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.
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
[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 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
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.
Photos: Frank Ward