At the headwinds of higher education: Hampshire College’s new president looks ahead

  • 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. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire College's new president, Miriam "Mim" Nelson meets with fourth-year student Daya Mena, left, and third-year Shelby Yeomans on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in her office to discuss the 40th anniversary of the Hampshire College Emergency Medical Service. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire College’s new president, Miriam “Mim” Nelson, center, meets with fourth-year student Daya Mena, left, and third-year Shelby Yeomans on Wednesday in her office to discuss the 40th anniversary of the Hampshire College Emergency Medical Service. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • 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. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2018 12:23:41 AM

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Mim Nelson’s job title at the University of New Hampshire. She was director of the Sustainability Institute.

AMHERST — Higher education is facing a moment of turbulence as a declining enrollment trend, a volatile political climate, soaring student debt and increased competition have caused many to question what the future holds for colleges and universities.

That is the environment that Miriam “Mim” Nelson has stepped into as she begins her first semester on campus as the seventh president of Hampshire College, which faces some of those larger problems as well as its own unique challenges.

“It’s a whole brave new world out there,” Nelson said of the higher-education ecosystem in a recent sit-down interview with the Gazette.

Nelson is a health and nutrition scholar who spent three decades at Tufts University. At Hampshire, she succeeds former president Jonathan Lash, who was perhaps best known during his seven-year tenure for spearheading campus sustainability efforts. As the former director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Nelson is poised to step into that work. 

But Nelson faces many other new challenges, including Hampshire’s lean finances, coupled with a desire to make the school more accessible; changing demographics; questions about the relevance of small liberal-arts colleges; and what Nelson describes as increasingly prevalent “anti-intellectualism” across the country.

Nelson said her first priority is “truly trying to understand where we are … Really, really spending time getting to know everybody and listening to their ideas, their concerns.”

To tackle those issues, Nelson plans to roll out a “strategic visioning” process. For those not fluent in corporate jargon, that means the administration wants to have a plan in place around financial and educational priorities as they head into the 50th anniversary of the college’s founding, which they will celebrate in 2020.

“We are doing the strategic visioning between now and June,” Nelson said. “And then, we will be able to transition into that vision” by the 2020 anniversary.  

Nelson was short on specifics of what that vision will look like. She said Hampshire — a college known for its experimental, uncommon educational approach — is not the kind of place she could come to with a predetermined idea of what to change. Nelson said she is meeting with students, faculty and staff to determine where the college is at and where it needs to be.

At the center of those efforts are Hampshire’s finances, which the college has long struggled with because of its lack of a large founding endowment to rely on. With an endowment of $55.4 million this year, Hampshire’s resources are slim in comparison to other nearby colleges: Smith College has an endowment of more than $1.5 billion, for example, and Amherst College more than $2 billion.

In 2016, Hampshire had a budget deficit of $2.6 million, which was plugged with a $1.3 million donation from trustees and by leaving 15 positions unfilled. Last February, the school’s board approved a five-year financial plan, and as part of that effort reduced its employee pension contribution; the college also cut the size of its workforce by offering voluntary early retirement to some employees and a voluntary separation plan to others. Those steps reduced expenses by $2 million and helped balance this year’s budget, according to the college.

“Hampshire’s financial position is stable,” Nelson told the Hampshire community in a recent blog post. The budget is balanced but tight, and there will be not cuts this year, she added.

There are some reasons to be optimistic about the financial picture. The college had a 14.3 percent return on endowment investments last fiscal year — a high yield made more noteworthy by the fact that Hampshire has divested from controversial industries, such as fossil fuel companies. The endowment has grown from $33.2 million in 2011 to $55.4 million now.

Going forward, the college has slowed down hiring in some areas to save money, but has continued filling school administrator positions, according to Nelson’s blog post. Other challenges — increasing applications for enrollment, improving retention of enrolled students, finding better financial aid models — are more than a one-year process, Nelson wrote.

Financial aid is an important element in making Hampshire more accessible at a time of rising costs of higher education, staggering levels of student debt and increasing calls for colleges and universities to diversify. Nelson said she hopes to figure out how to make the school less expensive for students.

Tuition, room, board and necessary fees will run a student more than $68,000 for this academic year, according to numbers on Hampshire's website. Hampshire’s board of trustees voted to approve a 2.5 percent increase in tuition for next fiscal year.

“I don’t know the answer yet,” Nelson said when asked for specifics on how Hampshire can increase accessibility. “It’s the central question, and it’s not just Hampshire. I think we can be a lead experimenter in this question.”

Those will be some of the questions Nelson hopes to answer as part of her strategic visioning process as she begins her tenure. She has already been on the road visiting alumni and donors, seeking insight and money.

“What’s our relevance to the world right now?” Nelson wondered aloud. “How do we prepare young people for jobs that have not been created yet? How do we prepare students for a lifetime of curiosity and making the world more beautiful, solving grand challenges?”

For the moment, Nelson is engaging with Hampshire’s community to figure out what the answers to those questions will be. She mentioned possible partnerships with the private sector, but didn’t delve into any specifics.

As the former director of UNH’s Sustainability Institute, Nelson’s expertise should mesh with the college’s focus on environmental issues. “It will definitely be a current that runs through whatever we do,” she said.

Nelson added that as higher education faces the “stiff headwinds” of anti-intellectualism and major disruption, small colleges are on the front lines. And Nelson thinks that Hampshire — which was founded in 1970 as a departure from traditional educational models — can lead the way for other small colleges.

“They’re asking the questions, too,” she said. “We just happen to be the canary in the coalmine right now.” 

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


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