After months of controversy over her handling of the institution’s financial crisis, Hampshire College President Miriam “Mim” Nelson announced her resignation on Friday, April 5. On the same day, Hampshire’s Board of Trustees voted to lead a fundraising campaign to keep the college independent, reversing an earlier decision to consolidate existing resources and seek a strategic partnership.
In her letter to the Hampshire community, Nelson defended her tenure, arguing that her administration made “progress in finding a sustainable and impactful future” for Hampshire, but also acknowledged that the divisive nature of her decisions “pulled [their] community apart.”
After Nelson announced in January that the college would seek a long-term financial partnership, a wide range of students, staff, faculty and alumni condemned the decision, even though it was approved by Hampshire board of trustees. Many saw the act as an intolerably top-down decision that would lead to the loss of Hampshire’s independence and identity. The criticism intensified in February after trustees voted to admit a limited first-year class for fall of 2019 and the college announced plans to lay off upwards to an estimated 50 percent of college staff by the next academic year.
Nelson’s resignation follows the resignation of Gaye Hill, then-chairwoman of the Hampshire Board of Trustees. Hill’s resignation took effect on April 1. Kim Saal, vice-chair of the trustees, also announced that he would be stepping down after Nelson’s departure.
To fill the empty roles, Kenneth Rosenthal ’60, one of the college’s founders and an Amherst alum, was appointed the college’s interim president; Luis Hernandez, former vice-chair of the college’s trustees, was elevated to the position of interim board chair.
Both Save Hampshire and the Hampshire College Association of American University Professors, an alumni group and a faculty organization respectively, issued statements on social media praising the leadership’s change in direction. Several members of the Hamp Rise Up student group, which organized a two-month-long sit-in at the Office of the President, were seen celebrating after hearing about the resignation.
Hayden Gadd, a Hampshire student in his second year, noted the general elation around campus following Nelson’s announcement. “People were dancing on the lawn in front of the library,” Gadd said. “The feeling was rather jubilant, to say the least.”
Some students were more ambivalent about the situation, however. “I think I’m optimistic, but I’m honestly not sure,” said first-year Hampshire student Sasha Benson. “It’s like, do we need this much change? Everything is already really turbulent. Is a whole new change in administration going to be helpful? For me, it’s a tentative ‘yes,’ but it’s kind of hard to say.”
A lack of information has also made it difficult for many in the Hampshire community to get a solid grasp on the situation. “There’s just so much uncertainty around Hampshire right now,” said Ida Kao, a first-year Hampshire student. “This is just such a time of upheaval and change.”
Hampshire Professor of Philosophy Christoph Cox, who helped draft the Re-Envisioning Hampshire Plan that would allow for an independent Hampshire through fundraising and creative financial measures, said that faculty members were more unified in their support of the trustees’ decision.
“These resignations on Friday were essentially an indication to most of us that the board of trustees has decided to move in the direction of an independent Hampshire,” said Cox. “In that sense, I think my colleagues and I were really excited about this event, not because we’re necessarily eager to see the president go, but rather because it signals the college’s move towards an independent existence, which is something we’ve been working towards for a couple of months now.”
Despite somewhat mixed reactions to Nelson’s resignation, many community members are optimistic about Rosenthal’s newfound involvement, hoping it will allow Hampshire to form a more united approach to dealing with their financial problems.
“In the past, he was Hampshire’s treasurer and has run businesses, so he has a sense of the nuts and bolts of what it is to run an institution like this. I think he has very broad support as interim president — he’s the kind of guy that can get us where we need to be in the short term,” said Cox.
“Ken’s a forefather of the college. He’s been involved with Hampshire for over 50 years … He has a love for Hampshire that is genuine,” said Evan Brandes, a Hampshire alum involved in Save Hampshire. “He was always looking for solutions as soon as we knew the problems. I have nothing but praise for the man, and it’s been wonderful to work with him.”
With enrollment projected to drop from just under 1,200 students to as low as 600 students by next year and tuition comprising 87 percent of Hampshire’s annual revenue, the task ahead of Rosenthal is nevertheless “daunting,” Cox said.
Rosenthal, however, affirmed the importance of Hampshire’s independence. “Hampshire … needs to be a place of student-centered education, where students help to define their own ways of learning,” he said.
Still, several questions linger. Up in the air are the faculty and staff layoffs planned for the end of April, as well as the termination of the college’s contract with its dining services provider Bon Appetit. Rosenthal indicated he wanted to “limit layoffs where possible,” but did not venture to comment more specifically due to the as-of-yet short duration of his tenure. John Courtemanche, Hampshire’s media relations and editorial director, stated over email that an announcement about layoffs would come by the end of the week.
Also a concern is speculation that Amherst, Smith and Mouth Holyoke colleges are considering dropping Hampshire from their joint captive insurance company. The possibility was revealed in a letter of resignation from former Hampshire trustee Mingda Zhao, who noted that it would “impose an impossible financial burden” on Hampshire if passed.
Caroline Hanna, Amherst’s director of media communications, confirmed that “a review by the captive’s legal counsel is currently underway” in light of Hampshire’s “future that is both highly uncertain and potentially highly litigious.” She noted that further discussions would be held when results are known.
Despite these uncertainties, Rosenthal remains hopeful for the future. “When Hampshire was created — the first president was a man named Franklin Patterson — he said that Hampshire should be a place of successive approximations,” he said. “Hampshire has done this in a modest way in the past, and now it’s taking a good, hard look at itself because it has to. When we get a good idea of what that model will be, I’m confident that that money will come.”