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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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4 of 5 Stories

Emphasis on Innvation
Hampshire College offers a non-traditional model of interdisciplinary education

By Jon Marcus


LONG-HAIRED STUDENTS in colorful loose clothing and bare feet navigate a campus of brick-and-precast- concrete dorms and classroom buildings, the walls and windows papered with handmade posters advertising poetry slams, a string folk trio and a lecture on the prospects for disarmament. Some of these notices are adorned with peace signs, others with obscene gestures promoting a rock band.

One-third of the student body has just returned from a demonstration in Washington, where several were arrested. Students also have organized a successful local non-binding referendum calling for the legalization of marijuana. An editorial in the campus newspaper denounces the influence of multinational bankers, and stories that mention the president or faculty refer to them by their first names as, in fact, does everybody else.

Men and women are officially allowed to live together in dormitory rooms, some of which are assigned according to mutual interests. For instance, there’s a suite for vegetarians, one for allergen-reduced living, and another for women interested in spirituality. Bathrooms are also coed. In the gym, Frisbees fill a wire bin meant for basketballs. In another building, students in coveralls are developing an alternative fuels tractor powered by vegetable oil.

  Environmentally minded Hampshire College students try to make a farm tractor run on vegetable oil. The tractor smells like french fries.

The tractor, which smells like french fries, is tested on a campus farm where, today, local children have been invited to a “wake up the earth” festival. Students wearing rough-hewn fairy wings impersonate flowers, while giant puppets lead a parade through the fields to the accompaniment of a fiddle and spoons.

Flashback to the 1960s? No. Throw back, maybe. What distinguishes Hampshire College in rural western Massachusetts is not only the iconoclasts it tends to attract, but the thing that has been drawing them here for 30 years: a radical 1960s model of interdisciplinary education without conventional grades.

It is a model that is suddenly both in and out of vogue. Citing the aversion of graduate school admissions committees to long narrative evaluations, some of Hamp- shire’s few remaining alternative counterparts—the University of California at Santa Cruz foremost among them—have announced they will return to traditional grades. On the other hand, as careerism and the high cost of tuition drive more students to design their own majors, many mainstream universities are suddenly discovering interdisciplinary education— though their definition of “in-terdisciplinary” usually differs from Hampshire’s.

“I pick up and read the competition’s brochures, and they’ve really found the truth, which is all to the good,” said Hampshire President Gregory Prince, Jr., a former associate dean at Dartmouth College. “But they can’t really do it. What they mean by ‘interdisciplinary’ is team teaching, or a double major, or an independent study for honor students, which all universities offer. What’s radical here is, we believe it’s the most transforming means of education for any student, not just the ‘best’ students.”

Faculty at established institutions are not likely to encourage students to take courses in competing departments especially when resources are based on en-rollment— contends Lynn Miller, a Stan-ford- educated biologist who was one of Hampshire’s first professors. “What we did here was throw away the department structure,” he said. “We have thrown away that old Germanic model of the university.”

It was, in fact, four traditional institutions that created Hampshire: Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, and the University of Massachusetts, which appointed a committee of faculty beginning in 1958 to do nothing less than reexamine liberal arts education. Prince describes it as “one of the boldest acts in the history of higher education, if not the boldest.”

The faculty committee didn’t mince words. “It is a widely held conviction among liberal arts faculties that our system of courses and credits has got out of hand, and that our students are capable of far more independence than they exercise in present college programs,” their report read.

They called for the development of an entirely new school, which they tentatively called New College. “We propose a college which frees both students and faculty from the system which makes education a matter of giving and taking courses to cover subjects,” the committee wrote.

“In the ’60s there were a lot of these innovative colleges going up,” recalled Miller, who sports a trademark string tie and chews an omnipresent stogy. “There was a whole generation of faculty who were totally fed up with the way things were going in higher education.” With the flood of government grants for science, in particular, which suddenly became available after Sputnik, separate well-funded graduate divisions sprang up. “What that meant for a lot of us was that you no longer had contact with undergraduates,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, according to Raymond Coppinger, a Hampshire professor of biology who then taught at Amherst, “students wanted more of a say in the curriulum. They didn’t want to take Latin any more.”

The discussion soon became more than academic. In 1965, a wealthy Amherst alumnus donated $6 million toward the founding of a new college, and the Ford Foundation contributed a matching grant. In somewhat unromantic fashion, a shell company called Tinker Hill Associates secretly bought up 800 acres of dairy farms and apple orchards on the edge of the town of Am-herst, in the shadow of Tinker Hill, and, with incredible speed, Hampshire College opened to great promise and much confusion 30 years ago this fall.

“It was both exciting and unformed,” said Penina Glazer, who was then a young history professor. While the 250 remarkably gifted entering students were as signed to ponder the concept of relevance, the faculty, according to Glazer, coped with other questions: “Never mind relevance. Where do we put the pencil sharpeners?”

Nor had the complicated system of student directed study been entirely worked out. “It was exci- ting, but also very rough,” said Aaron Berman, one of those first students, who now is dean of the faculty. “We had to reinvent what a transcript was.” The long written evaluations that supplanted grades were prohibitively long. “It very quickly became apparent that these things, while they may have been comprehensive, were much too thick for anyone to read,” Berman said. “So we made them shorter.”

“We” meant students as well as faculty and administrators. Rather than a student government and a faculty senate, Hampshire has a community council of students, faculty and staff. Even promotions— Hampshire doesn’t offer tenure are decided by a committee that includes two students and five faculty.

“When people say it was an exciting adventure to start a new college, that’s true,” said professor Coppinger. “For me, it was confusing. Everything was happening at once in those days. The emergence of the women’s movement, civil rights all of these things were incorporated here. We were probably the most politically correct place in the world. Still are, sometimes stiflingly so.”

A laboratory scientist and field biologist who specializes in the study of the rare New Guinea wild dog, Coppinger says he was required to undergo sensitivity training before beginning to teach. “When I talked to people, I was supposed to keep my head lower than theirs so they wouldn’t be intimidated,” he said. And while he says the original faculty was enthusiastic, Coppinger recounted that “if there were 18 ideas on the table, there were 18 positions. If there was a mistake we made in the early days, it’s that we tried to do too much. You had to go to every damn meeting. There were meetings to plan the meetings.”

Hampshire’s hyper-democratic structure attracted more than its share of nonconformists. One of the lecture halls that first year was still unfurnished when the students showed up, so they sat on the floor—and liked it so much that they continued to sit on the floor, even after the desks and chairs arrived. In 1972, the head of health services was compelled to ask students and faculty members to refrain from smoking cigarettes or marijuana during classes, as it was distracting to those who did not smoke.

Taking a cue from other universities’ anti-apartheid investment strategies, students successively demanded that Hamp-shire not invest its endowment in compa-nies that produced nuclear, biological and other weapons; operated in countries with serious human rights violations or unfair labor practices; discriminated on any grounds; engaged in harmful environmen-tal activities; marketed unsafe or impure products; or had markedly inferior records of occupational health and safety. Exas-perated, the school’s trustees finally begged the students to let them simply limit the college’s stockholdings to companies considered “good corporate citizens.”

Hampshire College geology professor John Reid and student Ivana Petrovska examine rocks and slides in Reid's office.  

“Some of the faculty here are still living in the ’60s,” said John Reid, a geology professor. “They’re against anything that smacks of authority.” In fact, bumper stickers in the parking lots read “Question Authority” and “Free Tibet.” There was a big flap over banning pets on campus, and when the local newspaper ran a spread on campus fashion trends, the Hampshire representative was a man—modeling a designer skirt and matching pumps. By the 1990s, one national college guide was describing the school as a haven for “Birken-stock- wearing, tree-hugging, clove-smoking vegetarians.”

What really set Hampshire apart, however, was its approach to education: an individualistic system without majors, requirements, examinations or even depart-ments, successfully forestalling inter-de-partmental competition for courses, stu-dents and resources. Instead, there were four schools: humanities and arts; language and communication; natural science; and social science. Those have since evolved into the current five schools: cognitive science; humanities, arts and cultural studies; natural science; social science; and the catch all school of interdisciplinary arts.

In their first two years, a period known as Division I, Hampshire students do work in at least three of these five schools, by either taking courses or conducting independent research, in something similar to the core requirement of other liberal arts colleges.

Division II, which normally begins in the second year, represents the start of the “concentration,” roughly equivalent to a major. The student selects two professors to serve on his or her concentration committee, and drafts a “concentration statement,” or plan of attack, for the following two or three semesters, when he or she will write papers or compile a portfolio relating to the concentration

Division III, the final year, is often a more in-depth look at a specific aspect covered in Division II. It consists of advanced courses, seminars, assistant teaching, field research and a project, which can be a written paper, a film, an art exhibition, a performance or some other final product.

Students also are expected to do community service, which can range from participating in the college’s governing council to volunteering in a nearby mill town. There is also something called a “third-world expectation” (soon to be renamed the “multiple cultural perspectives expectation”) under which students show that they have studied a third world or minority issue.

One student concentrating in American literature, for example, satisfied this expectation by writing a paper on the Harlem Renaissance. Another student, who is planning to go to law school, researched the experiences of minorities in the U.S. justice system. And a student concentrating in art history studied the depiction of black women in French art. (Hampshire itself has an enrollment that is ten percent minority, lower than the 15 percent average at New England colleges and universities.)

One of the greatest benefits Hampshire offers its 1,160 students is the right to take courses at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass, which together comprise the Five College Consortium (collo-quially known as the Five Colleges). Together the five schools list more than 6,000 courses taught by 1,900 faculty; Hampshire’s faculty numbers 92.

“In a sense, it doesn’t matter what we offer because there’s always enough of what you need at the Five Colleges,” President Gregory Prince said. Professor Miller added: “The reason we haven’t folded is that if there’s a bright student here with an interest in a particular thing, there might be a faculty member over at Smith who’s good at that.” In the last complete semester, 450 Hampshire students were enrolled in a total of 725 courses at the other schools; 98 percent take at least one in their career, and the average is six.

  Vincennes University President Phillip M. Summers looks forward to his institution's new role in Indiana higher education.
  Hampshire College President Gregory Prince, Jr. joins students in a campus lab. Prince believes interdisciplinary education works for all students.

Within this structure, students mix academic disciplines in extraordinary new ways. They might use both genetics and philosophy to study human gene therapy, for instance, or combine biology and technology to develop new technological means of composting, or merge physical anthropology with geology to learn what teeth tell about nutrition, or combine conflict resolution and dance to determine how body language changes during medication, or use physics and photography to study the effect of different lens shapes.

“In the real world, things don’t follow a catalogue of courses. They’re a mix of things,” said Leslie Cox, Hampshire’s farm manager. “Students can see that an interest of theirs doesn’t have to be a major.”

Other schools have interdisciplinary study, Glazer said. “It’s just different than the way we do it. It’s in newer fields in the sciences, for example, but it’s still very respectful of the departmental model.”

At Hampshire, faculty from different fields are forced by their students to collaborate. “Some go into it kicking and screaming, but often the faculty emerge more changed than the students,” Prince said.

That’s what makes it fun, according to geology professor John Reid. “I have gotten lured into research projects I never would have been confronted with,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting if you’re both trying to solve the same problem, rather than just leaning on the shovel while the students are doing the digging.”

Jessica Berube, a fourth-year student, has combined history with environmental studies to learn how humans relate to land changes over time. “It’s been nice to be able to combine them,” she said. “The people who stay and are successful here don’t want to be tied to a major.”

But Berube and others add that Hampshire is not for everyone. “You can come here and not know what you want to do, just like at any college,” Berube said. “You have to be very motivated to seek out the specific area of study you want to follow. If you come to Hampshire, you need to know ahead of time that you have to motivate yourself, and know you’re going to have a lot of passion for it. You may not have a test every couple of weeks, but you need to be thinking ahead. If you run out of time, you’re out of time.”

Thirty-three percent of Hampshire students drop out. The national average is about 26 percent.

“It’s meant for the independent thinker,” said Kyle Bloomstein, who graduated last year. “Nobody tells you to do your homework. And that’s hard, because in high school we were spoon-fed everything.”

Danny Holt, a second-year student and gifted pianist who played Carnegie Hall at the age of 19, chose Hampshire in spite of its small music department after attending the Interlocken Arts Academy, a boarding high school for the arts. “After doing that for three or four years, I had a profound understanding of this little piece of the universe, but there were a lot of things I didn’t know about anything else,” said Holt, whose studies combine cognitive ethnomusicology with piano performance. “I fell in love with the idea, with the freedom and the flexibility. For me it really worked. It doesn’t (work) for everybody.”

Some critics have derided the extent of Hampshire students’ freedom. In 1984, a student named Jon Dwork graduated after submitting a Division III thesis entitled “A Career in the Field of Flying Disc Entertainment and Education.” The topic became the subject of widespread ridicule, but by the time the media had moved on to the next story, Dwork had a job as a Frisbee product development and marketing consultant. He has since authored several books, and today has his own company, producing concerts.

Not all Hampshire students have such unconventional interests. Nicole Brown, who graduated last year, was originally visiting nearby Smith College when she stumbled across Hampshire, where she learned she could immediately do laboratory science work. “Hampshire is known for its hippies and those earth people, but it does have its share of normal people,” said Brown, who studied biochemistry and molecular biology, and plans to do research. “I’m one of them, and I love it because it allows you to be independent.”

Fourth-year student Sarah Tungstall, who plans to become a doctor, also found herself at Hampshire by accident. “I always heard it was the Frisbee school,” said Tungstall, who grew up in the area. “I never had any concept I was going to go here.” Then she became a subject of a Hampshire student’s Division III study of teenage girls. “I went home and told my mother, ‘I’m not going to Harvard. I’m going to Hampshire. ’ I was bored in high school. I never read the books I was supposed to. I read the books I wanted to. It’s easy to get sucked into working for the grade. It’s harder to think for yourself.”

Now Tungstall is applying to Harvard Medical School. She hopes her Hampshire record “sets me apart from the 6,000 other people trying to get in. Whether that’s good or bad, we’ll have to wait and see.”

That question is on a lot of Hampshire students’ minds. The school’s official sample transcript covers 25 pages, compared to the two pages of a traditional university’s, and the issue of whether graduate school admissions committees bother to read such long evaluations has already led some counterpart schools to return to grades. (Even at Hampshire, admissions officials say, the most common inquiry they hear from applicants is about graduate school acceptance.)

Vincennes University President Phillip M. Summers looks forward to his institution's new role in Indiana higher education.  
Charlene D'Avanzo, a professor of ecology at Hampshire, and fourth-year student Mika Matsui feed the fish at the campus aqua culture facility.  

The faculty senate at UC Santa Cruz, for instance, voted last February to reinstitute mandatory letter grades after 23 years without them, effective next fall. Critics who pushed for the change said written evaluations take too long to write and too long to read, and attract slackers— “less-ambitious students who hope, not without justification, that their mediocre academic performance will be concealed in a fog of verbiage,” according to the faculty leader of the grades campaign, biologist Lincoln Tiaz. He said the system gave the university a reputation as “a flaky back water of ’60s wannabes,” and compared the narrative evaluations to the “embalmed corpse of Lenin that had outlived its revolutionary usefulness.”

Santa Cruz was not entirely typical. Enrollment had grown to 10,000, with plThe faculty senate at UC Santa Cruz, for instance, voted last February to reinstitute mandatory letter grades after 23 years without them, effective next fall. Critics who pushed for the change said written evaluations take too long to write and too long to read, and attract slackers— “less-ambitious students who hope, not without justification, that their mediocre academic performance will be concealed in a fog of verbiage,” according to the faculty leader of the grades campaign, biologist Lincoln Tiaz. He said the system gave the university a reputation as “a flaky back water of ’60s wannabes,” and compared the narrative evaluations to the “embalmed corpse of Lenin that had outlived its revolutionary usefulness.”ans to add another 15,000 over the next ten years, and narrative evaluations had become unwieldy anyway. Still, its defection leaves only Antioch University in Ohio, Evergreen State College in Washington, and Hampshire from among the original group of alternative programs, along with a branch of the University of Redlands in California, and Reed College in Oregon, which uses a mix of grades and evaluations. Kirkland College in New York has affiliated with Hamilton, and New College is now part of the University of South Florida.

“When you start talking about the Antiochs and the Hampshires of the world, you’re talking about excellent institutions with reputations that precede them,” said Jules LaPidus, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Still, he added, “You have graduate admitting committees that are swamped with applications, and they are looking for more efficient ways of doing this. So people tend to look at standardized test scores and undergraduate grade points. One- or two-page transcripts along with test scores and letters of recommendation are a lot easier to go through than 25-page written evaluations.”

Nicole Brown, the Hampshire science student, experienced this first-hand when she applied for a summer internship at Rutgers University. “[The advisor] just looked at me when I told him that I didn’t have any grades. He sat there for a good five minutes, completely stunned. Then he listened to me and was really impressed.”

Hampshire graduates last year went on to Harvard, Yale and Columbia. The college ranks 16th in the country in percentage of psychology Ph.D.s, and has out-performed New York University and UCLA in the proportion of its alumni in the entertainment industry. In all, 56 percent of the school’s alumni have graduate degrees.

Hampshire’s mere 8,650 graduates include one Pulitzer Prize winner (Edward Humes, then of The Orange County Register, for his reporting on the southern California military establishment), 15 Fulbright and two MacArthur genius grant recipients, three Academy Award winners and 15 Oscar nominees. Among them are documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, playwright Naomi Wallace, producer John Falsey, producer and director Barry Sonnenfeld, and Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air.

“Hampshire isn’t for everyone,” said Krakauer, who hitchhiked to the campus when he was in high school. “You have to have a great degree of self-direction and curiosity. But it suited me, and I thrived there. People aren’t going to lead you by the hand through life, and Hampshire teaches you that very early. You figure out how to motivate yourself.”

Another alumnus, Aaron Cohen, went on to get an M.B.A. from Columbia and now builds Web sites for what he calls “communities of passion.” Two fellow former ultimate Frisbee teammates from Hampshire are on his management team. Another, who designed a snowboard for the disabled while at Hampshire, now works as assistant product manager for step-in bindings at Burton Snowboards.

  Vincennes University President Phillip M. Summers looks forward to his institution's new role in Indiana higher education.
  Student James has designed stairs and a grate that can be used to train puppies that will later serve as guide dogs.

The snowboard—like the vegetable oil tractor—was developed under the Lemelson National Program in Invention, Innovation and Creativity, which is based at Hampshire and was endowed by the late Jerome Lemelson, a prolific inventor of everything from Hot Wheels cars to components for laser-guided machines. A foundation left by Lemelson, whose son and daughter-in-law attended Hampshire, has so far provided $4.5 million to encourage inventiveness by university and college students nationwide.

Prince sees this as a metaphor. The Hampshire system “is an entrepreneurial process,” the president said. “We’re asking everybody to invent their education.” (Something of an entrepreneur himself, Prince helped negotiate the deal with Lemelson, under which patents to the resulting inventions are owned by the college, which in turn gives Lemelson’s foun-dation five percent of any royalties.)

Characterizing Hampshire as entrepreneurial is at odds with its sometimes exaggerated reputation.

“There’s a subset of the population that is skeptical, and you have to overcome that,” said Audrey Smith, admissions di- rector. “When somebody sees Hampshire as this flaky place, we have to communicate to them that for a significant majority of our population, this is a very serious, rigorous institution.”

On the other hand, Smith said, “We are so distinctive that Hampshire automatically stands out. If you’re fundamentally different, people are going to explore you, and some people are appropriately going to reject you when they learn how different you are.” Fewer than ten percent of high school students who ask for information about the school actually apply—about half the national average. (Though standardized test scores are not required, those students who submitted them last year averaged 603 in math and 656 on the verbal section of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT).

Smith says the historic reticence to apply has faded as the college has grown older. “Increasingly, the parents we’re dealing with are parents of the ’60s and ’70s who fully appreciate what Hampshire can do,” she said.

Still, in a world where students are obsessed about careers (and heavily indebted for their college education including at Hampshire, where annual tuition, room and board is $31,606), some people see at-tending a college like Hampshire as a risk. “I think it’s gutsier to come to Hampshire now than it was in 1970, because then the outside world was more supportive of alternative ideas,” said Berman, the dean of the faculty. “I think we live in a more conservative time. There’s no question that higher education has been profoundly influenced by the fact that parents and students look at it as an investment. They want to know what the payoff is going to be.

Even some supportive students gripe about a lack of preparation for work. “That’s my only complaint,” said recent graduate Kyle Bloomstein. “I have no marketable skills. It took me a long time to put together a good resume out of here.” After studying filmmaking, sustainable agriculture, and ecological design, Bloomstein worked as a supermarket pro-duce manager and a landscaper, and now plans to go to law school. “You have to pay back the loans that demand the career,” he said. “It’s not Hampshire’s fault; it’s society’s fault.”

As faculty see it, another drawback is that they have neither sticks nor carrots. Said Glazer, “Your most obvious catalyst is gone: that if you don’t get it in on time, it’s going to affect your grade.”

Hampshire’s other major problem is financial. While other, older institutions routinely collect on bequests, Hampshire has no alumni over 48 years old. Its endow-ment is only $24 million, and in the past there have been periodic salary cuts for faculty and staff. A 25th anniversary campaign raised $25 million, and another cam-paign is planned but unannounced; most of the money raised is to go into the endowment.

But Prince, who had just finished hosting a weekly “breakfast with the president,” at which he fielded appeals from students for a campus center, said he sees Hampshire as an ideal, and wants to “Hampshirize” higher education.

“It’s what I think education ought to be,” he said. “The energy of the ’60s is preserved here. I’d rather be here with all the challenges of an under-endowed institution than at a highly endowed institution, trying to move it in this same direction, which I think many other schools will ultimately do.”

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