The noted documentary filmmaker, who enrolled at the unconventional liberal arts college in its second year of operation, said Hampshire was pivotal to his life. “I don’t recognize the skinny, scared 18-year-old who came into Hampshire in September 1971 and the person who came out,” Burns said. “It was that transformative.”
Hampshire is a different kind of school. It gives no letter grades, accepts no admission test scores, offers no predefined majors. Students chart their own paths and are required to conceive and complete ambitious projects before they graduate. Professors give them narrative assessments instead of A’s, B’s or C’s.
If he hadn’t gone to Hampshire, Burns said: “You and I wouldn’t be talking. You wouldn’t know who I am. I wouldn’t know who I am. A lot of people had that experience.”
Now, his alma mater, in Amherst, Mass., is in serious jeopardy. Burns is helping to lead a fundraising campaign to save it.
By now, the backdrop is well known. Chronic financial difficulties exploded this year into an existential crisis. The board of trustees decided in February not to enroll a full first-year class, citing fears that the school would be unable to guarantee its expected level of education for four years. The board also pursued a merger or other partnership. Those decisions, much debated, prompted upheaval among students and graduates and, eventually, the resignation of the college’s president and key trustees. Hampshire became an emblem of troubles at small private colleges in New England and elsewhere struggling to meet enrollment and revenue targets.
New leadership is focused on cost-cutting and fundraising to stabilize and then revitalize a college that is projected to shrink significantly, from about 1,100 students this spring to about 600 in the fall.
The cuts are painful. On Monday, interim President Ken Rosenthal announced measures to reduce spending on faculty salaries by 45 percent. Twenty-six faculty members — about a quarter of the total reported in late March — are taking voluntary leaves of absence, Rosenthal said. Many will have temporary or visiting positions at nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst or at Amherst, Smith or Mount Holyoke colleges. Those schools, with Hampshire, constitute the Five College Consortium. Twenty-one faculty members at Hampshire are moving from full time to three-quarters time, and 11 are retiring.
In addition, Rosenthal wrote, Hampshire will lay off 24 staff members by June 30.
“Securing our finances is essential as we begin to restructure Hampshire and lead a major fundraising campaign,” Rosenthal wrote. “I’m optimistic we’ll be a stronger institution for our 50th anniversary in 2020 and our next half-century.” Rosenthal has announced a fundraising goal of $100 million over five years, which is about double the size of the college’s endowment.
Now 65, the filmmaker famous for documentaries on subjects such as the Civil War, baseball, jazz, national parks and the Vietnam War is immersed in projects about country music and other topics. But he’s also raising money for Hampshire. He visits the college so often from his home in Walpole, N.H., that he knows the precise drive time to Amherst under normal conditions: “One hour and 14 minutes.”
Burns said he recently made a financial pledge to the college for an amount that he prefers not to disclose because he doesn’t want to discourage other Hampshire supporters who might be embarrassed by making a smaller contribution.
He said when he calculated the size of his own gift, he first determined an amount that would be somewhat painful. “Then I multiplied it by four,” he said. His motto for raising money is “hurt times four.”
Hampshire describes the Burns pledge as significant. “We are inspired by his leadership and trust,” Rosenthal wrote of Burns.
Burns remained quiet months ago when the previous president, Miriam E. Nelson, and the board were immersed in controversy. Looking back, Burns said, he doesn’t want to second-guess decisions made at the time. He understood the reasons Nelson gave to justify certain actions. “It’s very easy to heckle from the sideline,” he said.
But as a professional storyteller, Burns knows Hampshire suffered a heavy blow when it became known as a school teetering on the edge of closure. He wants to turn that perception around.
“Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said. “I have a good story to tell about Hampshire. I want to get it off the death watch. Look, we’re healing, and we’re going to get better.”