St. Paul’s School rector to step down in summer 2019

  • Rector Michael Hirschfeld talks about the independent investigation into past sexual misconduct of teachers at St. Paul's School in Concord on Monday, May 22, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • St. Paul’s School Rector Michael Hirschfeld talks about the independent investigation into past sexual misconduct of teachers at the school on May 22, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Thursday, January 04, 2018

Michael Hirschfeld announced Thursday morning that he will step down as rector of St. Paul’s School in Concord.

Hirschfeld, a 1985 graduate of the elite boarding school, was chosen as the 13th head of school in late 2010 and has presided over the institution during a period of high-profile turmoil. He will leave St. Paul’s after completing his eight-year term, he wrote in a letter to the school community. That term ends in June 2019.

“Liesbeth and I are grateful beyond words for our 23 years at the school,” Hirschfeld said on behalf of his family. “We have found the work of helping young people learn and grow in this unique environment remarkably fulfilling and energizing. What we could never have anticipated was the warmth and strength of this community. Liesbeth, Hannah, Gus, and I will always call it home.”

A spokesman for the school said Hirschfeld preferred to have his letter speak to his decision to leave St. Paul’s, and that Hirschfeld would not be granting interviews at this time.

In his letter, Hirschfeld does not provide an explanation for his decision other than to note “the time is right for new leadership.” He expressed the same sentiment in his resignation letter, which was received in December by Archibald Cox Jr., the president of the school’s Board of Trustees.

“Mike has done a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances,” Cox, a 1958 graduate of St. Paul’s, told the Monitor. “He feels it’s time for him to move on.”

The Board of Trustees, which has 24 active members, will form a search committee, likely composed of trustees and faculty members tasked with leading the search for a new rector, Cox said. He noted the school will use an outside consultant to assist in the process.

“There are advantages to having an alum, but I don’t think by any means that is a prerequisite,” Cox said of a new rector. “It’s about finding the best person for the job.”

Hirschfeld was required by contract to give the school 18 months notice of his decision. Hirschfeld makes $375,573 a year in addition to other compensation, according to the school’s 2016 tax filing.

Students, faculty and staff learned of Hirschfeld’s resignation during morning chapel Thursday. In letters, Hirschfeld and Cox jointly notified alumni and parents of current students.

Cox told the Monitor that Hirschfeld’s news was not unexpected given his term is coming to an end, however, it was still hard to receive.

“During his years as rector, Mike has overseen major advancements in meeting the mission of the school, among them the expansion and integration of campus facilities, a transformation in academic professionalism, and very significant enhancement of the community culture, while at the same time having to deal with unprecedented challenges on numerous fronts,” Cox wrote in his letter to the St. Paul’s community.

Hirschfeld’s announcement comes at the same time the school is the focus of a criminal investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office for its handling of sexual assault and misconduct allegations. Prosecutors said the investigation, launched in July, will initially focus on issues of possible child endangerment and obstruction of justice, but could expand if the evidence warrants such action.

In launching the criminal probe, the attorney general’s office cited two reports released by St. Paul’s in 2017 on faculty abuse of students spanning decades. Top prosecutors also said they would be looking looking into more recent reports, including sexual conquest games such as the “Senior Salute.” The game took center stage at the 2015 sexual assault trial of St. Paul’s graduate Owen Labrie who was convicted of using the internet to lure an underclassman for sex.

St. Paul’s said in a statement Thursday that it believes any legal obligations stemming from that investigation will be resolved before Hirshfeld’s departure.

Alumnus Alexis Johnson said by phone that the school is at a crossroads. He said the choices the Board of Trustees makes during the search for a new rector – and the final appointment – will say a lot about whether St. Paul’s is committed to changing its culture.

“The school is once again faced with an opportunity to choose,” said Johnson, a lawyer and graduate of the class of 1976. “It’s not only choosing a rector; it’s choosing its future. And, in that regard, it ought to move really slowly, really cautiously, and with as much wisdom as it can muster from as many places as it can gather. There is no hurry; there is not recipe; there is no color by numbers solution.”

For some parents of children who attend St. Paul’s, news of Hirschfeld’s decision came as a surprise, given his long tenure with the institution, including as a student, faculty member and administrator.

Beth Hobbs, co-president of the Parents Association and a parent of four, said Hirschfeld has made his mark as a leader.

“Despite all the challenges Mike and St. Paul’s School have faced in recent years, the wonderful spirit and mission of the school is still in tact, and we thank Mike for that,” she wrote in an email.

Jill Avery, a trustee and parent, echoed those sentiments, noting that faculty, under Hirshfeld’s guidance, provided her children with “an excellent integrated education embedded within a safe and supportive community.”

She said she considers Hirschfeld’s greatest contributions to St. Paul’s to be his development of a “strong, yet flexible integrated curriculum,” as well as his efforts to strengthen and expand the school’s educational and student life programs and facilities.

“He is, at heart, a teacher and a lifelong learner, and this passion for learning fueled everything that he did as rector,” she wrote in an email.

Avery said it is too premature to comment on the essential qualities of a future rector, but said the trustees will be taking on the question in “great detail.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)