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Hampshire College President Resigns Amid Rift Over School's Future

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson walking on campus.
Alden Bourne
Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson walking on campus.

Updated 10:45 p.m.

The president of Hampshire College has quit her post amid mounting turmoil over the future of the small private school in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

College officials announced Friday that Miriam “Mim” Nelson submitted a letter of resignation Wednesday, effective Friday afternoon. She held the position for less than ten months.

Facing declining enrollment and financial pressures, Nelson announced this winter that Hampshire was seeking a “strategic partner,” and the college’s board decided not to admit a full class for next year.

Both announcements led to protests from students, and anger from many alumni and faculty.

“So long as I were to remain president of Hampshire, the community’s feelings about me would be a distraction from the necessary work,” Nelson said in a letter to the college community. “I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find the path to daylight that has eluded me.”

Hampshire’s interim president will be Ken Rosenthal, who helped found the school in the 1960s, later serving as a trustee and official college historian.

“That's partly because I'm so old and I've been around so long,” said Rosenthal, 80. “I remember things that some people never knew.”

In an interview on campus Friday evening, Rosenthal declined to comment on Nelson’s strategy in recent months. But he did say his long connection to the school gives him an advantage Nelson lacked.

“Mim was somebody who was not as familiar on the campus, because she was new to the campus,” Rosenthal said. “And I think the fact that she was new made it a little difficult for her. [It] may be a little easier for me to get people to believe that we can take the hard decisions.”

Rosenthal said he plans to speak with Nelson next week.

“She has a lot to contribute, still, to Hampshire College, and she will always have been its president,” he said. “So I'm looking forward to her being involved in some way.”

Rosenthal said it’s too soon to know if the school would continue discussions with possible “strategic partners.”

“A good ‘strategic partner’ will always be available. If they believe in the college now, they will believe in the college later,” he said. “But the first objective, I think — for all of us — is to see if we can keep the college as close to its full autonomy as it possibly can have.”

Among Rosenthal’s biggest initial challenges is enrollment. He wants the school to return the student body size to between 1,300 and 1,400. But with nearly no incoming class in the fall, and many students expected to transfer, he said he has heard that number could be as low as 650 next school year.

“What we want to do is encourage as many present students as we can to come back, and help us shape what the college will be,” he said. “And then to be as public as we can with what... the next version of Hampshire College will be.”

To prepare for the smaller student body, Hampshire has already started making cuts. Layoffs of nine staff were previously announced, with more planned for later this month. The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported this week that 34 food service workers at the college, employed by an outside company, will also lose their jobs.

Hampshire’s board is also seeing big changes. Board Chair Gaye Hill resigned earlier this week, and Vice Chair Kim Saal stepped down Friday. Trustee Luis Hernandez will serve as interim board chair.

‘OK, at least we did something’

On campus shortly after Nelson announced her resignation, faculty member Rachel Conrad was clearly happy with the news.

“I think this shows the power of the community of Hampshire College of finding another way forward for itself that retains its mission and can chart a path forward,” said Conrad, a professor at the college for the last 24 years.

Conrad said she believed Nelson failed to get to know the campus community. She said Nelson could have used their strengths to help solve the current problems.

“I think we're all worried about the financial realities that we're facing, but we're trying to figure out ways forward that can really focus on both preserving the college and safeguarding the well-being of the employees as much as possible — staff and faculty,” Conrad said. “So we're going to be working really hard to figure out what's possible — I think, you know, individually and collectively.”

The news shocked student Laura Goldberg of Vienna, Virginia, who was also “really excited.”

“I almost feel bad about saying [that], because, I mean, I shouldn't be excited about someone losing their job,” Goldberg said. “But it feels exciting because the students and the staff and the faculty have been working so hard [to fight for the college’s independence].”

Goldberg was excited about Rosenthal’s appointment, believing the interim president would help avoid a merger with another school.

“Everything's insane, but it feels like a little a little pick-me-up after everything's kind of been so downright uncertain and scary, which it still is,” Goldberg said. “But this is like, ‘Oh, OK, at least we did something.’”

Student Luke Gannon was not yet sure what to think about Nelson’s resignation. Gannon pointed out that Nelson inherited a tough financial situation when she took over last summer.

“I think she came in at a really hard time,” Gannon said. “So I don't think we can blame Mim for, you know, everything, because Hampshire has been obviously in a financial problem for a long time. And so saying that she was a ‘distraction’ is honestly a really weird way to put it, because it was something that was coming. It's just the way that [Nelson’s efforts were rolled out] that was wrong.”

Gannon, who is from Driggs, Idaho, is studying abroad next fall, but plans to return to Hampshire in the spring. 

Another student with no plans to transfer is Micah Barnhill-Wright of Durham, North Carolina. He knows the school is going to be smaller, but said that could be a good thing. And if the only way for Hampshire to survive is to merge with a school like UMass, he’s not interested.

“If we're getting to a point where education can't support the kind of school that Hampshire was founded as,” he said, “I think it should die rather than change significantly to exist — that's my opinion.”

Sam Hudzik contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.

Copyright 2019 New England Public Media

Sam has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Radio since 2013.
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