It's the end of the semester and Hampshire College students aren't just worried about their final projects, but whether their small college can stay open. Inside the new student center on a recent sunny morning, some sip iced coffee while others give each other massages to relax and focus.
"It's been really distracting for someone who just wants to graduate," said Owen Nied, 21, a second-year student from Chester, Vermont. The announcement back in January that the college would not admit a full class this fall was jarring. "I panicked a little bit because nobody really knew anything."
Facing a financial and enrollment crisis, Hampshire is at risk of losing its accreditation. To save itself, the college is cutting faculty and staff and launching a major fundraising campaign. At first, the alternative college, which doesn’t have grades or majors, sought a merger. Then, two months later, facing criticism from faculty, students and alumni, President Miriam Nelson resigned abruptly.
Since then, interim president Ken Rosenthal, one of Hampshire’s founders, and the board of trustees have voted to keep Hampshire open and independent by raising millions.
"We're going to be looking for upwards of $90-100 million dollars over the next five or so years," Rosenthal said. He added that the challenge for Hampshire, which was founded in 1970, is that its alums are relatively young. Their average age? Just 40.
"They are successful in many ways, but also at an age when they're raising families,” Rosenthal said. “We know we are mentioned in wills of many, many of our good friends and alumni. We wish them a long life and don't hope to realize upon that soon."
A few schools have managed to reemerge after serious financial trouble. In 2015, alumni rallied to save Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia, raising $28 million in three months. In 2007, Antioch University in Ohio closed and then reopened four years later as a smaller college.
Historically, though, few Hampshire graduates have donated to their alma mater — just 14 percent during the past three years, according to the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. That's compared to 30 percent to 40 percent at other private schools like Dartmouth College and Bowdoin College.
Hampshire has recruited one of its most successful alumni to lead the effort: documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Ever since Hampshire announced it was seeking a merger, Burns, who graduated in 1975, said he and other alumni have wanted to help. Burns won't disclose how much he is giving, but said he came up with a figure that would really hurt.
"And then I multiplied it by four," Burns said in a telephone interview.
Burns admits giving will be painful, especially for younger alumni struggling to pay off their student loans, but he said their participation is critical in proving to outside philanthropists that Hampshire is worth saving.
“And we are worth saving, without a doubt,” said Burns, who studied film and photography at Hampshire. “I do not recognize the person who came into Hampshire College — a skinny, scared 18-year-old in September of 1971 — and the person who emerged.”
Over the decades since then, Hampshire has evolved as a distinctive institution.
“We have to, as a country — as a higher education community — ensure that Hampshire continues, because Hampshire is the opposite of what so much of higher education has devolved into,” said Burns, pointing out many parents make foremost the potential return on their investment in college expenses. “Unfortunately, higher education has become so transactional in the last few decades, and Hampshire has been the opposite of that.”
Despite Burns' star power, higher education researchers question whether the campaign will pay off in the long run.
"I think it will buy them time,” said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and author of the forthcoming book "Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life." Horn sees fundraising as a band-aid that won’t solve Hampshire's fundamental problem.
"They still have a broken business model,” Horn said. “They're losing students every year, and the number of full-paying students is minuscule on the campus right now."
The sticker price at Hampshire is $49,000, but the percentage of students paying full freight has dropped from 7 percent four years ago to less than 1 percent this academic year. In a competitive market, enrollment has plummeted 20 percent over the past five years as the number of high school graduates in the Northeast shrinks.
This week, the college announced it was cutting 24 staff members and reducing faculty contracts and salaries by 45 percent. Some faculty are taking leaves and becoming visiting professors elsewhere, while others are cutting back their hours or retiring.
"One of the benefits of a crisis is that it gets everybody to think, 'This is serious, folks, let's get to work,'" said Christoph Cox, who has taught philosophy at Hampshire for the past 21 years. Cox is cautiously optimistic the school’s fundraising campaign will succeed and Hampshire will be able to rehire professors after enrollment rebounds.
“There’s a great phrase that comes from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ You’re a realist, but you do the work that is necessary,” Cox said.
On campus, enrollment is projected to drop by half this fall to as low as 600, down from 1,200.
"Hampshire is isolated as it is, so I'm a little nervous just about the lack of bodies on the campus,” said second-year student Owen Nied, who considered transferring but has decided against it.
"When we got more updates about how all the current students will graduate, I just realized that it would be easier for me to stick it out," Nied said.
Despite all the turmoil this semester, Nied said he is optimistic some version of Hampshire will survive even after he graduates.