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Former New England College leader sues school alleging discrimination, emotional distress after ouster

Michele Perkins, former president of New England College, is suing the school, alleging discrimination. (File photo)
Sheryl Rich-Kern/NHPR
Michele Perkins, former president of New England College, is suing the school, alleging discrimination. (File photo)

Michele Perkins, who led New England College as president for 14 years before assuming the role of chancellor in 2022, is suing the school alleging gender discrimination and emotional distress after she was fired from her position earlier this year.

Perkins alleges she was unexpectedly released by New England College, in Henniker, in April during an online meeting “in a humiliating and crude manner,” according to her lawsuit. She alleges her firing was the culmination of a campaign of misogyny and a culture of gender bias among certain top officials at the school she led for more than a decade.

“I was stunned to be dismissed on a Zoom call with other people on the call with no advance warning and no reason,” Perkins told NHPR. “And so this lawsuit is the only way I know that current leadership can be held accountable for their actions.”

In court documents filed in Vermont, where Perkins now resides full time, she claims that had she been “a male past president of the College with her remarkable record, the Board Chair and college president would have taken her out to lunch at their country club” to share their concerns, rather than ousting her over a screen.

The lawsuit names the college as well as its current president, Wayne Lesperance, as defendants.

In a statement, the college’s chair of the board of trustees praised Perkins’ contributions during her time at the school, and expressed disappointment over the allegations.

"Due in large part to the efforts and contributions put forth by Dr. Perkins during her long tenure of service, New England College is firmly positioned on the national map and the positive impacts of her stewardship continues to be appreciated by the NEC community,” Lex Scourby said. “While we are disappointed by recent developments, our first priority will always be our students and the continued delivery of high quality education.”

The 16-page lawsuit lays out Perkins’ own accomplishments in fundraising and enrollment growth during her time at the college, describing her as an “eminent leader in the field of higher education.” Perkins began her time at New England College as a consultant in 2001 and served as president from 2008 to 2022. In September of last year, she voluntarily stepped down, and assumed the paid position of chancellor, working remotely from her home in Vermont.

In a 2022 press release announcing her new role, Perkins said, “I look forward to working with Wayne [Lesperance] on the transition. We share a deep commitment to NEC.”

That relationship appears to have soured during the ensuing months. In court paperwork, Perkins alleges that Lesperance, who previously served as provost at New England College and has long been a media commentator on New Hampshire politics, was influenced when he assumed the role of president by other top officials who “harbored long standing misogynistic attitudes.”

She claims those biases resulted in her dismissal from the chancellor role without any stated cause, and that the manner of her firing “was intended to demoralize [Perkins] and professionally decapitate her.” Multiple top leaders of the school were present during the April 4 online meeting when she was told by Lesperance that “it’s just not working out,” according to her complaint.

“No substantive reason was given for the bizarre decision” to terminate her, she alleges.

Perkins is seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and allegations the school violated gender discrimination laws, and is requesting a jury trial.

“Frankly, it would be a betrayal of everything I've worked for and the hopes and dreams of the younger generations of women if I had kept silent about this, so to me it was my professional and ethical obligation,” Perkins said in an interview.

The school’s board chair said Friday that New England College continues to have confidence in Lesperance as its president, writing that he has “exhibited leadership and vision” during his time in the position.

Lesperance is scheduled to be formally inaugurated as college president at the end of September during a public celebration on campus.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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