Why did Hampshire College, an iconic progressive institution saved from closure in 2019, outsource information technology (IT) service to a national for-profit and lay off dedicated employees, some of whom had been there for decades? Back in 2019, the former administration declined to accept that year’s incoming class of new students to make Hampshire easier to acquire by another college. The community revolted, top leaders resigned and the board committed to fundraising to keep Hampshire independent. There has been curricular innovation, and enrollment has been recovering.

Yet Hampshire remains on a tight financial footing. The college’s leadership believed that outsourcing IT to Ellucian Managed Services would help with cybersecurity and save money. Those more familiar with the workings of IT believe that won’t happen. Neil Stillings taught at Hampshire for 47 years. He was head of the Cognitive Science program, which included computer science, “The testimonials from across the college to the intimate support people enjoyed from the in-house IT staff suggests that outsourcing IT was a high-risk decision that damaged a culture of commitment and solidarity in favor of savings that may prove elusive.”

It has been proven over and over, that Hampshire can innovate when it brings all its stakeholders together. Hampshire’s competitive advantage is its community of innovators willing to reinvent and invest in the college. Hampshire alum Ann Hackler believes outsourcing the IT department is “giving up the means of production.” When Hampshire’s community is watered down, the college becomes more like other places and loses its advantage.

I spoke to Wm. Josiah Erikson who is a Hampshire alum, a former Hampshire staff trustee, parent of an alum, worked at Hampshire for 22 years and was one of the IT department’s co-leaders, “Outsourcing IT is bad for anyone in higher education, especially Hampshire because the personal relationships and particulars of each individual situation are so important to being able to provide good customer service. I am doubtful about Ellucian and if the cultures mesh together.”

Hampshire is an iconic progressive college, whereas Ellucian is a large, national, for-profit owned by venture capitalist firms Blackstone and Vista Equity Partners.

According to Mother Jones, “The Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, which manages over $1 trillion, backs 21 energy companies, of which 52% are fossil-fuel projects.” Hampshire’s investment policy would prohibit it from investing in that firm. Michael Eby writes in The Nation that “firms like Blackstone have made investments in real estate, energy, and infrastructure to become the world’s most crooked landlords and bill collectors.”

This decision sheds light on a decision-making process that didn’t involve the internal expertise of dedicated staff members who worked at the college for decades and didn’t provide them with guaranteed jobs at Ellucian. James Wald, Associate Professor of History at Hampshire College, states, “Hampshire is marketing a Bernie Sanders curriculum based on a Walmart labor policy.”
For a deeper dive, visit: bit.ly/theunmakingofit

Jonathon Podolsky