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Filmmaker Ken Burns On Why He Is Trying To Save Hampshire College

Ken Burns, co-director of the PBS documentary series "The Vietnam War," poses for a portrait during the 2017 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Ken Burns, co-director of the PBS documentary series "The Vietnam War," poses for a portrait during the 2017 Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Hampshire College will make additional cuts to its workforce to help offset financial trouble that has made the school's future uncertain. On Monday, interim President Ken Rosenthal said two dozen faculty will be laid off.

The layoffs are a part of the college's effort to stay open and independent, which also includes a fundraising campaign led by one of the school's most well-known alumni: documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Burns graduated from Hampshire in 1975 and has said the school was a big part of the reason he became a filmmaker. He spoke with Radio Boston about what sets Hampshire College apart.


Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker. He tweets @kenburns.

Interview Highlights

On why he wants to save Hampshire

"So much of higher education has become transactional, and that's a bad thing. Hampshire College was transformational; it wasn't transactional. I don't recognize the person who entered Hampshire in 1971, and the person who emerged in the spring of 1975. It completely rearranged all my molecules. I am steadfastly devoted to its model, to its experimenting nature, even to this crisis as an opportunity to reinvigorate what I think we do better than anyone else."

On what he says sets Hampshire graduates apart

"We're in the top 4% of colleges in the U.S. that its alumni go on to get Ph.D.s. We're really well-positioned to confront a lot of the problems of immigration, of climate change, of diversity, of gender, of the things that bedevil so many other people with traditional educations. I think Hampshire students are well-suited to go out in the world and solve those problems, or at least make a meaningful contribution to making those situations better."

On his work spearheading the school's fundraising efforts

"[We're] charged with raising an extraordinary amount of money to get us through the next four years. So, as the co-head of the development effort, I've identified for myself a contribution that would really hurt. And then I multiplied it by four. And I've reached out to the Hampshire community and asked them to do the same."

On how much money Hampshire needs to secure its future

"It's a significant amount of money for us. It would be, you know, a week's interest for Harvard. We have to do anywhere from $80 million to $100 million in the next four years. [But we] are committed to solving this problem and beginning to use this crisis as an opportunity to help reinvigorate the Hampshire model."

Hampshire College campus (Courtesy lookcatalog)
Hampshire College campus (Courtesy lookcatalog)

On the layoffs and speculation school's accreditation is at risk

"This is a necessity. We are shrinking by necessity the number of people in the college, and that means we can't have as many staff and as many faculty. I believe, as does [interim President] Ken Rosenthal that the accreditation will not be changed in any way, and we're very confident that we'll be able to meet their requirements."

On why he thinks the school should work to maintain its independence:

"We have elected collectively to go with this independent model. It will probably require down the road some partnerships but none that would jeopardize our independence and the secret sauce that we think we've got."


Zoë Mitchell Twitter Producer and Studio Director
Zoë Mitchell was a Radio Boston producer and studio director.


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Kimberly Atkins is a senior opinion writer and columnist for Boston Globe Opinion. She's also a frequent guest host for On Point. She formerly was a senior news correspondent for WBUR.



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