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Hampshire College president resigns

“I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find a path to daylight that has eluded me,” wrote Hampshire College president Miriam Nelson in her resignation letter.
“I am confident a new leader will work within a more favorable environment and find a path to daylight that has eluded me,” wrote Hampshire College president Miriam Nelson in her resignation letter.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File)

AMHERST — Embattled Hampshire College president Miriam “Mim” Nelson announced her resignation Friday, saying the school is divided over her leadership and she had become a distraction from the “important work to establish a sustainable financial model for the school.”

The college trustees appointed Kenneth Rosenthal, one of the school’s founders, as interim president. And they voted to move forward on a path to keeping Hampshire independent.

Luis A. Hernandez, the newly elected interim chairman of the trustees, said the board endorsed a path that includes “engaging fully in fund-raising in support of an independent Hampshire. That must be our unifying principle in the days and weeks ahead.”

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In an interview, Rosenthal said he hopes to forge a path in which Hampshire would not merge with another institution.

“We’re going to try to keep Hampshire independent. Strategic partner is always possible. More than that, we don’t know,” he said. “This is going to be a very inclusive process.”

The change of leadership comes amid considerable turmoil at Hampshire over its future. The small liberal arts college announced in January that it was in financial jeopardy and in search of a merger. Later, the college trustees voted not to accept a full class of students for the fall semester and signaled that layoffs of staff and professors are expected.

Since then, the campus and its alumni have been divided over how the school should proceed. Two Hampshire trustees resigned in recent weeks, one saying she had become a lightning rod, another saying he was forced out. On Friday, yet another trustee stepped down.

The drama at Hampshire also comes as small colleges across the region are struggling financially. Several have announced plans to close. Last spring, the abrupt shutdown of Mount Ida College in Newton in created turmoil on campus and pushed state officials to consider keeping a closer eye on the financial health of private schools.

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Asked Friday whether Hampshire might consider admitting a class for the college’s spring semester next year, as a group of faculty and alumni and students have proposed, Rosenthal said it’s too soon to say.

“I would love to keep as many students here and bring as many students in as we can, and, if it’s possible, to bring students in for the spring semester,” Rosenthal said. “It’s an exciting time.”

After being part of the committee that planned and opened Hampshire, Rosenthal became college treasurer when the school opened in 1970 and stayed on until 1976.

Nelson resigned in a letter to campus in which she said it became clear to her that she could no longer lead the school. She noted that she knew the announcement made Jan. 15 — when the college first revealed its financial struggles — and the decision not to accept a new class “would create anxiety, sorrow and anger. That has surely come to pass. For many this entire situation came as too much of a shock and felt like too much of a betrayal.”

Nelson said she informed trustees of her decision two days ago.

“So long as I were to remain president of Hampshire, the community’s feelings about me would be a distraction to the necessary work.”

Also stepping down from the college Friday was Kim Saal, vice chair of the board of trustees, who said: “My love for Hampshire has never wavered and I will always cherish being a member of the Hampshire community.”

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Hernandez said in his letter to the community that he said he accepted Nelson’s resignation “with a heavy heart.”

“In the nine months she has been with us, Mim has served the college honorably and well and I am dismayed by what she has had to endure,” Hernandez wrote.