Director Amy Goldstein’s documentary The Unmaking of a College chronicles exactly what its title indicates. The dismantling of American higher education has been a decades-long project in terms of decreased state funding, reductions in tenured positions, the creation of a large adjunct faculty precariat, absurdly high tuition rates, a systematic deemphasis on the value of the liberal arts and humanities, and a short-term-profit-obsessed ideology that has found its way into every nook and cranny of the academy.
The Unmaking of a College focuses on Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Hampshire’s story is the story of American higher education at hyper-speed.
Hampshire was opened in 1970 as an experimental college that prided itself on its interdisciplinary approach, not having set majors, and a hands-on approach to learning. Hampshire, a small private institution, has always had to navigate through challenging economic waters; nonetheless, that did not dissuade fresh batches of students from applying every year. Several college presidents guided the college through both good times and bad as the college continually graduated students that were transformed by the Hampshire experience. Alums such as documentarian Ken Burns show a sparkle in their eye as they speak about their Hampshire years.
Hampshire’s steady survival came to an abrupt—and many would argue manufactured– crisis in 2019 when a new college president, Miriam Nelson, came on the scene. Nelson sent out an email—during winter recess, of all times—announcing that the college desperately needed a “strategic partner” in order to survive. This announcement was coupled with the announcement that there would not be a new incoming class of students for the following academic year. Nelson, in a very top-down corporate style, made these unilateral decisions without consulting faculty, students, or even some members of the college’s board of trustees.
Nelson was fulfilling her role as a corporate hit woman. Her job was to lean out Hampshire’s labor force and costs so as to make it attractive for a bigger university to come in and “save” Hampshire—in other words, the bigger university would absorb Hampshire at a bargain cost. Nelson, in a move that has become all too typical, started using corporate-speak at meetings with the college community. She attempted to sell her plan to eviscerate Hampshire by using words such as “innovative,” “disruptive,” and “experimental.” When Hampshire students heard their college president using words that were previously used to describe Hampshire’s approach to higher education in the new context of justifying the school’s dissolution, they decided to act. Students staged a sit-in. They occupied President Nelson’s office for a total of 74 days demanding transparency.
Goldstein’s documentary focuses most of its runtime on the student protestors. Given it is they who provide the electricity and the dynamic drive for answers, it is a very wise decision on Goldstein’s part. The eclectic group at the forefront of the sit-in draw the viewer in with their personal stories, rightful indignation, and energy. Anyone who paints younger folks in broad brushstrokes as apathetic and uninformed, will find no such examples in this group. Their energy speaks not only of them as individuals, but also of the love they feel for their college. Activism is often sparked when individuals feel they have been unjustly acted upon by powerful forces.
The student protestors of Hampshire came to the college with the hope that they would graduate as educated citizens and better people. They did not expect obfuscation and chicanery on the part Hampshire’s president. It is a sad sign of the times that corporate predatory techniques have become all too common in American higher education. Many American students know the corporate gameplan all too well. Assuming their naiveté would be a huge mistake.
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