Jonathan Lash to retire from Hampshire College

  • Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash, right, speaks with Veterans Advocacy Services Vice President Victor Nunez Ortiz soon after the flag was raised on the campus Friday, December 2, 2016. Ortiz is also Commander of Amherst VFW Post 754.

  • Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash talks about his decision to retire in June 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jonathan Lash, the president of Hampshire College talking about his plan to retire. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash announced his retirement Friday, effective June 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, right, produces its own heat, electricity and water and takes care of its own wastewater. It is one example of the sustainability efforts Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash, left, has spearheaded since coming to the college in 2011. Lash on Friday announced he will retire in June 2018. GAZETTE staff/carol lollis

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2017

AMHERST — Visible changes to Hampshire College, including the R.W. Kern Center at the heart of the campus and the 15,000 solar array panels at its edge, have marked a focus on sustainability during the tenure of President Jonathan Lash.

Coming to a college that he saw as perhaps turning itself inward too much in 2011, Lash made a point of taking Hampshire’s values and visions externally. That shift in focus has helped attract students and had a positive impact on education.

“What’s important to me is the integration of what we’re doing on campus that aligns with our values and meets the educational mission of the college,” Lash said.

The college’s sixth president, Lash, 71, announced Feb. 10, in advance of a trustees meeting at the Lord Jeffery Inn, that he would retire in June 2018 at the end of his seventh year at the helm.

It was a decision prompted by a serious illness last year, including a medical leave during spring semester 2016 due to complications from back surgery, that made him “acutely conscious of the preciousness and fragility of life.” Lash said he recognized how much that he and his wife, Ellie, still want to do.

Before coming to Hampshire, the longtime environmental activist served 18 years as president of World Resources Institute, a Washington environmental think tank. Lash also served as co-chairman of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997.

In 2007, he helped create the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations calling for action on global climate change.

Sustainability comes naturally to the college, he said, and it’s meant saving $8 million to $10 million over 20 years by installing solar panels and spending $11 million on the Kern building that produces its own heat, electricity and water and takes care of its own wastewater.

“There’s a lot of willingness among alumni to support that philanthropically,” Lash said, adding that an increase in giving shows that graduates believe in the school.

The Kern Center also has educational benefits, such as when first-year students studied the wastewater treatment and won an award at a conference last year.

“Students are having the fun of doing something meaningful and cutting edge,” Lash said.

Student activism

Even though the college got national attention last fall for removing the American flag, and there have been accusations that the administration hasn’t done enough to address racism and sexual assaults, Lash said that students are active participants in the student-centered education.

He added that protests and incidents, such as a commencement speaker blasting the college last year, are all part and parcel of being a college president.

“When social change is going on the country, it plays out on campuses, particularly small liberal arts campuses,” Lash said.

Student trustee Eduardo Samaniego, a second-year student originally from Mexico, appreciates the college’s environmental focus.

“Jonathan has set a very high standard, especially when it comes to our commitment to sustainability,” Samaniego said.

In fact, Samaniego will be heading to Washington, D.C., this spring as one of scholars from across the country to present to politicians how to deal with climate change.

Nirman Dave, a second-year student from Rajkot, India, studying computer science and behavioral economics, said he appreciates that Lash met with him and served as a mentor.

“He sets a benchmark for what a president should be like,” Dave said.

The beginning

Lash came to Hampshire after the tumultuous tenure of Ralph Hexter, who clashed with students and faculty over issues such as construction of a new admissions office to Hampshire’s investment in Israel.

But even though sustainability is most prominent for Lash, his legacy also includes diversifying the student body and increasing gifts.

Lash said ending his professional career as a college president was unexpected. He credits Adele Simmons, Hampshire’s third president and former president of the MacArthur Foundation, for sending him an email and getting him in touch with the search committee.

He recalls with fondness meeting with six students at the Logan Airport Hilton in Boston who were ready to argue and debate.

“I just fell in love with the students’ ideas; they are smart and energetic and think they can change the world, and that’s the way it’s worked out” Lash said.

Gaye Hill, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said Lash allowed people to communicate across all divides, bringing a collaborative leadership style, but also an ability to encourage everyone to provide input before decisions are made.

“Jonathan has allowed the campus a level of trust that it didn’t see before,” Hill said.

The sustainability projects have generated a lot more interest in Hampshire from other colleges and private businesses. “That gives Hampshire a wonderful opportunity for its faculty, students and staff,” Hill said.

Even though there was initial skepticism about Lash because he didn’t rise the academia ranks, those interviewed said was particularly good with faculty.

“He basically told the faculty they’re the experts on curriculum and he said he’d take care of the college,” said Susan Tracy, a professor emerita of history and American studies.

Tracy calls Lash a “terrific president” who brought in a refreshing attitude and readily admitted if he made a mistake. This was true when he withdrew an invitation to a commencement speaker last year after recognizing that he hadn’t followed the process that students needed to make the decision.

“I’ve always thought of him as a decent and honest guy, who also had considerable stature in the field of environmental justice and environmental areas,” Tracy said.

Even though 20 years removed from teaching at Hampshire, Miriam Slater, a professor emerita of feminist social history, said Lash has a good reputation among faculty. She also was impressed with Lash observing interactions he had with students during a protest, allowing their voices to be heard.

Slater noted that Lash has invited her and her husband to dinner at the president’s house. “He did keep in touch, not only with me, but a number of people who are retired, and made us feel part of the college,” Slater said.

Next steps

Hill will meet with trustees and administrators to form a search committee and get a search firm in place, writing as request for proposal to solicit application, with interviews by this time next year and a new president in place before commencement 2018.

Lash said he still has plenty of work over the nearly 17 months he remains on the job.

“I feel like I have a lot do on campus,” Lash said. “I don’t feel capable of sitting around and coasting.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.