Lawmakers raise concerns over Hampshire College crisis

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, center, speaks to a gathering in Amherst on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018. At right is state Rep. Mindy Domb. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/21/2019 12:09:04 AM

AMHERST — The two state lawmakers representing Amherst have raised several concerns with the president of Hampshire College.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Mindy Domb released a letter that she and state Sen. Jo Comerford sent to Hampshire President Miriam “Mim” Nelson, raising four issues related to the college’s financial crisis and search for a partner institution.

In their March 12 letter, the two lawmakers requested that Hampshire delay impending layoffs, asking that college officials fully consider a recent faculty proposal to “re-envision” the school. The legislators also explained their role in crafting new state regulations to monitor struggling colleges, clarified what they said was “misleading” information Nelson sent to senior officials at the University of Massachusetts, and expressed dismay at the administration’s “refusal” to meet with the Hampshire chapter of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP.

Efforts to reach Nelson for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

On the subject of layoffs, the lawmakers said that they are “again” asking Nelson to delay those actions until the college fully assesses the faculty’s re-envisioning proposal “in the hope that it can offer a way to maintain the College moving forward.”

“However, if you decide to proceed with staff and faculty layoffs, we urge you to prioritize and ensure that each position is accompanied by a responsible severance package,” the letter reads.

The letter also draws Nelson’s attention to concerns the lawmakers had with an email that Nelson sent to UMass officials, which the Gazette obtained through a public records request and published. In that email, Nelson told UMass officials that Domb and Comerford were “fully briefed” on Hampshire’s situation and were “willing to roll up their sleeves to assist.”

“We find this characterization misleading,” the letter reads.

Domb and Comerford explain that their first meeting with Hampshire’s administration was scheduled to be only 15 minutes in length, and that the administration spoke of Hampshire’s financial difficulties but put forth a longer timeline than what has since taken place.

“Referring to this short meeting as a ‘full-briefing” overstates its nature and our knowledge as a result of participating in it,” the lawmakers wrote. The letter goes on to say that Nelson did mention the college’s interest in finding a partner institution. “At no time did President Nelson mention that Hampshire was considering not taking a full 2019 first year class, which ultimately transpired.”

The two first-year legislators also disputed the notion that they were ready to “roll up their sleeves.”

“We left the initial meeting unaware of a specific plan of action,” they wrote. “However, we did leave wanting to better understand the Hampshire administration’s thinking about the impact of proposed state policies and that is where we have rolled up our sleeves.”

In their letter, Domb and Comerford mention legislation that Gov. Charlie Baker filed last week that would require a college facing the possibility of closing or merging to notify the state’s Board of Higher Education and to submit a contingency plan for notifying students and arranging for them to complete their studies.

“We want to stress that this legislation has just been introduced and will need to be considered in the committee process,” wrote the lawmakers, both of whom sit on the state’s Joint Committee on Higher Education. “We are collaborating to review the legislation, and we plan to offer amendments to ensure proper protections for staff and faculty as well as appropriate consideration for the economic impact on surrounding host communities.”

Lastly, the lawmakers wrote that they are “concerned by reports” regarding the administration’s “refusal” to meet with Hampshire’s chapter of the AAUP.

“We understand that faculty members have organized formally through this chapter and that this would be an effective vehicle for you to use to engage in open transparent communication with faculty about the status of your decisions,” the letter reads.

The letter’s public release came on the same day that Nelson announced the creation of a working group of influential “off-campus stakeholders” — including famous alumni like filmmaker Ken Burns and Stonyfield Farm co-founder Gary Hirshberg — to act as an independent “sounding board” for college officials as they discuss the options on the table for Hampshire’s future.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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