AMHERST — Public health researcher and scientist Miriam E. Nelson, a former longtime professor and scholar at Tufts University, will succeed Jonathan Lash as the seventh president of Hampshire College in July. “I’m just so excited, you can’t even imagine,” Nelson said. “I should have gone to Hampshire. I now know that.”
Nelson, 57, is deputy director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, where she has been since 2016, after a more than 30 years at Tufts University.
The college announced the appointment Tuesday. Nelson, who goes by the nickname Mim, will be on campus Wednesday to meet faculty and students.
Lash, 72, last year said he’d retire from Hampshire in June after seven years as president, during which time he championed sustainable energy, spearheading projects to make the school carbon-neutral by 2020, which means the campus will generate as much energy as it uses in a given year. On his watch, the college also dropped the use of SAT scores in its admissions practices.
Nelson was appointed by the college’s Board of Trustees after a yearlong national search. Gaye Hill, chairwoman of the board and mother of a Hampshire graduate, called Nelson a “strong leader who has the kind of experience that I think we need for the college to move forward. I’m really looking forward to working with her.”
Nelson said she read a description of what Hampshire was looking for in a leader last June and was intrigued.
“I have never read something that is more me or that I felt more compelled to think about,” she said. Later, when the search committee reached out to her, she was eager to move forward in the process.
She said she has long admired Hampshire’s progressive values, its innovative education style, and the way it prepares students to be big thinkers about the thorniest problems.
“Knowledge is key, but knowledge is not enough,” she said. “At Hampshire’s roots, it’s about creating a better world in all its complexity and all its beauty.”
A. Kim Saal, vice chairman of the trustees and cochairman of the search committee, said that team was impressed with Nelson’s leadership skills, management style, and scholarship as well as the way her values aligned with Hampshire’s.
“She really hit it out of the park in every way,” said Saal, who was a member of Hampshire’s first class. The college was founded in 1970.
Nirman Dave, a third-year Hampshire student who is on the board and served on the search committee, said he was impressed that she showed genuine interest in the ideas of students. “I really liked everything about her,” he said.
Nelson said the challenges facing her are those faced by all college presidents: a shrinking population of high school graduates, financial pressure, increased competition, and increasing public skepticism about higher education.
“These are all big challenges,” she said, “but the flip side of this is that Hampshire is distinctive. It is not a generic liberal arts school. It has guts and passion.”
At Tufts, Nelson was a prolific fund-raiser, teacher, and scholar. She also worked in administration, spearheading efforts to create a more diverse campus and increase the number of women and people of color among the highest echelons. She was faculty chair at the Tisch College of Civic Life, which promotes local and global partnerships to offer students learning, service, and research opportunities.
She served as health and nutrition adviser to the US departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, as well as advising presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on dietary guidelines.
She wrote the 10-book series “Strong Women,” based on a 1994 study for which she was principal investigator. She also published original research on the role of nutrition and exercise in preventing assorted health conditions, including heart disease and arthritis.
At the University of New Hampshire, she led the campus in an effort to increase its practice of sustainability, which she considers a matter of social justice and “ecological integrity.”
She is married to classical violinist Kinloch Earle. They have three grown children, Mason, Eliza and Alexandra.
Nelson earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and her PhD from the Tufts University School of Nutrition.
Hampshire is a private liberal arts college in the Pioneer Valley and a member of the Five College Consortium, which includes Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hampshire, with about 1,400 students, has a $55 million endowment.