“The Unmaking of a College” presents Hampshire College in Massachusetts as a canary in the coal mine of liberal-arts education. As a young college (its first students entered in 1970), it has a smaller endowment and fewer decades’ worth of alumni donors than its competitors. That leaves it vulnerable to demographic shifts like a declining college-age population, a problem for small colleges nationwide.
But “The Unmaking of a College,” directed by a Hampshire alumna, Amy Goldstein, is not simply a story of a college facing an existential crisis, but of how, in the movie’s telling, that crisis was badly handled. On Jan. 15, 2019, Miriam Nelson, then Hampshire’s president, issued a letter with a bombshell in its third paragraph: Hampshire was “carefully considering whether to enroll an incoming class” that fall. Students and faculty members say they were caught off guard. A lack of freshmen could send the college into a death spiral.
These issues catalyzed a 75-day student sit-in, which the movie shows as it unfolded. Joshua Berman, who was embroiled in the events and is an interviewee in the movie, filmed some of the footage that is used. We hear from students like Rhys MacArthur, who worked in the admissions office (a fraught place at that moment), and alumni, like the documentarian Ken Burns.
The closing titles say Nelson “would not agree to be interviewed.” While others try to explain her perspective, her nonparticipation leaves an unavoidable hole. And the testaments to Hampshire’s distinctive academic culture aren’t especially germane. Hampshire may be experimental and hip, but in its sustainability issues, it’s hardly unique.
The Unmaking of a College
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. In theaters.