Two Hampshire College trustees have resigned in recent weeks, a result of the increasing acrimony enveloping the board as it charts an uncertain future for the liberal arts school.
Gaye Hill, the board chairwoman, resigned this week, saying she had become a lightning rod. Another trustee, Mingda Zhao, also stepped down, saying he was forced out.
Zhao’s resignation letter offers a hint about what’s next for the private Amherst college. It says board leaders seem to be pushing for the school to close and be acquired by another institution. But he said it is also possible to “fight like hell” to keep the school open and independent.
“Does the school fight do we simply give up?” he wrote. “I have fought hard to even have an independent option considered. I believe a viable independent college is imperative for the success of any partnership that is not an outright acquisition.”
Hampshire’s future has been uncertain since January, when president Miriam Nelson unexpectedly announced that it was in financial jeopardy and in search of a merger. UMass Amherst expressed interest in acquiring Hampshire last fall, according to e-mails released via a public records request. But the state university backed away from that position after Nelson went public in January.
Since January, the campus and its alumni have been divided over how the school should proceed. After it said that it would not accept a full class for the fall, students have sought to transfer. Layoffs of staff and professors are also expected.
Nelson, in a phone interview Tuesday, denied that acquisition is a foregone conclusion.
“I do not see us closing in the future, and we are still, as I have said, looking at a number of options, including full independence,” she said.
The board is expected to decide this spring how to proceed. It has established several committees and working groups of alumni and faculty, staff, and students to provide input. Several outside groups of alumni and former trustees have urged the school to stay open and independent.
Zhao’s resignation letter, which was obtained by The Boston Globe, says he was asked to resign by the board after being accused of breaching the board’s code of conduct by reaching out to the presidents of other colleges in the area. Zhao allegedly reached out to verify a claim made by the Hampshire president about the schools’ joint insurance policy.
Zhao’s letter said he does not believe his inquiry to the other schools conflicted with his duty to act in the school’s best interest. He said he felt it was his duty to verify what the president said.
“As trustees . . . we not only have the right but the obligation to determine independently any facts upon which we are asked to base our decisions,” he wrote.
Over the weekend, before she resigned, Hill sent a statement to the school community saying that all trustees have been kept fully up to date on Hampshire’s financial details.
Contacted about the letter Tuesday, Zhao said the document speaks for itself and declined further comment.
“I love Hampshire College, cherish the college education I received and have proudly served as Trustee,” he wrote. “I have always hoped to preserve its future and its mission.”
Zhao said he is also concerned about “the application of bullying and fear tactics” on the board, adding that “the abusive form of information control and other leadership actions erode the democratic process of the board.”
Nelson, the college president, said in the phone interview Tuesday that another trustee was also asked to resign along with Zhao for working with him to contact the other schools. She said that trustee, whom she did not name, has not stepped down.
Nelson also disputed a part of Zhao’s letter that criticized her unexpected announcement in January that the school was looking for a merger partner, which effectively set the school in a downward spiral.
“The downward spiral started like four years ago, with decreasing enrollment,” Nelson said. She agreed with one part of the letter — that discussions have become tense, with bullying and fear tactics.
“I’ve been subject to that and Gaye [Hill,] our board chair, sure was,” Nelson said. “It’s been pretty tough.”
Nelson said she and trustees have tried to be transparent and communicative.
Hill left the board this week after six years. She said she expected these discussions about the school’s future to be controversial and emotional.
“What I didn’t expect was the vitriol, slanderous attacks, and the questioning of motives that have been leveled at not only me but at colleagues who have been working months on end with one goal in mind: to bring Hampshire through the worst financial crisis in its history,” she said in a statement.
New board chairman Luis Hernandez did not return a call requesting comment through a spokesman.