Guest Column Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld: Yale professor responds to Hampshire’s ‘spinmeisters’

Published: 3/18/2019 9:45:04 AM

I would like to briefly address your insightful, lively March 11 piece by reporter Dusty Christensen entitled “Behind college’s media strategy.”

I admire the bold investigative work of the Gazette in obtaining the startling concealed plans contained in the private emails of Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson and her significant miscues with her distinguished fellow Five College consortia presidents. I also admire this background piece on the school’s messaging efforts, thus I do not criticize the piece itself.

However, I would like to correct a misstatement in the piece attributed to a Hampshire College communications official.

The piece revealed the brilliant trio of public relations whizzes behind Hampshire College’s current leadership image within its community, before prospective students, and among national educators. These talented communicators included John Buckley, CEO of Subject Matter, whom Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson identified in an revealing trove of secret emails as the head of “our stellar WDC public relations firm.”

The article also identified Chief Creative Officer David Gibson as another architect of the school’s imaginative communications campaign, along with spokesman John Courtmanche, who, of course, was the actual public voice for their artful messaging.

These three spinmeisters and their client President Nelson apparently resented my recent critical Fortune Magazine piece, and they posted an accusatory open letter to me on the school’s website. Sadly, they seem to have been too busy to model fair play and post my extensive reply to their detailed seven questions, which I had promptly emailed back to them.

Happily, various websites by Hampshire College community loyalists have posted my response such as and

Mr. Courtmanche explained that he and his team decided to attack my commentary on published reports of school events because “We were outraged by the notion that a Yale professor would snipe at Hampshire at its moment of pain, and even use his commentary to promote his consulting conference.”

Let me thus reassure your readers that Mr. Courtmanche misinformed them regarding the nature of our programs, presuming he was accurately quoted. These nonprofit educational programs at Yale University are not “consulting conferences” in need of promotion and certainly not at the expense of his controversial new boss. Furthermore, “snipes” are not an accurate term to describe critiques of leadership pathologies and instructive governance case analyses.

Over the past 40 years of studying leadership and governance, I frequently have published commentaries on abuses of power and governance failures across sectors while also celebrating outstanding leadership when merited. Sometimes these pieces trigger retaliatory snipes from the flacks of defensive but silent bosses.

Regardless, these commentaries do not drive enrollment in our educational programs — which have no registration fees or consulting components. We also do no marketing to promote these programs which, over 30 years, have still drawn thousands of top leaders across sectors including several hundred college and university presidents along with board chairs as gratis participants.

It is a pity that President Nelson was too busy plotting with her communications magicians to join such forums offering just the needed peer-driven wisdom which may have benefited her in new job and her present crisis of trust.

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld is a senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale University’s School of Management.

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