Hampshire College President Miriam ‘Mim’ Nelson, trustee resign

  • Miriam Nelson, president of Hampshire College, talks at press conference about the possibility of a potential long term sustainability partner because of finical difficulties at the college.

  • Hampshire College's new president, Miriam "Mim" Nelson, left, meets with third-year student Shelby Yeomans and fourth-year Daya Mena (not shown) on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in her office to discuss the 40th anniversary of the Hampshire College Emergency Medical Service.

  • The Hampshire College community reacts early Friday evening on campus to the news that Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson resigned.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2019 4:13:56 PM

AMHERST — Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson resigned on Friday, saying that her continued presence would be a “distraction” from the ongoing work of turning the college’s financial woes around.

Nelson was joined in her resignation by Kim Saal, vice chair of the college’s board of trustees. Saal is the third trustee to resign this week. Board Chairwoman Gaye Hill announced on Monday that she was stepping down, citing the “vitriol” she had faced leading the college’s search for a strategic partner to address its money issues. Mingda Zhao, a graduate of the school and trustee, followed suit on Tuesday, saying he had been forced out after he was accused of breaching confidentiality.

The college’s board of trustees voted on Friday to name Ken Rosenthal — one of Hampshire’s founders, its first treasurer, a former trustee and the school’s historian — as interim president. The trustees also voted to pursue the possibility of keeping Hampshire independent.

In a message to the campus, Nelson said that since college leaders announced on Jan. 15 that they were seeking a merger, the school has seen an outpouring of support.

“Yet even as we made some progress in finding a sustainable and impactful future, the mere fact that we were doing so pulled our community apart,” she wrote.

For that reason, Nelson said, she told the board’s interim Chairman Luis Hernandez and Vice Chairman Saal that she would be stepping down effective at 4 p.m. on Friday.

“So long as I were to remain president of Hampshire, the community’s feelings about me would be a distraction from the necessary work,” Nelson said. “I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find the path to daylight that has eluded me.”

In his own statement, Saal said: “To be associated with this level of leadership, integrity, and personal commitment to Hampshire has enriched me. My love for Hampshire has never wavered, and I will always cherish being a member of the Hampshire community.”

Rosenthal said the trustees asked him on Friday morning if he would step into the interim president role if Nelson resigned.

“I’d like to heal the wounds in this community, bring people together and focus on envisioning what Hampshire College will become,” Rosenthal told the Gazette at a press event on Friday evening.

“Hampshire’s problems are common to many colleges in this country,” Rosenthal added. “So Hampshire can lead the way in dealing with these problems, to do that just as we did 50 years ago when we were opening.”

Rosenthal visited the Hamp Rise Up group on Friday night for a meeting with students, said the group’s press liaison Sarahi Silva.

Rosenthal said that he is not focused on making changes himself, but hopes to help the community decide how the college should move forward.

“I appreciate the hard work of my predecessor, Mim Nelson, who acknowledged the challenges she found at Hampshire and in her short time here worked hard to address them,” Rosenthal said in a statement.

Nelson became Hampshire’s seventh president on July 1, 2018.

“There is no one better to help bridge this transition,” Hernandez said of Rosenthal in the same message. The college’s trustees voted Friday to name Hernandez as interim chair of the board. An alum from Hampshire’s first class, Hernandez is an early childhood education specialist who has served on the advisory boards of several prominent educational organizations.

With Nelson, Hill and Saal gone, support is now firmly behind a plan to keep Hampshire independent. The board voted Friday to engage in a fundraising campaign to that end. 

Salman Hameed, a professor and member of the coalition working on the Re-envisioning Hampshire plan for the college’s independence, was optimistic Friday when the news of the resignations broke.

“Just two weeks ago, we had a hard time getting the board to hear our plan, and in two weeks we are at a point where this becomes the plan for Hampshire,” he said.

Hameed added that the coalition behind the independence plan includes faculty, staff, alumni, students and parents. “And now we also have the board’s backing and the administration,” he said.

Hameed said that there is still plenty of work ahead, and there are plenty of challenges. But at a time when some small liberal arts colleges across the country are closing or merging, he said Hampshire has a chance to show other struggling schools an alternative path.

“I think Hampshire can again be the vanguard and say, ‘No, this is not necessary,’” Hameed said.

Nelson, in her statement, praised the college, its philosophy and the passion of its community. She said she learned from outgoing President Jonathan Lash in May that Hampshire’s entering class was significantly smaller than expected. After digging into the school’s finances, she said it became clear to her, and soon to the board, that the solution was to find a partner institution.

“What Mim tried to do was emphasize that Hampshire’s long-term viability is an existential question, and I hope we can now move toward actually addressing that issue together,” Hernandez said.

Nelson’s tenure was short, and much of it was marked by the frustration some have voiced regarding her administration’s practices. In her resignation letter, she wrote that she expected her Jan. 15 announcement — coupled with the decision two weeks later to admit only a skeleton fall 2019 class — would result in “anxiety, sorrow, and anger.”

“That has surely come to pass,” Nelson wrote. “For many, this entire situation came as too much of a shock and felt too much like a betrayal. Together with our board of trustees, I have had to make a number of very tough decisions without putting them up for a collective debate. To some, this is an inexcusably top-down, un-Hampshire way of doing things.”

Nelson goes on to point to Hampshire’s founding documents, which state that the college’s governance arrangements “will not be egalitarian; they will be hierarchical.” That language was prescient, Nelson wrote, because the college’s leadership has had to make difficult and unpopular decisions.

“Over the past twelve weeks I have tried to lay it all out there — to share with the community the same data shared with our board of trustees about Hampshire’s fragile fiscal position — so that everyone could understand why I so believed in the actions we have taken,” Nelson said.

Ultimately, Nelson said, despite making progress toward finding a sustainable path forward, the community had been torn apart. So Nelson decided to step down. She wrote that she told the board’s leadership that they now face two potential paths: “to continue our search for a partner or, given the expressions of passion from many of Hampshire’s alums, go all-in on a fundraising campaign to support an independent model.”

“This is a moment for the Hampshire community to come together, and I trust that you will do so,” Nelson said. “For to not come together will surely be the demise of this ex traordinary institution.”

 Dusty Christensen can be reached at dc hristensen@gazettenet.com. News staff writer Jacquelyn Voghel contributed to this report.


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