Thursday, October 6, 2022

Hamp Rising Up: Bracing for Stiff Headwinds

Hampshire student Rhys MacArthur stands in front of the image of Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson and talks about the protest. If she weren’t at Hampshire, she says, “I’d probably be sitting on my stoop at home smoking cigarettes.”  

Those of us worried about the future of American democracy might do well to take a look at a new documentary that chronicles a smaller but no less perilous experiment in governing. The Unmaking of a College (2022) tells the story of Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school in Amherst, MA that, just before the pandemic, nearly closes. Hampshire has a radical philosophy of education. Professors don’t lecture; they advise. Students design their own curriculum. There are no grades. The school boasts alumni like Jon Krakauer, Liev Schreiber, and Ken Burns. 50 years old, its endowment is only $54 million, which pales in comparison to older institutions like nearby Amherst College, with a treasure chest of nearly $3.8 billion. As a consequence, over the past few years, Hampshire began operating on a shoestring budget. One trustee began writing personal checks to cover shortfalls. 

The movie begins on January 15, 2019, when the new president of the college, Miriam “Mim” Nelson, announces that the college has been seeking a new funding partner in the midst of a financial crisis. She has decided that admitting a freshman class in Fall 2019 would be a bad idea. The announcement, made strategically when both students and faculty are away and not expected back until a week later, sounds the death knell for the college since the budget relies heavily on student tuition.

The bespectacled Mim is a great villain. She looks and talks earthy-crunchy to hide a devious and corporate-minded philosophy. Student leaders begin organizing and it’s immediately apparent they see right through her. At the outset, they demand to be included in the decision-making process. Their strategies incorporate traditional protest mechanisms like posters, chants, bullhorns, and sit-ins with social media posts. But it’s their articulate and patient rhetoric that impresses most. 

The leaders who emerge showcase how the school attracts eclectic personalities and radical thinkers. Rhys MacArthur, a senior, gives campus tours and works in the Admissions Office. The school has given her an identity: if she weren’t there, she says, “I’d probably be sitting on my stoop at home smoking cigarettes.” 

MacArthur is incensed that she’s been selling the school to a freshman class that won’t exist. The Admissions Office looks like it will shut down, threatening her ability to finance her own tuition. She seems powerless. But the movement, called Rise Up, provides her with a voice and platform. Another upperclassman, Marlon Becerra, an Economics and Legal Studies major from New York City, says faculty and students were backed into a corner, which made organized protest a necessity. “It left us with no choice,” he says. 

Director and documentarian Amy Goldstein (The Hooping Life, 2010; Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl, 2018) is clearheaded in her storytelling. It likely helps that she too is a Hampshire College alum. She's careful to show the impact on faculty and staff. Mim announces layoffs and makes plans to close the cafeteria. Salman Hameed, a Hampshire professor, says he feels trapped because the interdisciplinary classes he teaches in sociology, history, and economics make him less marketable to other colleges. Luckily he’s just as rebellious as the students. “She picked the wrong college to mess with,” he says. Watch the movie, available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy, to see if he’s right. 

Jim Daly is a former Patriot Ledger reporter and has also written for The Boston Globe. A Boston native, he studied English at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He works as a commercial real estate appraiser.

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