The Unmaking of a College


Hampshire College president Miriam Nelson is surrounded by disgruntled students.

(2022) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Ken Burns, Miriam “Mim” Nelson, Marlon Becerra, Margaret Cerullo, Nya Johnson Andrew Del Banco, Cheyenne Palacio-McCarthy, Moon West, Holden Tharp, Andrew Gordon, Rhys MacArthur, Joshua Berman, Adam Falk, Salman Hameed, Adele Simmons, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Mingda Zhao, John Buckley, Lynda Pickbourn, Annie Wood. Directed by Amy Goldstein

 

College campuses have traditionally been a hotbed when it comes to demonstrations for causes. From civil rights, to antiwar demonstrations in the Sixties right up through now, when protests against climate change denial and racial injustice continue to pop up in colleges across the country, student protests have long been an instigator for social change.

Hampshire College is, located in the beautiful Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, along with four other schools – Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, Smith College, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It was founded in 1970 as an experimental school which offered no set majors and allowed students to select their own curriculum. As most private liberal arts colleges tend to be, the tuition is pricy.

In 2018, the school selected their eighth president – Dr. Miriam “Mim” Nelson, whose background was as the CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation. She has also been a policy advisor on health and nutrition under President Obama. However, during the winter break in 2019, she sent out a disturbing e-mail, indicating that the college was in severe financial difficulties and was in need of a “strategic partner” to help extricate them. She scheduled a meeting while students were out on break, which seemed odd. She also announced that the school would not be accepting a freshman class in Fall 2019. For a school that relies nearly completely on tuition and fees for their budget, this would be a devastating blow, and could easily lead to the closing of the school altogether. Certainly, it would mean significant layoffs at the conclusion of the 2018-19 academic year.

The more that students heard, the more disturbing it became. It turned out that Dr. Nelson had not only not consulted with students or faculty about any of this, but she also hadn’t consulted members of her own board. In the open meetings, she used a lot of corporate-speak to discuss the financial situation with the students, who began to suspect that something was amiss. Did Dr. Nelson have ulterior motives for these sudden and unprecedented moves?

It turned out that the lack of transparency hid some things that were less than savory. Students, furious that their education was being put at risk, decided to do something about it. They staged a massive sit-in in the President’s office, with a consistent presence for 74 days. The organization that the students displayed was admirable, scheduling people so that there was a round-the-clock presence but allowing students to still attend classes.

Hampshire alum Goldstein obviously feels a kinship with the students, and this is mostly their story. We hear almost nothing other than the public statements from Dr. Nelson, or from most of the trustees with the exception of those who were in opposition to the college president. If the narrative feels one-sided, well, that’s because it is.

Most of the voices we hear are those directly involved with the story, with the exception of Hampshire alumnus Ken Burns, the noted documentary filmmaker who waxes poetic about his time at the college. The students are for the most part, articulate and interesting; the faculty members and administrators are also equally passionate about their affection for the school.

Of course, the kids can be accused of having tunnel vision – that comes with the territory. Also, being young, they can be irritating and condescending at times; I found their habit of snapping their fingers instead of applauding to be pretentious, but that’s just one curmudgeon talking, I suppose. But the great failing here is that Goldstein really never manages to make this more than a local issue; although she attempts to connect this to alarming trends in higher education, she isn’t really successful at doing so, so the documentary may well fail to appeal to those outside of New England.

But the students themselves are certainly passionate and there is some comfort to be had from that. Change has, as I mentioned early, traditionally begun on college campuses and our nation is badly in need of some right about now. It’s good to know that there are students out there still that are willing to fight to make good changes happen.

REASONS TO SEE: Indicates that there are larger problems going on in higher education.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to really connect the dots to what those issues are, other than the regional one for this specific school.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The sit-in in Dr. Nelson’s office lasted 74 days, the longest on a college campus to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Kino Marquee
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Teacher
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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Cyrano