FOLLOWING SEVERAL MONTHS of turmoil and protest against her leadership, Hampshire College president Miriam Nelson resigned Friday afternoon, the latest chapter in ongoing upheaval at the Amherst campus.
Nelson, who only arrived at Hampshire last summer, announced in January that the college was facing dire financial prospects and was seeking a “strategic partner” to merge with. Hampshire later said it would not accept a full class of new students for the coming fall.
The college has been riven by the news, with a group of students staging a sit-in in the president’s office that had gone on for more than 50 days to protest the merger idea. An alumni group also formed to push back against the plan, arguing Hampshire’s unique identity and educational approach would be lost in a merger.
“So long as I were to remain president of Hampshire, the community’s feelings about me would be distraction from the necessary work,” Nelson wrote in a letter to the college community announcing her resignation. “I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find a path to daylight that has eluded me.”
The board of trustees named Ken Rosenthal, who was involved in the college’s founding in 1970 and served as its first treasurer, to serve as interim president.
On Sunday, the college’s board of trustees chairwoman, Gaye Hill, also resigned. “I’ve become a lightning rod for criticism and felt it was time to step away,” Hill said in a statement Hampshire released on Monday. She had been helping to lead efforts to identify a potential partner. Board vice chair Kim Saal followed Hill out, resigning his post today.
Board member Luis Hernandez, a member of the college’s first entering class in 1970, was named interim board chair.
Hernandez issued a letter this afternoon to the college community announcing that the board voted today to pursue an aggressive fundraising effort to support “an independent Hampshire.” The vote means the school is shelving the pursuit of a partnership or merger that Nelson had led and will try to improve its financial profile and remain a stand-alone institution.
The developments mark at least a short-term victory for efforts by students, faculty, and alumni to keep alive the hope of Hampshire surviving amidst a climate that has become very harsh for small private colleges.
Hampshire leaders have said enrollment declines were a threat to college’s survival. Enrollment at Hampshire, which has about 1,100 students, has fallen 20 percent over the past five years, according to the school, which depends on tuition for 87 percent of its revenue. Hampshire has a small endowment of $52 million.
Tuition plus room and board costs at the private college total $63,636 for the current academic year.
Hampshire grew out of a committee formed in 1958 by the presidents of four area schools – the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, and Mount Holyoke College – that sought to identify new approaches to liberal arts education. The college, which opened 12 years later on the site of a former apple orchard four miles south of Amherst Center, focuses on interdisciplinary studies and self-directed studies. It eschews grades in favor of written evaluations by professors, and students don’t earn credits but instead progress through a series of three levels of study that call for increasing degrees of independent scholarship.
Hampshire is part a consortium with the four other schools, with students at all five campuses able to cross register and take classes at any of the schools.
“If this college can be destroyed—one founded as an alternative by powerful institutions in western Massachusetts (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass Amherst), and linked with them in the Five College consortium—then the arts and the liberal arts as inspiration to lives of critical inquiry and social engagement will have been dealt another serious blow,” longtime Hampshire professor Margaret Cerullo wrote last month in an essay in The Nation.
The college counts among its alumni filmmaker Ken Burns, actress Lupita Nyongo’o, and Gary Hirshberg, the former president and CEO of Stoneyfield Farm yogurt.
Hampshire had been planning events to mark its 50th anniversary next year, in June 2020.
The turmoil at Hampshire comes as small private colleges across the Northeast are facing big headwinds, driven by a decline in the region’s college-age population and with students and families looking for more affordable options than private colleges, with their ever-increasing costs.
In recent years, Mount Ida College in Newton shut its doors and Wheelock College merged with Boston University. Green Mountain College in Vermont and Newbury College in Boston have announced they will close this spring
“There are bruising financial and demographic realities in play, and we’re not immune to them,” Nelson said in a letter to the Hampshire community in January when she announced that the college was facing financial difficulty and planned to seek a partner.