Hampshire College names Miriam Nelson as seventh president 

  • Hampshire College Hampshire College

  • The sign in at the entrance of Hampshire College.  —File photo

  • Miriam E. Nelson —SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 4/17/2018 1:29:02 PM

AMHERST — Hampshire College announced Tuesday that it has named Miriam E. Nelson, a prominent health and nutrition scholar who worked at Tufts University for more than three decades, as its seventh president after a yearlong national search.

A scientist, university professor and higher education administrator, Nelson will succeed Jonathan Lash, who will retire in June after completing his seventh year as Hampshire College president. Nelson, who goes by the nickname “Mim,” begins her tenure July 1. She has served as deputy director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire since 2016.

“The thought of leading a college like Hampshire, that is willing to take risks, to be on the cutting edge, is what I’m really excited about,” Nelson, 57, said during an interview at the Gazette on Tuesday.

Hampshire’s board of trustees made the appointment last week after receiving a formal recommendation from a presidential search committee, which consisted of three students, three staff members, three faculty members and eight trustees.

Kim Saal, vice chairman of the board of trustees and co-chairman of the search committee, said it evaluated candidates by considering their fit with the college, their leadership qualities, including on diversity issues, and their ability to be a transformative president.

“We had a great pool of people, but we kept coming back to one person who stood out in each of those categories, and that was Mim,” trustees Chairwoman Gaye Hill said.

Hill noted that Nelson’s record of scholarship and service impressed the search committee.

Public health studies

Nelson has earned national recognition for her expertise as a scientist and the author of groundbreaking studies on public health, nutrition and civic engagement. At Tufts, she founded and directed the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention. She has served as a health and nutrition adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In addition to publishing more than 100 scholarly papers and presenting at hundreds of conferences nationally and overseas, Nelson also authored The New York Times bestselling 10-book series “Strong Women,” based on the findings of a 1994 study she led, with more than a million books in print in 14 languages.

She was also a senior adviser to Michael Pollan’s Emmy-nominated documentary “In Defense of Food,” chief scientific adviser to PBS NOVA’s “Marathon Challenge” film and serves on the board of directors at the food company Newman’s Own.

“She has built a world-class research center; mentored countless undergraduate and graduate students; and been a leading voice in advocating for inclusivity, diversity, and wellness,” Hill said in a statement. “Mim is the right leader for Hampshire at this pivotal time, building on the extensive achievements Hampshire has attained through the leadership of Jonathan Lash. We are indebted to Jonathan for the vision, values, and voice he has given us these last seven years.”

Lash, 72, has made sustainable energy a key component of his tenure as Hampshire’s president, including an initiative to make Hampshire a carbon-neutral campus by the year 2020.

Serious challenges

Nelson said she will face serious challenges as president: decreasing undergraduate enrollment nationwide, competition from other institutions (“which I think is really good”), what she described as “fragile business models” and increasing distrust in higher education.

Many at Hampshire have called for increased diversity at the college. Nelson said that will be a top priority of hers, though she said she is not yet ready to offer many specifics about how she would address that issue.

“I want to be very careful about putting any plans in place. I’m not the president yet, I don’t know the campus the way I need to know it,” she said, adding that her work will involve “really thinking carefully about our hiring practices, thinking about recruitment, how we make our campus one that is welcoming to all people.”

During her time at Tufts, Nelson worked as the faculty chairwoman at the Tisch College of Civic Life, where she founded a committee on diversity and inclusion.

“I’d like to see political diversity, racial diversity,” she said of the college’s student body. “I really want to work with our really phenomenal admissions office to understand some ideas they have.”

On the issue of rising student debt, Nelson said Hampshire’s students have an average of $21,000 in debt, which she said is lower than at peer institutions.

“I really applaud that effort. I think that’s a great goal to work towards,” Nelson said, of maintaining that $21,000 number, though she acknowledged that she wasn’t sure whether it could stay consistent if the college is to be financially sustainable.

Hampshire College’s finances will also be a challenge, Nelson said. The college has a $56 million operating budget and a $55 million endowment, which is substantially lower than the other institutions that make up the Five Colleges.

“I have not been fully briefed,” Nelson said, adding that she is meeting with trustee David Matheson next week to discuss his work spearheading the college’s sustainable financial plan.

“From what I’ve been reading, it was a good nine months of serious deliberations, and outside support, to really develop a thoughtful financial plan to provide Hampshire with a road map for financial sustainability that includes multiple different factors,” she said. “I see that as a platform from which we will accelerate that work.”

Nelson has three grown children, and is married to the classical violinist Kinloch Earle. When asked what people in the Pioneer Valley should know about her that is unrelated to her professional career, she said she’ll likely be found rock climbing at Central Rock Gym in Hadley when she moves to the area.

“I’ll be slaying the 5.8’s,” she said with a smile, referring to a difficulty rating system for roped climbing.

Nelson is also a marathon runner, and was on the Boston Marathon course during the 2013 bombings. “You will also see me out on the hills and running the trails.”

Nelson has an undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and a doctorate from Tufts, where she said she returned to continue her research — with a baby in tow — after a year working in public policy for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.

“I don’t know what I was thinking (going back to grad school), but it was the best bet I ever made,” Nelson said. “Maybe … or maybe this one!”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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