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 in a telephone interview. “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-year career at Tufts University. She goes by the nickname Mim.
The college announced the appointment on Tuesday. Nelson will be on campus to meet with faculty and students on Wednesday.
Lash, 72, last year announced his plan to retire from Hampshire in June after seven years as president, during which time he championed sustainable energy, spearheading projects designed to make the school carbon-neutral by 2020, which means the campus will generate as much energy as it uses in a given year. Under his watch, the college also dropped the use of SAT scores in Hampshire admission policies.
Nelson was appointed by college’s board of trustees after a year-long national search. Gaye Hill, chairwoman of the board of trustees and the 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 immediately 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 world’s 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 board of trustees and co-chairman of the 17-member search committee, said the search team was impressed with her leadership skills, management style, and scholarship as well as the way her values aligned so perfectly with Hampshire’s.
“She really hit it out of the park in every way,” said Saal, who lives in Northampton and was a member of Hampshire’s first class.
Nirman Dave, a third-year Hampshire student who is on the board and also 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 as she takes the helm at Hampshire are those being 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, but the flip side of this is that Hampshire is distinctive. It is not a generic liberal arts school. It has guts and passion,” she said.
At Tufts, Nelson was a prolific fund-raiser, teacher, and scholar. She also worked in the ranks of the administration, spearheading efforts to create a more diverse campus and increase the number of women and people of color among the highest echelon of the administration. 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 around the world.
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 the country’s dietary guidelines. She is author of a 10-book series “Strong Women,” based on a 1994 study for which she was the principal investigator. She also published original research on the role of nutrition and exercise in prevention assorted health conditions including heart disease osteoporosis 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 said she and her husband plan to move into the Hampshire president’s home in July.
Nelson earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and her PhD from the Tufts University School of Nutrition.
Hampshire, founded in 1970, 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 has an operating budget of $56 million and a $55 million endowment.