Demanding democracy at Hampshire

June 9, 2010

Madeline Burrows and Alejandra Cuellar report on a battle at Hampshire College.

AMHERST, Mass--During the last week of the semester, when most students are cramming for finals, Hampshire College erupted with a movement for transparency and democracy involving at least half of the student body, along with staff and faculty.

Students were outraged when they learned about administrators' plans to move a satellite of the admissions office to a more central building, Adele Simons Hall (ASH)--a plan that would cost a projected $350,000, displace faculty offices and include the construction of a 5,100-square-foot parking lot on what is now a grassy field.

In just a week, pressure pushed the administration to respond to student demands, and exposed the consistent lack of transparency on a campus that preaches radical pedagogy.

Michael Meo, a junior at Hampshire, first heard about the plan through the student-led architectural re-design group, Re-Hamping. "Having studied spaces for a long time, the plan seemed incredibly illogical," he said. As he and the rest of the group began to look into the plan, they quickly realized its greatest flaw: The vast majority of the people who should have known about it were excluded from the decision-making process.

Throughout the 2009-2010 academic year, Hampshire President Ralph Hexter and Vice President of Finance and Administration Mark Spiro held campus-wide meetings in which they reiterated the dire economic state of the college. They argued that during the economic crisis, the college must make staff cuts and raise tuition.

Hampshire student tuition accounts for 90 percent of the college's budget. Already one of the top 50 most expensive private colleges in the country, Hampshire will increase its tuition and fees by 2.2 percent, or $1,114, for the 2010-2011 academic year. Now, students are expected to pay $51,279.

Despite the administration's professed lack of money, not all sectors on the campus have faced cuts in recent years. According to a 2008 article in the Northampton Gazette, in the 2006-2007 academic year, President Hexter received a 30 percent salary increase of $76,527 from the Hampshire board of trustees, which hiked his salary to $328,139.

Given the administration's emphasis on the need to cut costs and raise tuition, many students were shocked by the $350,000 price tag on the ASH construction project.

Meo and four other students scheduled a meeting with the Dean of Enrollment and Assessment, Steve Weisler, who been the head of the planning. Weisler challenged Meo, calling his request to know more about the planning of the construction "hostile behavior."

The students began to spread the information through word-of-mouth and by announcing the plan on the area's five-college public PVTA buses. Within days, Meo and other Re-Hamping students presented the ASH plan to a group of 100 students, staff and faculty, and asked if anyone had heard about this plan to of the admission ASH project before that week. A loud chorus of "No!" arose from the crowd.

STUDENTS--FRUSTRATED by the secrecy of the project--organized a campaign to make their voices heard. After several organizing meetings, they drafted petitions, demanding from the administration more transparency in its decisions, and asking for the construction to be halted.

Throughout the week, activists moved through the campus engaging other students, staff and faculty members with information about the project, and gathering signatures from the Hampshire community.

In a matter of days, around 150 students rallied around campus, accompanied by a Samba ensemble, holding protest banners demanding transparency and accountability. The rally marched through campus and ended at Weisler's office, where students chanted, "Just tell us!"

Weisler was forced to emerge from his office and talk to the students. For two hours, he responded to questions from dozens of students, and ultimately admitted that the lack of consultation had been a flaw in the process and stated that in the future he would appeal to better methods for transparency.

But when one student asked him to sign the first part of the petition that called for better modes of communication between the administration and the student body and staff, Weisler refused.

Freshman Jessica Rather said that "after several meaningless promises of understanding" from the administration, which said it "would listen to our voices, we were still shut out...I have come to understand that those few individuals who decide how our money is spent, do not understand Hampshire's community."

Unwilling to settle for anything but a halt to the construction, students drafted demands directed at President Hexter. The support from faculty and staff was immediate; the admissions staff drafted a letter to students stating, "Moving our tours to ASH and dividing the Admissions office drastically alters the way in which we interact with prospective students. It sacrifices the quality of our visit program for the use of a new space."

Along with several staff signatures, 108 faculty members signed a letter in support of students.

Junior Lily Spencer, who became involved because of her job as an admissions intern, said:

I felt as though...this plan lacked transparency completely, and did not go through any sort of process in which the community (or the employees working most closely with the system in place) could have contributed to the decision...This movement is about the general lack of transparency in the administration, the red tape that has been un-cuttable in Hampshire's history.

The following day, students were joined by faculty and staff members for a rally outside the Harold F. Johnson Library and Cole Science Center--where the president's office is located--for a speakout. Meanwhile, students collected over 200 additional signatures calling for a moratorium on staff cuts for the summer of 2010--a proposal initiated by the Students for Freedom to Unionize (SFU).

During the speakout, students in the Queer Community Alliance (QCA) pointed out the hypocrisy of the Hampshire administration finding $350,000 to pay for an unpopular construction project while the QCA's meeting space--like much of the campus--remains inaccessible for members in wheelchairs or with other physical disabilities, forcing those members to crawl or be carried upstairs.

While around 100 students rallied outside Hexter's office, student and faculty delegates met with Hexter to deliver the demands.

When Hexter re-emerged from the meeting, students handed him the 850 petitions. The demands explicitly stated the need for a response by the following day, May 4, at 12 noon, since most students would be vacating the campus that weekend for the summer. Still, Hexter promised to come up with a decision by the following week.

THE FOLLOWING day, students reconvened on the library lawn at noon to await Hexter's reply. When he failed to respond, about 80 students marched to the president's office and sat in, demanding a response. Hexter refused to speak directly to the students.

"[President Hexter] must have been four feet away from us, and yet he sent his secretary out to greet us," said Rather. "How am I not supposed to feel disrespected? How are my ideas about Hampshire's administration not supposed to change?"

Spencer was similarly surprised: "I was...shocked at just how dishonest those members of the administration could be, especially given the community's demand for honest and open decision making."

Sophomore Danica Hecht, who "went into [the movement] with an already cynical view of the administration and their policies and practices" explained that "the ASH Project seemed to just be one more thing to fuel the fire."

Hexter finally agreed to meet with students and other community members at an open forum held later that day in the Main Lecture Hall of Franklin Patterson Hall. By 4:15, the entire Main Lecture Hall was full to capacity, as Hexter and Spiro sat at the bottom and responded to statements and questions from students, staff and faculty members.

Hecht said that this was a "turning point" for her because, while Hexter left the meeting early, "Spiro seemed to really feel some pressure from us and feel the need to really respond earnestly." The forum, which was facilitated by students, provided a glimpse of what genuine community participation and democracy might look like on campus.

The week of pressure pushed the administration to respond to students' demands the following day. In an official community-wide e-mail, President Hexter agreed not to change the admissions tour from the ASH building until further community participation could take place in the fall semester.

Importantly, Hexter's response evaded the topic of construction. While various sources indicate that construction is indeed halted, no official statement has been issued by the administration. Students drafted an open letter to the administration--asking for clarification on the construction--which was signed by over 150 students.

Those involved in the struggle stress the long-term nature of the movement and the importance of keeping the pressure on the administration over the summer and into next fall. Junior and admissions intern Gabe Agree adds that "this movement is not new...Ralph [Hexter] and the rest of [the administration] have been treating Hampshire's community terribly for years."

Students have organized in the past at Hampshire to demand divestment from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation and Action Awareness Week in 2007, when students called on the campus to take a principled stand against racism and other forms of oppression. Professors of Feminist Studies highlighted the connection between the lack of transparency in the administration and the staff cuts and intimidation.

In an open letter to the Hampshire administration and Board of Trustees that was signed by 32 faculty members, professors wrote:

We, the Feminist Studies faculty at Hampshire, wish to communicate to the trustees of the College the extreme level of demoralization and alienation among the staff, who are both frightened about losing their jobs and, in some areas of the College, subjected to intimidation by their supervisors. It is hard for staff to speak openly about this--they do not have 10-year appointments--but increasingly, they are forging links to faculty and students that make this demoralization, alienation and fear palpable.

As a result of the week of action, many at Hampshire see the need to establish clearer lines of communication between staff, students and faculty in order to hold administration accountable for its decisions. As Hecht said, the movement for transparency at Hampshire is "a matter of standing up and asserting that the 1,500 students at Hampshire do have ownership of their school."

"It was amazing seeing people working together and coming together," said Meo. "I saw the importance of funneling frustration into one purpose."

Freshman Roberto Rodriguez, who is originally from California, connected the struggles against budget cuts in California to the struggle for transparency and democracy at Hampshire:

State universities in California are facing some of the most severe budget cuts; however, the growing numbers of students who are demanding a more positive change at their institutions is inspiring. Students have always been at the locus of change...With the shift in national higher education, a national student-based movement is imperative.

Further Reading

From the archives