The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hampshire College president resigns amid turmoil and financial struggles

Hampshire College President Miriam E. Nelson at a meeting with her senior team last month. Nelson resigned Friday. (Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post)
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Hampshire College’s president resigned Friday, more than two months after the offbeat liberal arts school in Massachusetts announced it would not enroll a full first-year class in the fall because of financial troubles.

Miriam E. Nelson’s tenure lasted barely nine months and was marked at the end by deep turmoil over the direction she was taking the famously unconventional college. Hampshire is known for eschewing admission tests, letter grades and predefined majors. Students chart their own course, with professors as mentors, in a model advocates call “graduate school for undergraduates.”

On Jan. 15, Nelson disclosed that the 1,100-student college was seeking a “strategic partnership” — possibly a merger, or some other arrangement with an external entity — to stabilize its finances. At the same time, Nelson said the school was weighing whether to enroll a new class in the fall because it could not guarantee it would be able to provide newcomers the same level of education for four years.

The warning was ominous because new students are the lifeblood of every college.

Hampshire College, facing financial challenges, weighs whether to enroll a new first-year class

“This is a frightening moment,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “I’m very worried about the college. I’m very worried about our educational mission, making sure it lives on. You can’t run a college on vapors. We have to match our expenses with income.”

Chronic budget deficits and declining enrollment have plagued Hampshire over the past five years. Stopgap fiscal fixes are in perennial demand.

On Feb. 1, the board of trustees chose to enroll a minimal class — offering spots to 77 students who had previously committed to Hampshire. That decision outraged critics who said Nelson and the board were curtailing a crucial source of potential revenue.

Some faculty and graduates charged that Nelson made a bad situation worse by failing to sound alarms last fall and enroll as many new students as possible. “Give us some forewarning before the house is on fire — or before you light the match,” said Marlene Fried, a veteran philosophy professor and former interim president.

The school is projected to have about 600 students in the fall, down from more than 1,400 in 2013. Without a quick infusion of cash and students, the college faces the possibility of significant layoffs. As of late March, Hampshire said it had 101 faculty members and a staff of 295, plus 13 adjunct instructors.

Trustees signaled a change in approach Friday. They named Ken Rosenthal, 80, a former trustee, as interim president. Rosenthal had been skeptical of Nelson’s response to the financial troubles, arguing for a more measured approach to buy time for the school to right itself.

At the same time, the board is reshaping its top leadership. Gaye Hill, the board chair, and Kim Saal, a vice chair, both resigned this week. Luis Hernandez, another vice chair and one of the college’s founding students, was named interim chair.

The board also voted to lead a fundraising campaign to keep Hampshire independent.

Rosenthal was the college’s fifth employee, hired in 1966, four years before Hampshire opened in Amherst, Mass. He was also the college’s first treasurer and served as a trustee from 2008 to 2016.

The crisis at Hampshire left Nelson unable to use her campus office for the past two months of her tenure because of a round-the-clock protest. Students evicted her and launched a sit-in Jan. 31 to protest what they saw as a lack of transparency and shared governance.

On March 20, Nelson met with students to express concerns about the security of her private workspace in the suite. A video on YouTube shows someone telling the president the occupiers had no confidence in her leadership. “So I don’t think we consider that your space anymore,” the person says.

“Thank you very much,” Nelson said, looking exasperated as she abruptly walked out.

Hampshire belongs to the Five College Consortium, which also includes the public University of Massachusetts at Amherst and private Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.

Nelson, 58, a public health expert, was previously director of a sustainability institute at the University of New Hampshire and held faculty and administrative positions at Tufts University.

"I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find the path to daylight that has eluded me,” Nelson wrote in a letter to the Hampshire campus Friday afternoon. “In a short period of time, I have come to love Hampshire, and to deeply admire the students, staff, faculty, alums, and friends whom I have had the great pleasure of getting to know.”

Rosenthal said in a statement: “I appreciate the hard work of my predecessor, Mim Nelson, who acknowledged the challenges she found at Hampshire and in her short time here worked hard to address them.”

He urged the Hampshire campus to come together to find a solution to the financial problems and create a new model for the school.

“As someone who has been a part of Hampshire for more than 52 years, I know how difficult that can be,” Rosenthal said. “And how wonderful.”