Fall foliage on campus

Hampshire College Press Conference: October 16, 2019

Last spring Hampshire College recommitted itself to independence. We made that commitment because it was clear we could not fulfill our mission without autonomy. Our mission is, and always has been, to invent the future of higher education. We were founded in 1970 because there was a crisis in higher education — a crisis that called for a “redefinition of the purposes, structure, and operations of liberal education, to bring it in line with a new era.” Hampshire was to offer a new example for liberal arts institutions, so that they might regain relevance, and do with an economic model not dependent on immense accumulations of wealth. Fifty years on, that challenge is just as acute.

So when we began our intensive work this fall, it was not a response only to our own crisis, but to the ongoing crisis of higher education. We set out to address our challenges by once again asking what college should be and how it can be relevant for the era we live in, the students we should serve, and they world they will build. We explicitly took up this charge because we are the one college with the flexibility, courage, and experimenting/entrepreneurial capacity to actually remake ourselves, without the constraints of tradition or preconceptions. We assumed that doing the work of our mission well would also generate benefits for our fiscal health, attracting more students, exciting donors, and establishing our distinctive value; we’re confident this will happen.

If the four-year liberal arts college did not exist right now, what problem would we invent it to solve? Assume we had community and technical colleges preparing students for specific careers and large research institutes producing advanced knowledge and PhDs. If we were going to decide to commit the vast intellectual, social, and financial resources that are currently allocated to them, what sort of liberal arts college would we build, to address what need, now? This new institution would prepare students for the world they face, which expects flexibility, innovation, and the capacity to learn new things quickly; it would be designed to educate the people who will grapple with the questions that have not yet emerged, and who are prepared for the complex jobs and roles that are not yet imagined. If that's the goal, it's obvious nobody would suggest college should prepare students to become professors, which is largely what majors do. Instead, academic expertise would serve the needs of students, who would begin asking questions and grappling with problems right away, and thus develop the capacity to respond innovatively to the unknown and evolving challenges of the future.

So that's what we did. Redesigning Hampshire in this revolutionary way is a powerful, distinctive innovation that answers a pressing need that no other college has committed itself to meet.

First, we are restructuring ourselves to move questions and projects to the center of every student’s education, where academic expertise and specialization serve the needs of the challenge being addressed, rather than the other way around. Hampshire is radicalizing its transdisciplinary commitment, removing all barriers across fields of study to create a truly integrated curriculum: no majors, no departments, no curricular divisions — liberating students to formulate questions that have never been asked before.

Second, asking the best questions and pursing innovative outcomes demands a suite of complex skills — it is not easy to pose a great question, and it is even harder to figure out how to take a project from idea to investigation to concept to completion. This is entrepreneurial thinking at its best — moving from insight to investigation to collaboration and application to solution. Many of our graduates develop these skills to a high level — just ask the 30% or so of Hampshire alums who have founded successful businesses, non-profits, and social movements. So Hampshire will integrate these entrepreneurial skills into its curriculum explicitly, ensuring every graduate has the tools to pursue meaningful challenges and work across disciplines and specializations to address their questions.

Finally, we want to challenge ourselves as an institution to take up, collectively, several of the urgent challenges of the 21st century. As faculty and staff we will reorient our teaching and our disciplinary work toward some of the pressing issues of our time. These are challenges that cannot be addressed from within a single framework, as genuinely complex and important questions demand we bring to bear resources from every field of knowledge. For example, it is not enough to develop technical solutions to mitigate climate change — we must also know how to implement policies to make those technologies effective, how to tell stories that show the importance of changing behavior, how to communicate in ways that touch the heart as much as the head; it demands integration of the arts, the social sciences, the humanities, and natural science, none of which can grapple with these existential challenges alone. By organizing portions of our curriculum around these challenges, we will both model for our students the sort of work they will need to do in the future, and provide them the opportunity to begin to do meaningful, authentic work right away. 

Students today are demanding and leading change, long before they arrive at college. Hampshire will give them the opportunity to begin that work right away, and the skills to be effective.

Our students will continue to design their own courses of study, drawing upon both the expertise and mentorship of our faculty and the resources of our Five Colleges partners, whose support in this work will be crucial. Our students will continue to complete complex, rigorous, year-long, independent projects as a condition of graduation. We will continue to foster a climate of diversity, openness, creativity, and civil discourse. These elements of the Hampshire brand remain strong, and interest in the college remains high. In fact, applications for fall 2020 are up 30% over this time last year, and we have three times as many applications for the spring, even before announcing these exciting innovations. Our supporters are energized by this new vision and we are confident that the fund-raising campaign we will soon launch will attract the resources needed to support the college as we implement this model and return to full enrollment. And our community is eager to build the future.

I’ll take questions, but first I want to point out several members of the Academic Innovation Planning Group, which led this process; they will be available to speak to you after the Q&A:

Eva Rueschmann, dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs

Rachel Conrad, professor of childhood studies 

Javiera Benavente, director, Ethics and the Common Good program

Chris Cianfrani, associate professor of hydrology

David Ko, director of spiritual life and international student advisor

Emery Powell, student

Matthew Lavallee, student

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