Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 10, 2022 10:10 pm 
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Hampshire College's successful struggle to survive

This is a story that reflects a wave of shutdowns of small liberal arts colleges across America, schools that may not be viable economically and therefore can be taken over by corporate or large state institutions. And that will be a great loss to this country. America's small liberal arts colleges are among its most valuable cultural treasures. They are birthplaces of creative democracy, the best education we have, cradles of a tradition of independent thinking and academic excellence few other parts of the world can match. It's essential for these places to exist but there are forces now that want to end them. As Margaret Cerullo, a Sociology professor who has taught at Hampshire for forty years, suggests, the undermining of the liberal arts colleges is political, and an enormous withdrawal of federal funds reflects a neoliberal economy that doesn't find liberal arts "useful."

This documentary made by a Hampshire alum is about the January-April 2019 struggle of faculty, students, and workers to keep Hampshire College alive against plans to shut it down or turn it over to a large state institution that suddenly, without warning or transparency, emanated from the office of Hampshire president Miriam E. "Mim" Nelson, a prominent nutrition expert who had been in office less than a year. "Mim," acting with the board of trustees but without taking to the college community at large, speaking with a false air of good cheer, talked about seeking a "strategic partner" for Hampshire to resolve claimed dire economic issues - probably the University of Massachusetts. After seeming to decide unilaterally that the college would not admit a new incoming class, it began to look very much like the school would not be long for this world. Tuition is its main source of support: without students, nothing would be running any more.

This turn of affairs may be part of a trend but also seems in part inexplicable. It is not like a corporate takeover where, as is noted, "someone walks away with a lot of money." The new president did not consult with the five living ex-presidents, nor with alumni fundraisers. It would have been possible to mount an emergency fund drive and fill the gap from major donors and rank and file alumni alike. She didn't consider this alternative, which former presidents knew about and would have suggested, as we hear from one who faced an economic crisis successfully in the past. She simply did not see the significance of remaining independent, of preserving the unique flavor of a small institution.

I was moved by pictures in this film of Hampshire College in the winter, and then on balmy warm days. The trees, the rolling plains, the gentle lands covered with snow all winter in this part of Western Massachusetts brought back memories of an education formed at Amherst College, not far away. Hampshire, where students design their own studies and have no exams or grades, was a then radical and idealistic creation that came into existence in 1970, making it the oddball jewel in the interconnected "five-college community" - Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, UMass Amherst, and Hampshire. This is a stunningly beautiful part of the country. I hardly bothered to notice at the time. I do when I go back.

The other schools dated back to the nineteenth century. Hampshire became one of the most boldly experimental colleges in the country. It may be a fair guess that while Amherst College can cite a plethora of wealthy establishment figures, Hampshire may contribute more to the creative world. But being "only" 50 years old, instead of 200, Hampshire isn't as richly endowed as its four neighbors. Its $54 million is chickenfeed compared to the surrounding institutions' endowments of $1-2 billion.

Goldstein is a 40-year alum of Hampshire like Ken Burns, who speaks up in this film about how he owes his creative career to beginnings at Hampshire. The student talking heads of their movement, Hamp Rise Up, show a practical idealism and unselfconscious intelligence and community that impress. These young people are the heart of this film. But it provides perspective from older voices as well, even though the change came from the kids. These grayer heads include experienced faculty members, some of them so innovative and cross-disciplinary in approach that they report foreseeing the downfall of Hampshire not just as the end of their jobs but the end of their careers. Also important is Mingda Zhao, the dissident trustee who got ousted for contacting the presidents of the other four colleges. We hear strategy errors of Nelson discussed by the dubious William F. Buckley relative connected with a corporate PR firm that worked with the college and with "Mim." And the whole situation is analyzed by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management. He sees the victors of this struggle as typical heroes who always face "a near-death experience, some "crushing setback," that makes them forever different. And the valedictorian also says, "It never dies; it lives alive in you."

The talking heads here do not include Ms. Nelson, but they do include not only some vibrant student protesters but some outspoken faculty members and what seem to be the main student leaders of the revolt that took place leading to the record 75-dau sit-in at the president's office, which led to Nelson's resignation, the redirection of the college toward independence, and the arrival of Nelson's passionate replacement, eighth Hampshire president, Edward Wingenbach. It seems clear that these kids, who had chosen a school for self-starters, were more than up to the task of leading a well-organized revolt and participating in discussions among trustees, governing board, and faculty about the road to take. The numerous images of the long-lived sit-in shot by Joshua Berman, one of the students whose interest is filmmaking - in the path of Ken Burns and Goldstein herself - bring back memories of the Sixties and Seventies. (He says his mother gave him two bad pieces of advice: don't get involved; be objective.) But it feels like this sit-in had more practical aims and a pre concrete outcome than some of those earlier ones.

President "Mim" reveals herself to be autocratic, secretive, top-down and Machiavellian in her machinations, appointing committees whose members must sign gag rules, negotiating for months with UMass about a takeover and then hinting at it only later with a false air of urgency. But a question penned on a blackboard by one of the student leaders asks: was she really trying to sell out the school or just a bad president? It's possible that that job was just too much for her. Only we see the encroachment of a corporate neoliberal mindset that when I was a student at Amherst did not look to move colleges around like chess pieces.

The Unmaking of a College, 84 mins., releases by Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber starting Feb. 11, 2022 (IFC Center, New York) and Feb. 18 (Laemmle Theaters, Los Angeles).

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