saw certain things, some of the ideas that were involved at Hampshire were very like the ideas that were involved in the Bennington side of things--individual student work and small classes and kind of the informality of the whole program, and at that stage, not even any sort of announced course program. And of course a great deal of reliance on the combination of student independence and skillful faculty counseling, which is the heart of both systems. And so, I'd had some experience with this kind of thing...so I rather anticipated that I'd see things that I'd seen before.

AM: But you didn't have a clear sense of what the school would be like?

DT: No, because I think it was clear, one thing I did know from watching other institutions that had started from scratch was that no matter what the blueprints were that were made by those who were founding the institution, what would really happen would be when you assembled a faculty and a student body, they would decide what the institution was really going to be like.

AM: So what role or need did you think Hampshire would, or did meet?

DT: Well, I think at the time it started there was some need for a certain freshness and a higher degree of flexibility in undergraduate curricula than had been characteristic earlier...I think there was a readiness for something of that sort and I suspect many of the changes that occurred in the more conventional colleges in the next few years might have come about anyhow if there hadn't been a Hampshire. But to some degree at any rate I think there was an impact, at least in the vicinity, from the Hampshire experience that was healthy and constructive for them.

AM: What kind of changes are you referring to?

DT: Well, the business of giving more flexibility with requirements. This was a period, after all, where institutions stumbled all over themselves to get rid of all kinds of structure (and some of which have never gotten any since then) but there was a kind of rebellion both at the student and faculty level in a good many institutions, against a too rigid prescription of requirements to the point where the possibility of a student making his or her own educational plan was either out of the question or it was so wrapped around with obstacles and difficulties that it was, for all practical purposes, impossible. Now, that wasn't characteristic of every place, but there was a certain amount of that, and it was strong enough so that it was desirable, I think, in a lot of places, regardless of whether one agreed with the wholesale abandonment of structure that went on (which I didn't). Nevertheless, the idea that there should be in the later years a college experience where there should be more opportunity for the student to design an arrangement, with guidance, that made sense to the particular student, was something that needed to be brought into the picture.

AM: What kind of students did you see Hampshire drawing?...

DT: I didn't know...I suspected you would find students who would be somewhat offbeat, somewhat non-conformist. There'd likely be a strongly individualistic streak to the student body. One would anticipate that and that's certainly what happened. I think the thing that was troubling to some people in the early years was that in addition to those characteristics which were both predictable, and in terms of the general plan, probably desirable, there were perhaps too many students who were lost and who were called upon to perform in a self-disciplined, planned way, when in fact they had not acquired the emotional maturity and the other capacities necessary to perform that way. And I think a lot of the attrition in the early years reflected students of that sort. That was probably in some measure a consequence of the times; the sixties and early seventies seemed to generate quite a large number of students in the country who were lost and enjoying being lost, to a degree enjoying being lost, or at least not receptive to the idea of being found. So there was a ready supply available, which I think in many ways was the toughest sort of obstacle that the college faced both in terms of its intrinsic purposes and in connection with its image to the outside world.

AM: Was there a particular type of student that you think would do best under the Hampshire system?

DT: Oh yes, it does seem to me that the student who's going to do best at Hampshire, then or now, is a student who is self-disciplined; who has, if not a clear sense of direction, enough capacity for self-direction to make him or her capable of standing immediately on their own feet. [This] doesn't mean they're independent of any guidance or advice, but capable of self-direction. That's the student for whom I think Hampshire has been best, and at its best, Hampshire has done wonderful things for students. As you go down the continuum from that capacity to students who really are floundering, emotionally and intellectually, the system becomes less and less desirable and less and less effective...Hampshire has done marvelous things with students who were capable of handling the challenge--but students who lacked that capacity were infinitely worse off than they would be in a more structured situation where the demands were precise and not relying on self-generation.[p.3-5]



The Origins of Division I Exams
Comments by Ray Coppinger and Ken Hoffman at The Physical History of Hampshire College: a symposium in honor of Stiles Day, Nov. 3, 1989

Question: What was the academic part of it? The idea behind it....

Ray Coppinger: We were...a lot of us came in 1969, so we'd have a year's planning before the College opened. And so I sat down to read The Making of a College and talk to Patterson and Longsworth...and find out what they meant. I remember the very young faculty not having the foggiest idea...it wasn't very clear. And even among the original people who wrote these things, you'd go and query them and they'd say, "Oh you know, like... ah..." and they give a Greek proverb or something. I'm sorry you asked me... And we were all located up at Amherst College--or some of us were--the science faculty were at Amherst College...we practiced giving lectures to each other. I remember giving a lecture one day and then Everett Hafner going down and lecturing that afternoon at Smith saying, "This is the way we plan to do it at Hampshire College." Then it became the first day, and the opening class, and the kids came. There was some release, there was some regret that we had students on the campus. Then we...everybody in this room that was on the original faculty can take credit for giving the first Division I exam. And everybody else would go and see how they did it. Isn't that right? I think I gave the first one...

Ken Hoffman: The first, the original conception of it...I remember carefully making up a folder for every student, because the idea for Division I exams was that after each course the faculty member would put some questions in your folder. So each student for each School would have a folder and these questions would be put into them. And the faculty had extensive debates and arguments over whether students would be allowed to submit questions to their own folder. And we had these big arguments. We finally said...that would be OK, and then we had to argue on the percentages. And there were some hard-nosed conservative faculty who said, well, no more than 10% of the questions could be of the student's own choosing, and the liberal-radical portion saying no, no, up to 40% could be the students' questions that they put in it. But the idea was that over the years your folder would accumulate all these little questions, and then finally you'd say, "I'm ready for my Division I exam," and that's what it would be. The committee would pull out your folder and sort through all these accumulated questions and would themselves select four or five of them and type them up and say, "Here's your Division I exam." And, fortunately we didn't do any Division I exams for several years so we didn't have to think about this too rapidly, but it was astonishing how quickly that system was scrapped once people decided to try it. It was just unworkable and didn't go anywhere and all those wonderful folders with individual students' names on them....

Ruth Hammen: They were reused.

Ken Hoffman: So then we proceeded to make it up all over again. [p.13-14]

 
 

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