I was invited to leave Columbia and join the Philosophy Department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970 [although I did not actually make the transition until 1971.] That year, a small liberal arts experimental college was opened in South Amherst named Hampshire College. Hampshire was yet another of the countercultural small colleges that have been a feature of the American higher education landscape for several hundred years. The students at Hampshire assembled “portfolios” instead of satisfying distribution requirements, they received written evaluations rather than grades. The faculty did not have tenure, but rather multi-year contracts.
From its founding, Hampshire was part of a consortium of Western Massachusetts schools called Five Colleges Inc. Three of the other four – Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke – are famous, well-established liberal arts colleges, among the most prestigious in the United States. The fourth isd UMass, which, when I joined the faculty, was just completing the transition from an 8500 student campus originating as Mass Aggie to the 23,000 student flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts system. The Five Colleges coordinated their schedules and offered students the opportunity to enroll in courses at any of the schools. A 5-College free bus ran circular routes among Amherst, Northampton, and South Hadley, carrying students from campus to campus. [Outsiders assumed that the movement would be from UMass to the elite colleges, but in fact most of the exchanges ran in the other direction, from Amherst or Smith or Mt. Holyoke or Hampshire to UMass.]
Hampshire was by most measures phenomenally successful. Very high percentages of its graduates went on to take advanced degrees or to start small businesses. Its most famous graduate, Ken Burns, became an award winning documentary film maker. The campus offered space to the Yiddish Book Center, a remarkable archive of books, films, and other materials of the Easter European diaspora.
Two days ago, I learned that Hampshire College may be finished. It is going broke, and has declined to admit a full class of students for next year. It is seeking a “partnership,” but from this distance, it looks as though it will be closing its doors.
There are well over four thousand colleges and university campuses in the United States, and every year a number of colleges close down. Half a century is not a bad run, after all. But it is sad news.
Sic transit gloria mundi