Second Hampshire College trustee resigns

  • Hampshire College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2019 7:14:36 PM

AMHERST — Another member of Hampshire College’s board of trustees has resigned, submitting a letter that sheds light on tensions within the board as Hampshire charts a course forward amid financial hardship.

Mingda Zhao, an alum and trustee, stepped down from the board just a day after Gaye Hill, the board’s chairwoman, announced her own departure over what she described as “vitriol” and “slanderous attacks.” Zhao’s resignation letter, obtained by the Gazette, also points to what he calls “bullying and fear tactics” on the part of college leadership.

In his letter, Zhao said he was accused of breaching confidentiality and acting without authorization after he reached out to the presidents of Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges. Zhao wrote that he contacted those presidents to independently verify an assertion from Hampshire President Miriam “Mim” Nelson that those colleges were considering dropping Hampshire from their captive insurance company. That would create “an impossible financial burden upon Hampshire,” Zhao recalled Nelson saying.

In their own statement, board vice chairman Kim Saal and Fraser Beede, the chairman of the board’s trusteeship and governance committee, said a board member resigned after “a significant breach of confidentiality ... done without authorization of then Board Chair Gaye Hill.”

“These actions, while deeply distressing, are not related to the details of any specific proposals currently being considered to secure Hampshire’s future,” the statement reads. “We want to assure the community that nothing about these actions has any impact on the thoughtful level of review of strategic options by the full Board.”

Zhao declined to comment further Tuesday evening. In his letter, he said that he was “discharging his fiduciary duty” by contacting the other schools’ presidents. He said that he did not breach confidentiality in those deals, nor did he act as an unauthorized spokesman for the entire board.

Luis Hernandez, the board’s new chairman after Hill’s resignation, declined to comment when reached by telephone on Tuesday.

Contacted Tuesday evening, Nelson said that another trustee, besides Zhao, has been asked to step down from the board because of “a breach of confidentiality.” She declined to provide any further information.

Nelson also declined to say whether Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges were indeed considering dropping Hampshire from the captive insurance company, through which all four of the private colleges provide insurance for themselves. She also declined to say what the effect of such a decision would be on Hampshire.

Kevin Kennedy, a spokesman for Five Colleges, and Stacie Kroll, the vice president of the captive insurance company, did not immediately respond to messages left late on Tuesday.

Independence or closure

Zhao’s letter seems to point toward divergent visions among trustees over the college’s future. He said trustees now face two choices; either they can “go down the road we are on now,” close the college and be acquired, or they can fight to keep Hampshire independent, even if another institution partners with the college.

“I have fought hard to even have an independent option considered,” Zhao said. “I believe a viable independent college is imperative for the success of any partnership that is not an outright acquisition.”

When asked about those comments, Nelson disputed Zhao’s claim that the college’s current path means closure and acquisition. She said the board is looking at every option available, including independence.

“I am, and I believe the board is, fighting for the maximum independence and the best path forward with the highest impact regarding our educational mission and for our people,” Nelson said.

Zhao also criticized Nelson’s letter to campus on Jan. 15, in which she announced the college’s search for a partner institution as well as the possibility that Hampshire would not accept a fall class in 2019. On Feb. 1, the trustees decided to admit only 77 students who had been accepted during early admission or had accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in the fall. Hampshire receives almost 90 percent of its revenue from tuition.

“I am also gravely concerned by the application of bullying and fear tactics,” Zhao wrote. “The abusive form of information control and other leadership actions erode the democratic process of the board.”

That statement comes just one day after Hill quit as board chairwoman, referencing the “vitriol, slanderous attacks, and the questioning of motives” leveled against her and others.

Nelson said that she could empathize with Hill.

“Gaye and myself, a few of us on the board, have been really subject to intense hostility, slander,” Nelson said. As for the bitterness on display on the board, Nelson said, “I think there has been some tensions, and I think a good board should have tensions.”

What’s important, Nelson added, is whether a board can move beyond those tensions to conduct positive business moving forward. When asked whether she thinks this current board can move past that rancor, Nelson said that the board is meeting almost every week.

“We’re working hard toward that end, and every single one of us care deeply about this college,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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