Monday, February 04, 2019

Hampshire: On the Bus or Off the Bus?

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe attributes a line to Ken Kesey that has stuck with me for the thirty-plus years since I read the book.  The book is about the Merry Pranksters crossing the country in a bus. At one point, addressing someone who isn’t sure about the whole enterprise, Wolfe has Kesey say “you’re either on the bus or off the bus.”  

It’s one of my favorite lines ever.  In the context of the Merry Pranksters, it was literally correct: you couldn’t be “sort of” on the bus.  One foot on and one foot off wouldn’t last very long at highway speeds. At some point, you have to commit one way or the other and own it.  But the line struck me as true in many other contexts as well. Sometimes a clear decision either way is demonstrably better than trying to split the difference.  As a wise person once told me, sometimes you can’t know which is the right decision; instead, you have to make the decision right. Get on the bus or off it, then make it work.  

I was reminded of that in reading the IHE article about Hampshire College’s perplexing decision not to admit a full freshman class this Fall, but to allow Early Decision applicants and deferred applicants from last year to start this Fall.  It’s telling those students that it will commit to teaching them in the Fall of 2019, but beyond that, it’s hard to say.

Hampshire has one foot on and one foot off.  Nothing good will happen from that.

Hampshire has publicly declared that it’s looking for a partner in order to survive.  Given its limited endowment, high cost, and relatively low enrollment, it’s having a hard time seeing a sustainable way forward on its own.  Recently it announced that it wouldn’t take new students for the coming Fall semester. I applauded that decision in public, noting that by refusing to take on new students, it was protecting them.  That has to be a wrenching decision to make. Often colleges will wait until all options are exhausted before admitting defeat, leaving both students and employees in the lurch. Hampshire appeared to be taking the high road, protecting any new students from harm and giving its own employees an actual shot at a soft landing.  

But then it blinked.  Instead of a full-throated reversal -- damn the endowment, we’re admitting a full class and setting the controls for the center of the sun, in hopes that something will turn around -- it’s splitting the difference.  We’ll take a class, but a small one, and only sorta, but we’re still here, for now, kinda, until we’re not.

Get on the bus or get off the bus.  Take a full class, or don’t take anybody.  But this half-measure just doesn’t make sense.

To the extent that Hampshire’s budget is strained, taking a much smaller class while still offering a robust experience to those students will just make the budget worse.  To the extent that it hollows out the experience for those students while keeping them, it’s mistreating students and cheapening its own name and legacy. Hampshire may be quirky, but it’s respected among serious academics.  Hollowing that out would destroy its reason to exist.

As a parent, I wouldn’t send my kid there at this point.  A college that can’t commit to continuing to exist for more than a semester is not an appealing prospect.  But I could imagine some true believers still showing up.

The folks at Hampshire are smart, and they have to be pretty focused at this point, so I imagine they know all of this.  Which makes the move that much harder to decipher.

Herewith, my best guesses.  These are only guesses, based on no inside knowledge.  

Either they’re playing chicken with donors, or they’re playing games with lawyers.

If it’s the former, maybe they’re hoping that something similar to what happened with Sweet Briar will happen with them.  Announce something shocking, galvanize the alums, but keep the systems up and running just in case the alums and/or donors come through with enough money to keep the place going.  When all else fails, sometimes a financial deus ex machina can be summoned to bail things out.

The latter might be a function of contracts and legal obligations.  Maybe they made the announcement in good faith, only to be served notice that they’d be sued to high heaven if they didn’t backtrack somehow.  They still don’t have the money to restore the status quo ante, so they backed into a halfhearted half-measure to keep the lawyers at bay long enough for them to engineer a soft landing, and/or not scare away a potential merger partner.  Partners don’t like walking into lawsuits.

Neither is pretty.  In both cases, prospective students are pawns being used to satisfy other agendas.  There may be another reason, but those are the first that leap to mind.

As an experienced college administrator, I know that sometimes the options at hand are between “unpleasant” and “even worse.”  It happens. But this just doesn’t smell right. I’m hoping that there’s some other, third option that makes all of this okay, but I’m at a loss to discern it.

Wise and worldly readers, is there a better reason for Hampshire to hedge its bets this way?  Or should it just make a choice, get on the bus or off it, and get on with it?