Not all colleges can survive the present shift in U.S. educational markets. Schools are threatened by increasingly discouraging immigration policies. State spending on public universities remains highly uncertain. Even philanthropic foundations have curtailed their traditional support for higher education. The situations, however, vary in each case and many have rebounded from adversity. The jeopardy facing the iconic maverick Hampshire College is not simply a lack of students or lack of finances but it’s also the lack of leadership competence and responsible governance by the board.
Miriam E. Nelson, the new president of Hampshire College, was recently dealt a bad hand, but she, with the board’s support, has just knocked the whole deck of cards off the table in panic.
This month, Nelson bewilderingly announced she was firing Hampshire’s admissions and development staff with no plans for replacement—for a school that is over 90% dependent upon tuition revenue and has a modest endowment. At the same time, the Hampshire Board of Trustees announced to the stunned campus that it was curtailing the matriculation of a new freshman class while Nelson was met with a vote of no confidence from faculty.
The drama opened last May when newly appointed president Nelson learned from outgoing predecessor Jonathan Lash of a matriculation shortfall. This drop in yield followed several years of budget stress but, over the summer, she and the college board’s executive committee framed this management challenge as an existential crisis instead and their actions have since created chaos. And rather than locate better ways to mobilize their own many assets—Hampshire’s distinctive mission, the Five College Consortium community, a strong alumni network, and a largely successful existence as an innovative education model—to a recovery, Hampshire’s leadership appears to have panicked.
Over the course of the fall, Nelson never consulted her five living predecessors, faculty leaders, or other campus constituencies. Nor did she appeal to alumni about her dire assessment of Hampshire’s financial situation, a list which includes Stonyfield Farms chairman Gary Hirshberg, former CEO of Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender, renowned documentarian Ken Burns, and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes. Gregory Prince, who was president of Hampshire College 16 years, envisioned tapping such alumni for a recovery plan involving various interconnected institutes. But in the panic, consultation—a cultural necessity in a liberal arts college founded on participation and engagement—simply did not occur and this important resource was overlooked.
As revealed through emails obtained by New England Public Radio, Nelson was quietly negotiating to merge Hampshire with the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst) months before there was any announcement of a financial crisis. Further correspondence published by the Daily Hampshire Gazette revealed President Nelson’s zeal to formalize this intended deal with a written letter of understanding—just before effectively shutting down Hampshire’s admissions and development offices, claiming financial duress, and pretending to be conducting an open search for alternative options. Yet faculty, students, staff, alumni, donors, and other stakeholders were kept in the dark while concealed negotiations took place. Following the email revelations—and stung by a vote of no confidence that passed the faculty before it was invalidated for procedural reasons—Nelson backpedaled in a letter to the Hampshire community.
Nelson, however, had further sacrificed her credibility by implying to have the support of partner schools of the Five College Consortium for the merge. In response, Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College, and Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College, both separately issued emails to the community countering Nelson’s narrative.
While Nelson isn’t to be blamed for the issues Hampshire accrued before her time, she must be accountable for the quality of her leadership. I do not personally know her, anyone on the board, or anyone on the faculty. I have, however, studied good governance and good leadership for 40 years and neither is evident here. I also created the U.S.’s first school for incumbent CEOs 30 years ago and, for the last four years, have run the Yale Higher Education Leadership Summit which draws 75 college presidents and board chairs each year. Therefore, I can confidently say that Hampshire presently offers a poor model of corporate governance in action: inadequate leadership, hasty decision making, and corrosion of credibility.
In 2014, I served on the National Commission on College and University Board Governance established by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Our recommendations addressed setting clear policies that describe the board’s role and responsibilities as fiduciaries of their institutions, focusing on the changing finances of their institutions, delivering access to high quality education at a lower cost, and improving shared governance through attention to the board’s relationships with the university president and faculty. The leadership of Hampshire College must not have gotten copies of our report otherwise the cash-starved school would have solicited the valuable advice of its own community.
Former Hampshire College president Gregory Prince told me in an interview that recapturing the underlying culture of Hampshire of working with the community can save the college: “The partnership principles which define this great school are the exact ones needed now to save it—even if the leadership has forgotten.”
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown professor of management practice at the Yale School of Management.
This article has been clarified to note that the Hampshire College admissions and development offices were not entirely shut down.