Working on Plan A: Hampshire College’s new interim president to focus on fundraising, path to independence

  • Interim Hampshire College President Ken Rosenthal, seen here in 2016. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE

Staff Writer
Published: 4/12/2019 11:39:58 AM

AMHERST — It was in 1966, four years before Hampshire College admitted its inaugural class, that the school first hired Ken Rosenthal to be an executive assistant. At the time, he was only the fifth employee of the college.

Over the years, Rosenthal, who is one of the college’s co-founders, has served in many roles: Hampshire’s first treasurer as well as a staffer, faculty member, trustee, parent of a student and the school’s historian. Last Friday, he was named interim president after Miriam “Mim” Nelson stepped down from her post. 

“Hampshire was always intended to be a college that would re-imagine itself,” Rosenthal, now 80, told the college community in an email Thursday. “We were founded by our four partner colleges to be a vehicle for change in higher ed. We’ve made a difference in education, and it gives me hope that so many people recognize that and are paying attention now and want to support us.”

Rosenthal’s appointment came amid a significant shakeup at Hampshire, where college leadership announced in January that they were searching for a “strategic partner” amid financial woes. Last week, Nelson, board of trustees Chairwoman Gaye Hill, Vice Chairman Kim Saal and board member Mingda Zhao all resigned, and the trustees voted to pursue a path toward independence for the iconoclastic school that is approaching its 50th anniversary next year.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Rosenthal said he and Saal, a longtime friend, have met many times recently to talk about the future of the school.

“He had a different perspective for where the college can go than I now have,” he said. “We respect each other.”

Rosenthal said that independence is the primary objective he and the board will work toward. In around a year, they will know whether that plan is going to succeed, he added. 

“Right now, I’m not going to develop a ‘Plan B’ because ‘Plan A’ is going to take a lot of work,” Rosenthal said.

That work will include bringing in a significant amount of money to keep the college afloat, he said. In addition to a small new class that he hopes will attend Hampshire beginning in the fall, Rosenthal said the college will look to recruit other students to begin studies in the spring of 2020 and will work to convince current students to stay. 

On Feb. 1, the board of trustees voted to accept only 77 students for fall 2019 — a combination of early admission students and those who had been accepted the previous year but took a gap year. Applicants have until May 1 to make a deposit with Hampshire, at which point the school will know how many students are attending.

“We’re hoping to be a college of 600, 650 next year,” Rosenthal said. This academic year, Hampshire had 1,175 students.

At a school where tuition accounts for almost 90 percent of revenue, the absence of a full new class this fall will hit Hampshire hard financially. Rosenthal said that there will be layoffs of staff and faculty.

“Some people will be leaving voluntarily, and others we’re going to have to identify and say, ‘We’re sorry,’” Rosenthal said, adding that as the school grows again he hopes those employees can be rehired. “The best people to have coming in are the people you know well.”

In his message to campus, Rosenthal said some faculty and staff will receive layoff notices at the end of this month. Staff members facing layoffs will receive 60 days notice and will be eligible for severance pay, he said. Faculty, he added, are different from staff because they have individual contracts.

“We’ve been discussing how to keep as many faculty members as possible in the Valley or with a foothold to Hampshire, through leaves of absence and visiting positions at partner colleges and other solutions,” Rosenthal wrote. 

Fundraising will be a crucial element in keeping the college financially viable. Developing a new model for Hampshire will involve a “major capital campaign,” Rosenthal said in the email. That means raising $15 to $20 million over the next year and as much as $100 million over the next five or six years.

“It’s not unprecedented, and we’ll have to move fast and work hard, but I’m optimistic,” Rosenthal wrote to the campus. “Alums, parents, and friends are already making major gifts.”

Rosenthal told the Gazette that he has been meeting with potential donors and has been encouraged by the fact that A Campaign for Hampshire College — an effort started by alumni and friends of the school — has already raised $2.6 million.

Hampshire College’s land is another part of the economic picture. Rosenthal said those assets should be an assurance to the school’s creditors. But Rosenthal hopes the land can be used to generate revenue for the school.

“We could use this for faculty housing, student housing and senior citizen housing for alumni,” he mused. But those kinds of plans will come later, he added.

As for his own compensation, Rosenthal has agreed to work for $1. He said that, years ago, he once paid a faculty member’s symbolic salary of $1 out of his own pocket, and this time around, Chief of Staff Jenny Chandler did the same for him.

“This is my dollar coming back to me,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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