The Unmaking of a College: Q&A With Amy Goldstein

Filmmaker Amy Goldstein loves underdogs. 

Her most recent documentary, The Unmaking of a College, focuses on a group of Hampshire College students who organized the longest sit-in in American college history – 74 days – to protest their administration’s plan for a “strategic partnership” with the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to help deflect Hampshire’s financial woes.

The clash turns into a complex battle for the future of Hampshire, one of America’s most iconoclastic colleges, and focuses on the students’ successful efforts to save their school, manage publicity, promote independent learning, and decipher truth from fiction. 

The 84-minute documentary will be released in mid-February for initial screenings on the campuses of Hampshire and the University of Southern California and is being shown at the . IFC Center in NYC, the Laemmle’s in Los Angeles, and the Amherst Cinema

Goldstein, whose previous films include 2003’s East of A; 2014’s The Hooping Life; and 2018’s Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl, spoke to Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader in early February. 

Eleanor J. Bader: What was Hampshire like when you were a student?

Amy Goldstein: Hampshire was, and still is, a place where activism matters. Hampshire was the first US college to divest from apartheid South Africa and from private prisons. Hampshire has always connected a student’s education to the real world through a strong sense of social justice and community responsibility. 

In addition, it was and still is a safe place for students who have a hard time adapting to traditional educational models. It’s a place that allows students who learn differently to excel. Since opening in 1970, there has been no standard testing or grades; narrative evaluations are used. 

I have a learning disability and was able to work in the way that is best for me, doing presentations instead of writing papers. Based on my interests and intellectual curiosity, I was able to create my own curriculum; my final thesis was on a semiotic reading of Freud and women’s relationship to the telephone, punk rock, and the film Being There by Hal Ashby. Hampshire students are still given a lot of room for self-direction today.

EJB: When did you first learn about Mim’s decision to merge the college with UMass-Amherst?

AG: You couldn’t miss it in the news. Articles ran in the New York Times, Washington Post, New Yorker, and Atlantic. Democracy Now did a big segment on it.   

Alumni groups quickly formed on Facebook to raise money for Hampshire. 

But it really mushroomed when Miriam “Mim” Nelson – the president of Hampshire College at the time – announced on January 15 2019 that she was weighing whether to enroll a new class in the fall. Many stakeholders became frustrated as the administration was not consulting with alumni, faculty, or students who were willing to help find solutions beyond the path that was being considered, finding a “strategic partner.”

EJB: When did you arrive at the sit-in? 

AG: My film, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl, was screened at a film festival in Salem, Massachusetts in March 2019. Salem is about two hours away from Hampshire and I decided, with my producer, to head to the college and start filming. I initially thought I’d make a short. I called one of my former professors who was still working there. Margaret Cerullo, a professor of sociology and women’s studies, introduced me to many of the students involved. 

We arrived on the 70th day of the sit-in.

We began filming interviews with students as well as faculty and staff. The students had given up on normal comforts as they went to endless meetings. They also documented what was going on in their movement, and talked to the press, and built community support for the protest.. 

EJB: Since you did not arrive until day 70, where did you get footage of the first 69 days of protest that are included in the film? 

AG: Throughout the entire sit-in, students sensed things were being hidden from them and asked for a place at the table to decide the future of their school. Hampshire had taught them to think critically, told them that their voices mattered. But the new administration completely discarded students’ participation. Feeling disempowered, they started filming in an attempt to hold the administration accountable. They felt the need to create a record to make up for the lack of transparency. 

About 40 percent of The Unmaking of a College was shot by students; this was a boon for us, but it was also a major undertaking to try to find the story in the fragments and edit it into a cohesive whole. One of the organizers of Hamp Rise Up, the coalition of Hampshire students who organized the sit-in, Marlon Becerra, became a consultant on the film. He helped us get the timeline right and helped us incorporate what it was like to be a student at the time. 

EJB: Were you ever able to conduct a one-to-one interview with Mim Nelson?

AG: I tried from the beginning until the end. We have footage of her in meetings with students, parents, in marketing videos and at press conferences. And we were on campus the day she resigned. The interim president as well as the new president, Ed Wingenbach,  were both very open and accessible and I later returned to Hampshire to interview them.   

EJB: Is the crisis at Hampshire now over?

AG: Since Ed Wingenbach took over as president in 2019, he’s been on track to raise $60 million dollars by 2024, which will more than double the college’s endowment. He has raised $33 million to date. He is both inclusive and inspiring. 

One can say that after being unmade, Hampshire is being remade. 

EJB: You did the bulk of the work on The Unmaking of a College during the pandemic. That must have posed some difficulties.

AG: Indeed! I did edit the film during the pandemic which meant I could not be in the same room as the editors or composer, which is not the usual way that films get made. We actually had to redesign the way we worked, for instance how we accessed and organized archival footage. We had to invent new ways to collaborate. It paid off.

The film is structured like a thriller and scored like a caper. We found the perfect partners for the release, Zeitgeist/ Kino Lorber who are distributing the film in theaters with a robust educational window to follow. It is important for me that the film should be seen by high school students and their families who have to make choices about college.  At a time when transactional education is often favored as an insurance policy for the future, liberal arts do matter. Critical thinking can help you save your school, save your democracy, and change the world.