Emails show talks between Hampshire and UMass about possible partnership

  • The campuses of Hampshire College, left, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. FILE PHOTO & PROVIDED PHOTO

Published: 2/22/2019 5:21:18 PM

AMHERST — While there has been extensive speculation about whether the University of Massachusetts Amherst would be an appropriate long-term partner for Hampshire College, emails the Gazette obtained from UMass through a public records request show that there were not only conversations between high-ranking officials, but Hampshire leaders requested to expedite an agreement.

A Jan. 10 email, sent five days before Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson went public with the search for a partner, reveals that she was already speaking to UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy about partnering and was ready to move forward with the signing of a non-binding letter of intent “in the not too distant future.” But that didn’t happen.

Nelson said Friday that she started conversations with Subbaswamy in November and discussed how soon a letter of intent could be issued, but “we’re not at that stage yet,” she told the Gazette.

“We’ve got other opportunities we’re pursuing now to find the best partner for Hampshire,” Nelson said. “We’re very grateful to UMass to be supportive of us.”

The new details about the extent of those conversations are revealed in emails between Nelson’s and Subbaswamy’s offices in recent months.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski wrote in a letter responding to the public records request that the option of a letter of intent was taken off the table by UMass officials.

“At one point, Hampshire expressed a desire to sign a non-binding letter of intent with UMass Amherst, but the university chose not to do so,” Blaguszewski wrote.

And he characterized UMass as just one of many potential partners.

“Hampshire is now in the midst of deliberations within its own community about how best to chart a course for their future, including conversations with other institutions,” Blaguszewski wrote. “Whatever direction Hampshire ultimately decides to pursue, UMass Amherst’s consideration of a deeper collaboration with the college would need to be consistent with the educational mission of UMass, and, given UMass’s budgetary constraints, could be achieved only if it is viable financially for the UMass Amherst campus.”

Nelson said that she and Hampshire’s board of trustees are looking for the best partner and one aligned with the college’s values, with hopes of finding that institution by the end of the spring semester.

“We don’t know where things will end up,” Nelson said.

If and when a partner is found, that will be announced publicly. “Anything we would be doing would be a public phase,” Nelson said.

Following Nelson’s talks with Subbaswamy in the fall and early winter, the conversation expanded to others involved with both UMass and Hampshire. One email chain began Jan. 10 and included John Kennedy, vice chancellor for university relations at UMass; Chris Dunn, executive director of public and constituent relations for UMass; John Buckley, chief executive officer of Subject Matter, a Washington, D.C. public relations company; and David Gibson, Hampshire’s chief creative officer. In that chain, Nelson wrote that she would be issuing a statement about the need for a strong partner for an impactful future for Hampshire.

“This public statement would then allow us to have more public discussions in the valley and the state about the logic of partnering with UMass,” Nelson wrote.

In the initial communication, which was to be followed by a conference call originally scheduled that afternoon but postponed to the morning of Jan. 11, Nelson also noted that she would be keeping apprised the presidents of the other area colleges — Smith, Mount Holyoke and Amherst — and that those presidents had endorsed UMass as a partner to Hampshire.

“They very much support UMass and Hampshire’s mutual interest in partnering,” Nelson wrote. “But they want to be very cautious in how their support is conveyed as they don’t want their constituents lobbying them to ‘save’ Hampshire and they don’t want to be a part of any disingenuous statement.”

The communication between Hampshire and UMass also states that both Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Mindy Domb were briefed by Nelson and “willing to roll up their sleeves to assist.” Nelson said the state legislators are not involved in any of the ongoing dialogue, though they had been made aware of UMass being contacted as a possible partner.

In the days leading up to the announcement that Hampshire would be seeking a partner, Nelson was encouraged to tweak the contents of her statement, with Amherst College President Biddy Martin observing that the college’s legal counsel asked that any reference to the Five Colleges, Inc. consortium be removed from that statement.

Throughout the correspondence, there is talk about crafting a public relations plan in advance of the college’s Jan. 15 announcement, including the response to inquiries from Boston Magazine about the possibility of Hampshire closing, and worries that sharing information by email could lead to leaks.

The emails also show the care in which officials crafted talking points when responding to Gazette inquiries, and how they shared information with each other, such as an alert to the Jon Krakauer op-ed in The New York Times about whether an unconventional school like Hampshire could still succeed.

On Jan. 31, Sandy Genelius, the chief communications officer at Amherst College, expressed concern about a New England Public Radio report on Hampshire’s conversations with UMass. After NEPR ran the piece intimating there could be close ties between Hampshire and UMass, Gibson, the Hampshire College official, and Kennedy, the UMass vice chancellor, described giving out “boilerplate” information about potential partnerships.

The same day, Kennedy, the UMass vice chancellor, wrote to Gibson and Genelius that, if asked by the press directly about UMass having conversations with Hampshire, he would “say ‘yes’ but that those conversations were preliminary, and that it is our understanding that Hampshire has had conversations with other potential partners as well.”

The first email correspondence dates to Jan. 8, when Nelson wrote a congratulatory letter to Subbaswamy about a Boston Globe Magazine piece entitled “‘ZooMass’ no more. Is turning UMass Amherst into an elite university what the state needs?”

“UMass rocks!” Nelson wrote. Subbaswamy responded: “Trying to convince the Commonwealth of the importance of a strong flagship.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@
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