The Unmaking of a College, (now playing at the Amherst Cinema) is a serious and enjoyable documentary about the near death in 2019 of Hampshire College (Amy Goldstein, director; Zeitgeist Films). The title plays off of The Making of a College”, Hampshire’s founding 1960’s document. I would have preferred a less inside baseball title like The Saving of a College: Lessons in Democracy. Indeed, lessons about transparency, participation, and democracy in the story of saving Hampshire College go way beyond Hampshire and higher education. Please see for yourself!
The main story is about Mariam (Mim) Nelson’s unsuccessful effort to find a “strategic partner” for Hampshire soon after beginning her nine-month tenure as Hampshire’s president. While this is partly a story about Nelson’s missteps, the refreshing and lively focus is on Hampshire College students, Nelson’s unexpectedly powerful adversaries. They eloquently demanded to be leveled with and to be involved in decisions about their education and their college, including decisions about a mysterious partnership to save the college or the prospect of shutting the college down. The students’ 75-day occupation of the president’s office smashed the prior US record for length of a sit-in or occupation of a college president’s office.
On a more conceptual level, the documentary is about efforts of students and other supporters of Hampshire to make sense of the senseless and irrational – how a president could make a decision and then a series of missteps to essentially sell out a college in secret without democratic input. And finally, the documentary explores why she failed, and the students won, and what we can learn about leadership and democracy.
For those new to this story, here are the Cliff Notes. In 2019 Hampshire College is approaching its 50th anniversary. Hampshire tries to foster critical thinking, independent work, and a self-directed curriculum. Students work in tutorial fashion on projects. This type of hands-on education is expensive, including requiring lots of time from faculty and staff, and Hampshire, a young college, has a small endowment and has always been close to the edge of financial sustainability. Nelson arrives months before her self-inflicted crises and quickly latches onto the idea that the solution to sustainability is to find a financially robust partner. The problem is that she shares her scheme with only a couple board members. Her vice presidents sign non-disclosure agreements. Nobody in this small circle seems to suggest alternatives.
How this all goes down after January 15, 2019, the day the decision goes public, is engagingly disentangled in the 84-minute documentary. The documentary bounces between scruffy and passionate students and ‘grown-ups,’ including a dash of faculty members, alum Ken Burns, and outside analysts, all of whom add context and commentary. Without giving the whole thing away, let me say that Nelson’s hoped for partnership dissolves on day 69 of the occupation. She resigns, and the board reverses itself and votes to remain independent. Hampshire has succeeded in remaining firmly independent and is now in the midst of a turn around to sustainability.
The big question is how, with little knowledge and power, the students (and faculty, staff, alums, and other supporters) win this battle to keep Hampshire alive and independent?
First a few minor quibbles. As a faculty member and former dean who lived through this ordeal, it seems to me that President Nelson gets off way too easily. Even her board of trustees, save 1-3 members, was in the dark about why she wanted to not just find a partner but to close down the office of advancement and not accept an incoming Fall 2019 class, which meant that if a partner didn’t work out, the school would die. Why did she put all her eggs in one basket? With their careers at stake, Nelson smiled meekly and told faculty and staff to have faith in her secret plan.
Emails between UMass and Nelson that were obtained by Dusty Christianson, a reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, helped to reveal some of the story. Nelson was well down the road to allowing land-rich Hampshire to be acquired by UMass Amherst. As many suspected, she closed admissions and advancement to make the college smaller and more digestible. She turned a painful but bearable financial shortfall into a nuclear winter in which only the acres and buildings survived.
Nobody says she outright lied — to everyone, over and over again. She messed with our reality and our lives.
While the students occupied her office and visibly got under her skin, many other individuals and groups also agitated. Faculty and staff, for example, challenged her financial acumen and her projections for the future. Others reached out to alums for support. Two alum-lead groups raised significant funds. Former presidents tried to help. All these individuals and groups supported the students.
But the big story is the students and their demands to be part of the process. The occupation of the president’s office was one smart move. They could not be ignored. They became a sort of obligatory passage point for reporters. They developed solidarity and become an even tighter community. They practiced the democracy that they preached. They set out their demands. Hampshire College’s motto is “To know is not enough.” The students’ first demand repeated that aphorism. A placard flashes on the screen a couple times with the motto “To know is not enough” and then followed with: “But we have to know.” Indeed, students demanded to know how Nelson’s decisions would affect their school and their education. What would it mean for their teachers and advisors?
Early in the documentary Gaye Hill, chair of the board, addresses the community. She announces the board’s February 1 decision to not accept an incoming class. Students and community members encircle her and boo her decision. She responds that those assembled should accept the board’s decision because Hampshire is a representative democracy. While Hampshire more accurately has a shared governance structure, the more general point is that the board is not representing its community if it has not consulted any constituents. One proves oneself incapable of representing when one lies to those one is representing.
The big takeaway for me is the power of collective action. The Unmaking of a College shows how a collective of individuals with little power can make themselves visible and heard. They can get a seat at the proverbial table. And allowing a diversity of perspectives and interests at the table makes for better decisions. Isn’t that what democracy is really about?
The Unmaking Of A College is showing once nightly at the Amherst Cinema at 7:10 p.m through at least Thursday February 24.. For up-to-date information about the Cinema and its showings look here.
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