‘Pain, anger and mistrust’ prompts response from former Hampshire president Jonathan Lash


Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2019 3:30:32 PM

AMHERST — Former Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash is warning that the nearly 50-year-old institution is in “grave danger of closing” and that identifying a long-term and mission-aligned partner is essential for its survival.

In a personal blog post published Sunday on the website Medium and marking his first public statements on the turmoil at the Amherst campus, Lash expresses sadness at the news that a first-year class will not be admitted this fall, and that the initial round of layoffs will be announced Tuesday.

Lash also defends his successor, Miriam “Mim” Nelson, explaining that she knew the college would be confronting an “existential crisis” due to enrollment projections not being met, but couldn’t possibly know all the details.

“She was undaunted and only asked for as much information as possible,” Lash wrote about Nelson’s decision to take the job. “That was the beginning of a relationship of friendship and trust built around a set of shared values. I thought — and still think — the board had made a wonderful choice.”

Yet Nelson, and to a lesser extent the board, have come under withering criticism from alumni, with Lash noting that many are not accepting reality. “The answer that the problem was too big, and the hole the school was in was too deep, left many unconvinced.”

Lash said in an email to the Gazette Monday that his post is a reflection on the circumstances and that he is not recommending a specific course of action.

“I think that the piece speaks for itself,” Lash said. “I am not seeking to push any particular solution.”

In fact, he offers just two pieces of advice. First, that the problems should be addressed by Hampshire continuing the way it educates its students, and second that any lingering bitterness should end.

“This crisis will be resolved by love, not anger,” he writes.

Lash’s blog post came two days after alumni, organized as Save Hampshire, held a public teach-in that called into question underlying assumptions, and contended there was a lack of transparency and that to not enroll a new class was “misguided and based on faulty information.”

Alumni on Friday participated in a call-in to file complaints with Courtney Aladro, head of the nonprofit division of the state’s Attorney General’s Office, asking her and her colleagues to investigate the decision by the board not to admit a full entering class.

Suzanne Perkins, a University of Michigan professor who has been the lead researcher for Save Hampshire, said Nelson deceived trustees by convincing them that there are new laws and regulations colleges need to follow, including rules about how much money they have in reserve, when that is not the case.

At the moment, the state’s Department of Higher Education has proposed regulations, not yet finalized, that would allow the state to monitor financially struggling private colleges and would stipulate that if a college were unable to complete the current academic year and the following — an 18-month period — the state would require that institution to make a contingency plan to transfer its students.

“It is my opinion that a person who doesn’t present our trustees with a balanced report and [has] accuracy gaps is disqualified from a college presidency,” Perkins said.

Warren Goldstein, executive director of the Center for Critical Research on Religion in Newton, was equally blunt. “Nelson is steering the college into financial ruin, and we as a large group of concerned alumni and parents are determined not to let this happen,” Goldstein said.

But Lash said he was not motivated to publish his thoughts based on what transpired at the teach-in.

“What prompted me to write as I did was hearing from old friends in the Hampshire community about how angry and divided we have become in the painful discussion of Hampshire’s future, just when Hampshire needs all of us,” Lash said.

Christoph Cox, a professor of philosophy at Hampshire, said he believes Lash is thoughtful, genuine and sincere in the blog post, but that one element missing from it is that Hampshire should be trying to preserve as many jobs as possible.

Cox said that the whole basis of the college comes from knowledge and practices that have been passed on from the founders to each generation of academics.

“We fear that the president and board believe Hampshire can remain Hampshire without the people who constitute it,” Cox said.

Lash explains in his post that he believes when people step away from leadership, they shouldn’t interfere with how a successor handles issues.

“But seeing the level of pain, anger and mistrust among people I care about and respect at an institution I believe has a profoundly important role to play in education, I am violating my own rule,” he writes.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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