A critical reassessment of "The Unmaking of a College"

Hampshire College, which nearly closed in 2019, has just welcomed its largest incoming class since 2018. The film ‘Unmaking of a College’...

Hampshire College, which nearly closed in 2019, has just welcomed its largest incoming class since 2018. The film ‘Unmaking of a College’, which documented the crisis, recently became widely available on streaming platforms and on DVD.

The film provides a starting point for understanding the factors affecting Hampshire and other small liberal arts colleges across the country. However, there is a context beyond the film that we need to better understand.

Produced by Hampshire alum Amy Goldstein, the film is a great primer for the general public on the outside forces that are pushing colleges to close or merge. These pressures favor programs that aim to provide job skills at the expense of small, unique colleges like Hampshire and others featured in the book, “Colleges That Change Lives.”

“Unmaking of a College” provides insight and timeline, including archival footage shot by Joshua Berman, interviews with Dusty Christenson (a former Gazette reporter), Marlon Becerra and other students, professors and experts outside Hampshire.

The film shows the fighting spirit of the students and why college mattered to them. However, he portrayed the ferocity of the students, who were indeed awe-inspiring, at the expense of a more nuanced view. The LA Times writes that at times, “it feels more like watching a college recruiting video, rather than an urgent, prescient call to arms.”

From my direct knowledge as a student ally and participant in the movement in general, there has been a wide range of experiences: from boredom, anger, frustration and despair to pleasure, connection and to joy. Perhaps most commendably, the students fought for their ideals even though the outcome was never inevitable, and they persevered despite the conflicts within and between the various stakeholder groups.

The film claims that the student sit-in was the longest in US history, although that distinction belongs to Medgar Evers College students. Nonetheless, the Hampshire one was still a monumental achievement, lasting 75 days and helping to save the college.

The director has made it clear that she hopes protests and other progressive actions will help save our democracy. The film mentions that the national movements against the war and for civil rights were led by students. The problem with the juxtaposition is that student occupations linked to a college closure are unlikely to trigger a broader movement, as the goal and requirements are specific to each particular college.

The student occupation has helped inspire the rest of the opposition – exposing the cracks in the plans of former Hampshire chairwoman Miriam ‘Mim’ Nelson. This may indeed have prevented the acquisition by UMass from proceeding; however, the college could still have closed without fundraising and a future plan made possible by groups such as Save Hampshire, Hampshire Future, Campaign for Hampshire, Re-envisioning Coalition, AAUP, Unofficial Parents Group, alumni groups students in Western Massachusetts, Boston, New York and more.

Participants in these groups came from all over the world. One of the reasons for the crisis was that senior leaders believed that donor fatigue meant the college could not survive a decline in revenue from enrollment. By focusing on students and a few famous alumni, to the exclusion of the rest of the grassroots movement, the film perpetuates some of the myopia that caused the crisis in the first place.

Goldstein said she wanted to show the Nelson side of things. While the former chairman did not agree to an on-camera interview, the interview with John Buckley (head of the PR firm Hampshire used) painted her in a sympathetic light. He is listed in promotional material for the film as a whistleblower because he leaked comments from UMass Amherst management that may partly explain Hampshire’s explosive announcement that they were seeking a strategic partner and did not were not accepting new students – but he only revealed this long after Hampshire’s management had resigned and internal emails had been made public.

It takes a lot of imagination to use distorted knowledge to make deceptive bullies appear like heroic forces or even sympathetic victims. The heroic forces were staunch and daring faculty, students and alumni, and crusading reporters at local NPR member station and the Gazette who, through their persistent diligence under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed documentation of Nelson’s pattern of deception.

The film also failed to cover the vital and secretive role of Kim Sala very influential supporter of the acquisition, the Vice Chairman of the Board, who was also instrumental in the merger of Cooley Dickinson Hospital with Mass General.

The jury is still out on whether the film will have an impact beyond Hampshire. I hope this helps the general public understand that when leaders claim a college must close due to outside pressure, it is often a deviation from their own blunders. Luckily, we know that such claims can turn out to be false when confronted with a boosted community and stellar new leadership.

Jonathon Podolsky was active in Save Hampshire, Save Marlboro, Save Guilford and Save Mills. He is the moderator of Local Frogs: Hampshire College Alumni of Western MA and a journalist with the Education Writers Association. The views here are his own.

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Newsrust - US Top News: A critical reassessment of "The Unmaking of a College"
A critical reassessment of "The Unmaking of a College"
Newsrust - US Top News
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