Following announcements that the institution would not accept a full first-year class next fall, Hampshire College notified several of its staff members on Tuesday, Feb. 19 that they would be laid off in 60 days. The layoffs, which mainly affect those working in Hampshire’s admissions and advancement offices, come amid intense opposition from many Hampshire faculty, staff, students and alumni who have organized several protests calling for the suspension of the impending layoffs.
According to Hampshire President Miriam Nelson, these layoffs constitute the first of two rounds of downsizing to accommodate a smaller student body and reduced revenue from tuition. The next round of layoffs, to be announced around April 1, will impact both Hampshire staff and faculty, with the cumulative size of the cuts expected to total around 30 to 50 percent of current full-time employment at Hampshire.
Many anticipate even more layoffs in later years as Hampshire continues its search for a strategic partner. To some, the magnitude of these staffing cuts would represent the demise of the spirit of Hampshire itself, a loss that effectively all stakeholders in Hampshire’s community want to avoid.
“Let’s imagine that we don’t admit a first-year class — which we are not, right now — this coming fall. Then, the likelihood of admitting a class in fall of 2020 is very, very small,” said Salman Hameed, a professor at Hampshire. “It means that you are going to lose additional faculty and staff. If you think of Hampshire as being made up of the people who teach there, and if you have more than half of those people, maybe 70 percent, not there, then is it really Hampshire?”
For several in the Hampshire community, losing their livelihoods is another key point of concern. “I feel very vulnerable in this process, as do many of my colleagues. I’m not sure what I’d do if I lost my job,” said a faculty member who asked to remain anonymous due to the precariousness of their position. “Even the ones who perhaps have reason to believe that they might be kept on are also devastated by it because the faculty body will not be the same.”
“One of the things that cannot be overstated is that this will be catastrophic for some people. They’re not only going to lose their careers, their livelihoods, but also their health insurance and other benefits,” added Jennifer Hamilton, a Hampshire professor who serves as the president of Hampshire College’s American Association of University Professors chapter (HCAAUP). “In my personal case, the spectre of losing health insurance is terrifying. I’m the only income owner, and I have a disabled partner who relies on my insurance to be as well as he can be.”
The HCAAUP has been one of the main voices speaking out against these administrative decisions and representing faculty voices like Hamilton’s and Hameed’s. Between supporting several of the protest movements on Hampshire’s campus and lobbying against what they see as an infringement on the shared governance principles embedded in Hampshire’s constitution, the HCAAUP, in cooperation with the Executive Committee of the Faculty, is currently attempting to delay layoffs and negotiate for better severance packages for those who will lose employment.
However, the HCAAUP does not act as a labor union. The National Labor Relations Act currently prohibits full-time faculty members at private institutions from engaging in collective bargaining. Even outside of faculty, none of the school’s staff members are unionized except for the dining staff; this makes negotiations difficult, according to Neil Young, a staff member at Hampshire’s library.
“There was a letter by staff members that I signed last night that basically said that we just want to ask questions,” said Young. “We want to stand in solidarity with those who are doing more, but quite honestly, given our positions, we don’t have enough leverage to do anything.”
Hamilton and Young both agree that Hampshire’s current crisis is emblematic of a larger, systematic problem. “This is not new. The erosion of shared governance really goes back a number of years,” said Hamilton. “In part, Hampshire has always experienced some level of financial insecurity, and we, as faculty and staff, have been living that for years and years. We were frustrated because we felt like we were being asked to do more and more work, with less and less input in terms of what our work was actually doing.”
“Yes, we’re pretty demoralized, but we were also pretty demoralized last year,” added Young. “The staff and faculty have been eating it for years now, and the morale is not high when you’re constantly being asked to give up more and more. It’s difficult to work in a position where you have to do more with less and that’s basically what’s going to keep happening.”
Still, pressure from various groups, including the HCAAUP and miscellaneous staff members, has caused the administration to agree to some of their demands on transparency and shared governance. Notably, in a letter to the Hampshire community on Feb. 13, Nelson announced that she would dissolve the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) — legal contracts prohibiting discussion of certain confidential material — used by the senior leadership team, which was a major point of criticism from protesters.
“Our dean of faculty, the person who was supposed to represent us, signed an NDA in November, and we didn’t know. The NDA included not being able to tell us that she had signed one, and I personally find that chilling,” said Hamilton. “I am grateful, now that I can have a more open conversation with my own dean of faculty, but I also think that it demonstrates something about this administration and the way in which it wants to deal with faculty, staff and students that deeply concerns me.”
Despite uncertainties wrought by the prospect of layoffs, some staff and faculty view these changes in a positive light. Kristína Moss Gunnarsdóttir, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Hampshire, said that while the administration’s decision was certainly suboptimal, “it was the best decision possible,” since otherwise, “there would be no Hampshire at all.”
“There is so much grief and pain on all constituencies and on all sides of this, and yet, here we are. There is no way to go back in time,” said Gunnarsdóttir. “If we could go back, I am positive that the administration would’ve made many choices in terms of communications and bringing people together that would be different. I just hope we can move forward, since Hampshire is a one-of-a-kind place, and I want to see it exist and thrive.”
This commitment to dialogue and optimism is a common theme among Hampshire faculty and staff, many of whom are trying to effect as much of a positive impact on their community as they can, despite knowing that their future is comparatively precarious.
“I’m not defeated,” said Hamilton. “I feel deeply insecure about the future. But I also feel that I’m in a position, both in terms of my students and my colleagues, where I’m a strong voice, and I’m grateful for that. It helps me get through and not focus too much on my own uncertainty, but really fight for what we think is right. Fighting for people’s jobs, for their futures.”