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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2003 > Hail & Farewell

Tom Gerety viewed through a windowHail & Farewell

By Stacey Schmeidel

After nine years as Amherst’s president, Tom Gerety stepped down at the end of June to lead the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. While signing letters in his Converse Hall office on the Tuesday between Commencement and Reunion, he reflected on his tenure at Amherst and looked ahead to life in New York.

How are you feeling about leaving?

I have enormously mixed and conflicted feelings about going. It’s hard to let go and to say goodbye. As anyone knows, it’s good to leave at the right time, and I think this is the right time to go. The college is strong, and I feel as though I’ve done a lot of the things that seemed to be on the horizon as I arrived. My leaving also happens to coincide with the home-leaving of our youngest to college—so it’s the end of nearly 30 years of child rearing and having kids in the house, and that seems a good time to head for the city and a different kind of lifestyle and life activity. So I think it’s a great time in our lives. But it’s a sad time and a tired time, too.

What do you feel you’ve accomplished in your long tenure at Amherst?

Well, a lot of leadership in a college is stewardship. It’s protecting the college against harm and nurturing its strengths. My private motto in those first couple of years was “Let’s stick to our knitting.” There are enormous pulls toward novelty and new initiatives, and many of them are very, very good ideas, but some of them would distract from what we truly are. So I’d start by saying that I think my first obligation was one of stewardship (and I think that’s very challenging at Amherst, because it’s an extremely headstrong place—in almost every person and every constituency). There’s no doubt that an important part of that is fiscal stewardship—in what I have called the offense and the defense—that is, the fundraising on the one hand and the investing that goes with that, and the sternness about living within our means.

A second issue that I think just comes with the traditions of Amherst is the question of integration and diversity. I think that many people felt (as with our rankings) that we could do no better [in terms of diversity]. My restlessness with that grew over time, as I felt more and more that we needed a new effort in our entire institutional life to understand where we stood, even in statistical terms, and to do better in exploiting that position of strength. The hiring of [Dean of Admission and Financial Aid] Tom Parker, the review of admissions—these things came together with the athletic reforms that I had pushed for. A significant portion of that whole effort was to make our admissions more thoughtful and careful in every area, so that we would be strong and competitive in athletics, but the athletic teams would pull their weight in trying to diversify the college.

Athletic reform was another major effort, because it extended well beyond Amherst and toward Williams and toward NESCAC—even beyond NESCAC, toward the Ivy League and the non-Division I schools. It coincided and joined nicely at Amherst with an effort to push the horizon of diversity further than we had, while at the same time insisting (I hope sensibly and reflectively and sensitively) on unity within our community. A small but symbolically important portion of that was in the [move to a shared] orientation and the common first day. I feel I’ve had an important part in the gradual re-emphasis on integration as opposed to separation, which was an important parcel of the great discussion of affirmative action, not just at Amherst but across the country, culminating in the amicus brief [that Amherst and 28 other liberal arts colleges filed supporting the University of Michigan in the recent Supreme Court case on affirmative action]. But that again is just a simple symbol of a larger set of forces. Those have been very satisfying and important, because over the past decade obstacles that had seemed truly insurmountable and entrenched gave way. Williams and Amherst joined to become the leaders in NESCAC reform because it made sense and because there was a logic to it on the athletic side. Amherst for a long time has been, I think, the leader among liberal arts colleges on diversity, maybe with one or two others at our side. And I think we led the way in unifying the experience of study here, so that we began to mount an explicit philosophic position: We do not believe in segregation for special purposes. We believe that there are lots of opportunities for separation within the undergraduate experience, and some of them make a lot of sense. But overall, this should be an integrating experience.

These are small gains. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s been anything revolutionary in this. I think that this
is just simply a matter of bit-by-bit pushes, but in a consistent direction. And overall that kind of change accumulates toward a fairly significant directional shift and fairly significant change and reform.

Continued >>

Photo: Frank Ward


Online Extra


Tom Gerety Speech Archive

Brennan Center for Justice

Brennan Center's announcement of its appointment of Tom Gerety

Amherst's Philosophy

Archives and Special Collections Presidential Gallery

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