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Hampshire College President Explains Why He Thinks Campus Will Be Able To Re-Open This Fall

The Cole Science Center and the Harold F. Johnson Library at the heart of Hampshire College's campus. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Cole Science Center and the Harold F. Johnson Library at the heart of Hampshire College's campus. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Hampshire College is the latest to roll out plans to bring students back in person this fall.

President Ed Wingenbach announced Wednesday that the college campus would reopen at the beginning of the fall semester unless state authorities prevent it.

Wingenbach took over the presidency with the mission of turning it around after his predecessor had sought a merger with another institution. The turnaround involved foregoing accepting a first-year class for the current 2019-20 academic year.

Wingenbach recently explained to WBUR's Fred Thys why that may work to Hampshire's advantage in the age of COVID-19.

Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Fred Thys: What's your thinking now about reopening campus at the beginning of fall?

Ed Wingenbach: We are optimistic about it. We have really significant advantages in part because all of our dormitories are single rooms. So we start off with students having their own spots to live.

Secondly, because we didn't take a class in the spring of 2019, which, you know, isn't great for us for other reasons, is actually an advantage now because we've already kind of de-densified our campus. The way lots of colleges are trying to figure out how to get their student population down to say 50 percent relative to their housing capacity, we're already there. And so we're able to spread our students out pretty easily. ...

Now, we'll have to do things like spread out the calendar, probably meet beyond the normal sort of Monday through Friday. ... But I think we're pretty optimistic about this.

And what I've said in some of the communications to returning and new students is: if Hampshire College — with the situation we're in — can't open in the fall as a residential institution, it's going to be very hard for anybody to open in the fall.

What are some of the things that you are looking at as you try to figure out whether you can reopen this fall?

So one thing is access to reliable testing. And fortunately, our medical services are affiliated with the UMass University Health Services. And they've told us that they expect to have access to reliable and rapid testing in time for the fall. So that will help us. You know, we can bring students in, do some testing. We have the space to quarantine or isolate, create an empty dorm available that we're reserving for that purpose. So that's one of the things we're looking at. Will that testing capacity really be there?

One of the things that we're looking at, of course, is guidance from the federal government and from the state, probably more importantly at this point. What are their criteria going to be for allowing colleges to open? I'm hoping that they will be supportive of those of us being able to do that.

So those are some of the things that we're looking at ... but a lot of it's kind of up in the air right now.

The dorm that you would use to isolate students. Is that the dorm that you had offered the town of Amherst for its homeless population?

Yes. ... [Under one scenario,] Dakin Hall, which is where we were going to house homeless people in the community who needed isolation and quarantine, would stay empty. That has a capacity of almost 300 students. And so we'd be able to have quite a bit of capacity for isolation or quarantine if we needed it. ...

How is coronavirus affecting [Hampshire's] finances?

Well, it's caused some challenges for the spring semester. Obviously we asked most of our students to go home after spring break or to stay away from campus. And of course that met with refunding and crediting their room and board costs.

We have a pretty thriving rental business here for both summer conferences, but also we have a wedding and party facility. And obviously none of that's going on. So we've taken some hits in our what you would consider kind of extra revenue.

And of course, there have been a lot of expenses for our students, both bringing students who are abroad back or helping students who were in difficult situations to get home. We paid out federal work study all of our students who were on federal work study, which is part of their financial aid package. We calculated what hours were remaining for the semester and just paid that out to them as a stipend because the students rely on those on those funds to survive, in some cases are helping support their families.

So all those expenses add up. It was probably — all in — somewhere around $1.2 million [or] $1.3 million.

If Hampshire College -- with the situation we're in -- can't open in the fall as a residential institution, it's going to be very hard for anybody to open in the fall.

Ed Wingenbach, president of Hampshire College

Now, some of that will be offset. The federal government provided — through the CARES Act — we got about $599,000. That will help us offset our expenses. So about half of our loss we can offset in that way.

Of the other half of that money — the $599,000 — goes directly to students. So we've been sending checks to our students who have been directly affected by COVID-19. And to date, we've sent out about $300,000 to maybe somewhere between 230 and 250 students to help with really significant disruptions to their education. We'll continue to do that.

So I guess the easy answer is in the short term, yes, it's impacted us. But in a way that is fairly manageable for this semester, especially since we're used to dealing with financial challenges. For us,  it wasn't as disruptive as for some other places that are maybe a little less used to dealing with those kinds of challenges.

The bigger problem will come in the fall. If the number of students coming back in the fall is substantially reduced from what we expected, or if we can't bring people to campus and therefore don't have the kind of housing and room and board revenue that we do count on to make the college run, those start to be bigger challenges.

How do you see COVID-19 affecting colleges in general? Do you expect we're going to see a lot of private colleges go under? More so than might have otherwise in the next few years? 

Well, let me give you two answers to that.

The first is that, yes, we've already seen some small colleges that were on the edge, already announced that they're closing. I expect that particularly if conditions are still kind of out of control in the fall — either colleges can't bring students to campus or governments won't let them bring students to campus or parents won't send their kids to campus — that will cause great stress to a lot of smaller private residential colleges and could lead to some of them closing if they don't get some aid from the federal government or from the state government.

Now, I would hope in that scenario — if we were in a position where because of the the situation affecting everybody in the region, colleges weren't able to open — I would hope that as one of the most valuable and productive industries in Massachusetts, that the state would would try to help colleges survive through that crisis of the fall. And so some of this depends on how the state partners with private education in terms of closures and survivals. So that's the first answer I would give to that.

The second answer about how COVID-19 will be changing colleges has to do actually more with how colleges operate and how they should change how they operate and approach education. One of the things that this crisis shows is that the kind of standard — I think, relatively maybe boring and outdated — approach to undergraduate education, which is essentially to say that if you come to college as an 18 year old and take a program of study — a major that is kind of a watered down version of what graduate programs do — that that's somehow going to prepare you to go out into the world and deal with problems like global pandemics or climate change or inequality or the declining importance of the arts. Those are not questions that are easily addressed from a single perspective.

And I think what students will want increasingly is to think about their college educations as an opportunity to begin addressing those relevant, meaningful existential problems that their generation is going to be tasked to solve. Colleges that shift their emphasis in their curriculum and their approaches in ways that invite students to actually engage those questions as part of their core curriculum and their experience rather than the thing they're going to do after they graduate will benefit.

And of course, that's what Hampshire does. That's where our curriculum has shifted as we're going forward. ... That's a little self-serving, I understand, but I think it's true.

So moving away from a traditional liberal arts model more towards creating your own major pursuing your own inquiries? 

I don't think it's to move away from the liberal arts. What the liberal arts have classically been is the educational approach that says to a person: ask a huge question, take on a problem that other people can't solve and learn everything you need to know from every possible source of information and apply your creativity to that question or problem. That's what the liberal arts are. I mean, go back to wandering around Athens with Socrates, right? 

And so I think it's a return to the heart of the liberal arts, based on a realist's sense that the crisis of the 21st century, which is a crisis across lots of different domains, can only be solved by that kind of creative, open-ended thinking.

So what are you doing with regard to deposits? Did you let the date slip? Or did you maintain the deadline on May 1?

We extended to June 1 like many other colleges. In part, to give students more opportunity to make decisions. In part, so that they would have more information from us to be able to say: here's where our planning is right now. Here's where we think things are going to be in the fall. We just thought it was the right thing to do.

The thing I would say about the financial situation of colleges in the era of COVID-19 is that none of us are going to be able to thrive alone. From the wealthiest to the colleges that are most at risk, this is much too large of a challenge for anyone to weather alone.

I think that's true across our society. And so to the extent we value higher education as a society, we're gonna need to support it and support it as a public good. And I realize that that's maybe a little out of fashion these days. But I think what a crisis like this and a potential economic depression shows is the absolute essential importance, both of higher education, but also of the partnership that higher education has with the public locally, regionally and nationally.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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