Legislators speak to how Hampshire news impacts constituents, cultural village



Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2019 11:29:20 PM

AMHERST — With uncertainty around the future of Hampshire College, the state legislators whose districts include the campus say they are deeply engaged with what is happening and are trying to be as supportive as possible to those affected by changes.

“We’ve all benefited from Hampshire because Hampshire has been a home for innovation and out-of-the-box and independent thinking,” Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, told the Gazette. “Hampshire is a valued part of the larger Five Colleges ecosystem, and when one of the five is threatened, the ecosystem is threatened.”

“Hampshire brings a lot of unique energy and inquiry to Amherst,” said Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, adding that Amherst is a town with two colleges and the flagship campus for the University of Massachusetts. “When something happens to one, you begin to feel the impacts.”

Domb and Comerford this week issued a statement expressing concerns over how decisions made by President Miriam “Mim” Nelson and the board of trustees — including not admitting a first-year class for fall 2019 and seeking a long-term partner — are impacting people at the college and throughout the region.

“On behalf of our constituents, we are actively looking for ways that we can be as supportive as possible,” the statement reads. “Our efforts have included listening to and amplifying the voices of constituent concerns as they have been expressed to us, urging the college to mitigate economic impacts on staff and faculty, to communicate with the town of Amherst and to consider the nonprofit cultural village partners who are located adjacent to or on the campus.”

Comerford said even though Hampshire is a private college, she feels there is room for advocacy from legislators. She observed that she has kept the college at the forefront of her work, recently bringing in the commissioner of the state’s Board of Higher Education for an office visit, and encouraging her colleagues to remove an amendment in a legislative bill that would have required a four-year guarantee to incoming students at institutions of higher education.

“We will continue to be as proactive and tenacious as we can,” Comerford said. “We are not limited in the work we can and should do.”

Domb said both she and Comerford will advocate for constituents and provide clarification about what is happening at the state level.

“Both of us are figuring out the best way to advocate for our constituents and to mitigate the impact as best we can,” Domb said.

Meanwhile, the three nonprofit organizations whose buildings line the perimeter of the campus, and are part of the cultural village — a term coined by former Hampshire President Gregory Prince because each shares the college’s educational values and promise of an open and collaborative partnership — issued a joint statement this week.

Leaders of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Center and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, which draw 75,000 visitors a year, acknowledged that they are getting questions from their visitors and supporters about how the college’s challenges are affecting them.

“We are all financially independent from the college,” the statement reads. “The Carle and the Yiddish Book Center each own their own property and have permanent easements on the campus roadways. The Hitchcock Center has a legally binding 95-year ground lease and owns its new building."

Alix Kennedy, executive director of the Carle, said the join statement grew out of regular conversations with the leaders at the Yiddish Book Center and at the Hitchcock Center about the situation at Hampshire, and all share similar points of view.

Their statement goes on to praise the college leadership.

“We’ve been grateful for the many ways that Hampshire and its leaders have supported our growth over the years, and we remain hopeful that a strategic partner will allow the college to continue its unique mission. President Nelson has been communicating with us regularly to ensure we are up to date and our questions are being answered promptly.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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