The Unmaking of a College (Zeitgeist Films/Kino Lorber, NR)

Lots of higher education institutions in the United States have experienced hard times in the past few years, even before the COVID pandemic. Things are particularly tough for small liberal arts colleges without large endowments, because they’re heavily dependent on tuition to stay in operation. If the income from tuition is not sufficient, they need to find the money from another source, like alumni donations or corporate fundraising.  

Hampshire College found itself in exactly that kind of a tight spot in 2019—the term of a board member that had been making up budget shortfalls was about to come to an end, and they didn’t have another source of funds lined up. They also had a new president, Miriam Nelson, who proposed seeking a “strategic partner” to help bolster Hampshire’s finances. Except that, according to some Hampshire students and faculty, she wasn’t so much proposing a solution open to discussion as making decisions unilaterally, and they wanted to be involved in the process. The result was a widely-publicized 74-day sit-in in the president’s office, the longest in American college history.

The sit-in and events around it are documented in The Unmaking of a College, directed by Hampshire alumnus Amy Goldstein. The contemporary footage from the sit-in, supplemented with interviews and archival news materials, forms the backbone of this film.

Hampton’s troubles came to general attention with an announcement that the college would not enroll a 2019 freshman class, which many took as an indication that it was in severe financial difficulties. Staff layoffs, including of those responsible for admissions and fundraising staff, came next, raising fears that the college might not survive.

Worse revelations were to come, and some people did their own research into the what was actually happening behind the scenes. The result was that many suspected President Nelson of being less than honest about what she had been doing to address the college’s financial concerns, as well as the timeline of her actions. Given the information presented in this film, I’m inclined to agree, but of course every viewer will need to make up their own mind after watching The Unmaking of a College.

The remarkable thing, given the recent history of small liberal arts colleges closing or merging with other institutions, is that Hampshire pulled through the crisis. I’m pretty sure that’s not a spoiler, since this film will appeal primarily to people involved in higher education, as well as those with specific ties to Hampshire.

The Unmaking of a College is a film with a definite point of view, not only about the value of Hampshire, but about the value of attending a small liberal arts college (SLAC). Of course, that kind of education is expensive, but the relationship between privilege and the ability to attend a SLAC is not much examined in this film, nor is the kind of privilege that may accrue from attending a SLAC as opposed to, say, your local state university. The many clips of students waxing poetic about their experience at Hampshire tends to make this film feel at times like a recruiting video, and it’s worth pointing out that similar endorsements could be obtained from students at any number of other schools, from the largest state university to the smallest community college. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Unmaking of a College is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber and is also available for streaming through several services. The disc includes an audio commentary by director Amy Goldstein and the trailers for this and four other films.

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