Miriam Nelson Resigns as Hampshire College President
AMHERST — President Miriam Nelson resigned from Hampshire College effective April 5, having submitted her resignation letter to the board of trustees two days earlier. The board voted to appoint Ken Rosenthal as interim president.
In a letter to the Hampshire community, Nelson said the college is divided over her leadership and she had become a distraction from the college’s work to establish a sustainable financial model. She expressed optimism that the board, working closely with the Hampshire community, will overcome its persistent financial challenges.
“I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find a path to daylight that has eluded me,” Nelson wrote. “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.” She concluded, “I leave knowing that, if there is any community that can creatively surmount obstacles, it is Hampshire.”
Over the past five years, Hampshire has suffered a 20% decline in enrollment and faced operating deficits, balancing its budgets by reducing staff and receiving major rescue gifts from trustees and a one-time endowment investment dividend. After Nelson began her tenure in July, she and the board worked through the fall semester to assess the college’s resources and ability to reverse a projected deficit of more than $5 million for the 2019-20 year and a cumulative deficit of close to $20 million over the subsequent three years.
Dependent on tuition for 87% of its revenues, Hampshire has a small endowment of $52 million. These realities raised the risk that the college would not be able to educate an incoming fall class through to graduation, which led the board to vote to focus on educating its current students and not admit a full new class until they establish a sustainable business model.
Through the fall, Nelson and trustees met with groups of alumni, and individually with major donors, as they explored the feasibility of a major fundraising effort at the level required to sustain Hampshire. With the board’s authorization, Nelson in late fall also began pursuing the option of partnerships for the college, publicly announcing a search on Jan. 15, which led to talks with more potential partners.
The announcement caused distress and criticism from constituents, and the board and Nelson sought over the past two months to work more closely with the community on exploring options for Hampshire to remain independent. Board Chair Gaye Hill announced her resignation on Monday, April 1. Vice Chair Kim Saal submitted his resignation a few days later.
Rosenthal, named interim president, was one of the college’s founders and its fifth employee, hired in 1966, and its first treasurer. He left the Hampshire administration in 1976 for a long career in law, business, and the nonprofit sector, ultimately retiring as president of the non-profit the Seeing Eye, the world’s premier guide-dog school for the blind. During his tenure there, the organization’s net assets increased by 70%.
He returned to Hampshire to serve as a trustee from 2008 to 2016. When Rosenthal retired as trustee in 2016, he established an endowment to fund faculty research.
Rosenthal said it will take the cooperation of the entire Hampshire community to create the model that will become the next Hampshire College. “As someone who has been a part of Hampshire for more than 52 years, I know how difficult that can be. And how wonderful.”
Rosenthal said he will begin immediately to work with college leaders to address the uncertainties faced by Hampshire’s current students and their parents, faculty and staff, and its small class of incoming students. He said he’s committed to channeling the passion and commitment of the Hampshire community to finding a long-term solution.
The board of trustees also appointed a new interim chair, Luis Hernandez, and voted to lead a fundraising campaign to keep Hampshire independent, which will dictate his priorities for the college in the coming weeks and months.
After graduating from Hampshire, Hernandez earned a master’s degree in bilingual and multicultural education from the University of San Francisco. He began his career working as a teacher, then developed educational programs for children and professional-development curricula for Head Start teachers across the country. Today, he’s an early childhood education specialist who provides training and technical assistance through Western Kentucky University. His expertise encompasses early literacy, dual-language learning, adult-learning practices, and diversity.