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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2003 > First Impressions

Anthony MarxFirst Impressions

By Stacey Schmeidel

Anthony W. Marx began work as Amherst’s 18th president on July 1. A Columbia University political scientist who has written widely on nation-building, he also has been a leader in strengthening public education. He founded the Columbia Urban Educators Program, a teacher recruitment and training partnership, and last year headed the Early College/High School Initiative, a Gates Foundation-funded program at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation designed to establish model public high schools as partnerships between school systems and colleges or universities. In the mid-’80s, Marx lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he helped found Khanya College for the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) Trust.

During his first weeks at Amherst, as construction crews hammered away at dormitory renovations on the Quad outside his undecorated Converse Hall office, Marx outlined his experience, his interests and his early impressions of Amherst.

After you graduated from Yale, your first job was as an assistant to University of Pennsylvania President Sheldon Hackney. Have you always aspired to a college presidency?

[Laughs] I wrote my senior thesis about Plato and the university he started in ancient Greece. I came to that issue as a political theorist, thinking about the university, education and democracy. As a result of my thesis, I was curious about issues of university governance in the current day. And then, by coincidence, a friend recommended Sheldon Hackney as someone I might write to. He was just starting [as president] at the University of Pennsylvania, and he asked me to join him. It was a rare and amazing opportunity to see the university from a particular perspective, and also to get substantively involved in the university’s relations with its community, through public education and economic development in West Philadelphia. It was fascinating, and I could not have had a more amazing first job, or a more generous mentor, teacher and friend.

After a couple of years, my focus started to shift back to the real substance of the university in the academic area, and to my interest in the study of politics. In particular, I wanted to learn about South Africa, a country that had long been fascinating to me, and repugnant to me in terms of apartheid. So in a sense, I suppose that my earliest experience with university administration convinced me to get out of administration!

Marx speaking
Marx addresses students and their families at Orientation

How did your work in South Africa influence your subsequent career?

I think it’s true that no single life experience has affected me as much as living in South Africa in the 1980s. The country was on the brink of—and then was—exploding, and we saw the ravages of that explosion on a daily basis. I saw colleagues on the run, maimed and sometimes killed. But South Africa turned that terrible experience into its own inspiring commitment to nonracial democracy, as well as an inspiring lesson for others.

My experience in South Africa taught me to put other forms of difficulty into perspective. It taught me to look for possibilities, for ways out of seemingly impossible situations. In difficult times, we often find what we truly are, what we truly believe and what we can become. In the worst of our days, the human spirit is invigorated.

You’d left university administration for activism and then the Columbia faculty. Why did you decide to return to academic administration?

It still surprises me that I did! I turned out to be a better scholar and teacher than I expected. I enjoyed it. And I was really very fortunate. Columbia is a great university, and I enjoyed being in New York. [My wife] Karen [Barkey, professor of history and sociology at Columbia] and I were the first couple to get tenure from inside the ranks of the university. My latest book had come out in May, and I was thinking about another book project.

I wasn’t looking for anything different—though I think I was ready for something different in a number of ways. I was exploring that through my work with the Gates Foundation [and the Early College/High School Initiative], which was a re-engagement with my activist side and my passion for public education as a basis of democracy. My readiness was further invigorated after September 11, when I witnessed the fall of those towers and then was shaken, as we all were, by the reality that life is shorter than perhaps we like to think, and that the need to engage in making the world a better place is not a project that we can delay.

Also, the death of my father, at around the same time, forced me to think about whether I wanted to do exactly what I had been doing or try something different. But I had no particular idea of what that new phase might be. I was then surprised to be asked whether I would be willing to be considered for the Amherst presidency. Then, as that process progressed, the presidency began to seem a more natural fit, in ways I don’t think I had always anticipated.

Continued >>

Photos: Frank Ward


Online Extra


President Marx's Opening Convocation Speech


Amherst College News Release: Board of Trustees Appoints Anthony W. Marx
18th President of Amherst College

Additional links, including a profile in Columbia College Today

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