Hampshire College Governance

1 07 2008

I’m plagued by the vestiges of Hampshire College governance! Someone studying College Counseling/Student Services at CSU Northridge has a class presentation on governance and the structure of liberal arts colleges. He asked a bunch of questions:

1) What is the relationship between the students, faculty, and staff like?
2) Does everyone have an equal say in decision-making?
3) How powerful is the president and administration?
4) Does the Community Council work with the Board of Trustees?
5) What are some current issues being discussed in meetings? How are they resolved?
6) Is there a selection process for BOT members? If so, what is that process like?
7) How often do the BOT meet?
8) What are the responsibilities of the BOT members?

My absurdly long and not-quite-together answer:

Thank you for asking about my involvement in Hampshire as the student trustee! I know your deadline is coming up, so I’m getting this out to you as fast as I can. Hampshire, like any college, is a very complicated place. I’ve tried to capture as many of the nuances as I can, to the best of my understanding—which is that of a slightly jaded recent graduate. The first few questions take a little while to answer, the rest are quick:

Understanding the governance structures and tensions between political groups at Hampshire also requires an understanding of Hampshire’s context. I’m assuming you’ve done your research to an extent and know that the school was founded in the mid-60’s. It grew out of a response to make college more useful and more affordable for the large rise in college-bound students during the 50’s—there’s a document called The New College Plan from 1958, commissioned by the heads of Mount Holyoke, Smith, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts. (linked below)

They basically said, “We need colleges to teach better with fewer faculty and less cost. How can we do this? Teach the students to self-teach!” Professors would spend a lot of time teaching students up front to become independent learners, and could then become facilitators in later years of the undergraduate program, helping students construct independent, inquiry-based courses of study.

This educational philosophy and structure of negotiated learning bled over into the social life of campus as well. It was planned that faculty and students would live and work together on campus. Campus-wide decisions were to be made by a council consisting of both students and faculty. Students could become members of and vote in the different Schools of Thought (our fancy way of pretending we don’t have departments). Faculty were in charge of the different houses. Power was meant to be relatively well distributed, because Hampshire was a new, ‘experimenting’ school—everybody had a stake in it together.

However, the administrative side of the college is and has always been conservative. While the college’s first constitution was very liberal and inclusive, inviting most of the community to participate in governance, the Board of Trustees retained a hold by including a clause that said in essence, “the Board has final say on all decisions.” Every iteration of the college’s constitution has retained this sentiment.

Reading back in college archives, I’ve gotten a sense that despite all the utopian, intentional planning, shared decision making responsibilities, and other idealistic intentions, Hampshire has always struggled with division of power. If you can imagine, for a moment, that every group—students, administrators, faculty—feels like they are supposed to have decision making power, because it says right here in some document that philosophically, they should have it! Each group feels it should have more autonomy to make decisions, or even that they should be let in on the decision making process at all. Meanwhile, the other groups feel that they’ve made room at the tables, room that is not being taken advantage of. Ill will and arguments follow.

Remember, this is a school in which students are instructed to be individual self-starters, and supposedly similarly natured faculty are hired. Many people paint both the academic communities and social communities on campus as highly isolating. As the retiring Dean of Faculty likes to say, “It’s like rugged American individualism gone horribly wrong.” Students, staff and faculty often have very strong individual relationships, but often have strained relations as separate political groups, because they feel they are working against the best efforts of the other groups to destroy whatever it is that the school stands for. Yet all groups will generally say they are interested in “bringing Hampshire to the next level.”

Note: When I mention groups of people, I mean those who are politically active internally. These groups consist of ten percent of students, a slightly larger amount of faculty, most of the administrators, and hardly any of the staff. Administrators, in this case, are cabinet-level deans and directors of various departments, or anyone with ‘dean’ in their title.

In general, the power is distributed to the areas in which people are most involved. Students have Community Council, which is supposedly the decision maker for student life on campus. In reality, the Dean of Students has the final say. The Faculty Meeting is the body of all the faculty and is responsible for making decisions of academic policy. All the rest is taken up by the administration, with some help from a few interested faculty and students. “All the rest” includes buildings & grounds, development (fundraising), communications, student life (oh, you thought students had any say here?), admissions, and the business office—powers including, but not limited to, setting the budget. All the heads of these departments report to the president.

Remember, he who controls the budget controls the priorities of an institution. The president’s flunkies make the budget with little input from others.

The direct superiors of the president are the trustees. They meet as a board four times a year—three times at Hampshire and one ‘retreat’ at which they talk about one or two major over-arching philosophical issues. The board has a number of committees that report during its regular meetings. They include the Executive Committee, Nominating & Governance, Finance, Investment (which is a subcommitte of the Finance Committee, I think), Admissions, Identity & Profile, Development, Academic Affairs, Student Life, Buildings & Grounds, and likely a few others.

Decisions that get made at the board level first go through the committee, get discussed, shaped, and brought to the board as a motion and a vote. The members of the committees are usually staff and administrators in those areas, a handful of trustees (including the chair of the committee), and an elected faculty, staff and student representative. The reps are elected from their constituencies in generally very low turnout elections.

The president sits at the center of the web of power. The majority of presentations at board meetings are given by the president and his cabinet members: Deans of Faculty and Students, Directors of Admissions, Communications, Buildings & Grounds and Development, and the Treasurer. It’s not surprising, as the board has delegated the majority of their power to the position of the president. The board’s responsibilities, according to the outgoing chair of the board, are to provide “disinterested guidance and support from a level removed from the details and specifics of daily life at the college.” They’re responsible for the mission and policy level decisions, and the fiscal health of the institution.

If you ask students, the actual responsibilities of most trustees include the difficult tasks of showing up and giving significant sums of money.

I feel like I’ve been going on a long time at this point… and it’s starting to turn into a rant. I’ll answer the rest of your questions as briefly as I can.

Community Council is a student run council that is nearly defunct, despite the best efforts of a decade. It’s been in a slow decline since the early 70’s and at this point is considered a joke by most students, and by many administrators. The board has nearly zero interactions with the council.

Aside from the elected student, faculty, and staff trustees, there are two alumni trustees who are also elected by the constituency. The rest are recommended to the Nominating & Governance committee of the board, who selects the best candidates and presents them to the board.

Current issues being discussed by the board include a number of things. Some are more mundane issues such as: Should Hampshire buy nearby land? How are the fundraising goals being met? What is our master capital campaign, and how are we accounting for future expenses in today’s budget? Bigger issues include the study done by the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, which showed that students’ opinions of Hampshire are not entirely what the faculty and administration expects or wants, as well as a discussion of divestment from companies that are profiting from the Israel/Palestine situation. That particular issue is the first one I’ve seen create any sort of real conflict between board members and students. I and many others are waiting with baited breath to see how this one turns out.

An interesting point to keep in mind—students brought the divestment question to the board. Despite an effort by some on the board to squash it, the topic is being discussed. Students, when they get their act together, do wield some power at the board level.

This is a lot to digest… Does it answer your questions? I worry that I’ve been too involved in the college to give a simple answer, but none of it is very simple.

The most interesting thing I’ve found is that outside of Hampshire, almost none of this matters. I suppose I understand how to navigate institutional politics a bit better than I did, but most of what I cared about seems so petty. It seems so petty now because I don’t believe that Hampshire is doing as much of consequence in the world as it could be. If there was some greater reason to give a damn about the school, maybe it would seem more consequential.

Don’t get me wrong—Hampshire did great things for me. I mean, without it, I probably wouldn’t have gone on a cross country circus tour! But like I said, Hampshire is so focused on individualism that it can’t seem to focus its energies outside itself. It’s sad to see something with so much potential fall so short.

Some good reading material:
The New College Plan (1958) .pdf *I highly recommend reading this. It’s short!
The Making of A College (1965) .pdf *This has some really great things to say and expands upon The New College Plan. It contains Hampshire’s original working documents.
Hampshire College Constitution (1998 version) .pdf
Numerous other resources are available at the archives website.

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