President Anthony W. Marx in his office, next to a portrait of Noah Webster, chair of the Board of Amherst Academy during the critical 1820-21 period, when Amherst College was formed.
Amherst Now and Then
A year of institutional self-assessment, with an eye toward the future
By President Anthony W. Marx
The college is in great shape, with first-rate faculty and students engaging in the finest undergraduate program anywhere, thanks to generations of alumni support. We all know, however, that if the college simply rests on its laurels, we will not be able to claim the same success a generation from now.
With the engagement of the faculty, staff, students, trustees and alumni, we are poised for Amherst’s next renewal. Through the year 2005, the Committee on Academic Priorities is charged with assessing where we are today and where we aspire to be in the future—and how we can get there.
The moment and the possibilities are indeed auspicious, and if we live up to that opportunity, Amherst can indeed ensure its continued leadership in higher education in America. Because this will require the insight, wisdom and support of all of us, I want to let you know where our planning is currently headed and ask for your advice.
As you know, the college is concerned about how we can provide continued access for the very best students, regardless of their ability to pay tuition. Amherst was founded with that mission embedded in its charter, and we have proudly been leaders in “need-blind, full need” financial aid. Our commitments in that regard will not waver, nor will we sacrifice the diversity of interests and of geographic, racial and ethnic backgrounds of our students, who can learn from each other’s differences. Nor will we reduce the enrollment of alumni children, who reinforce the historical continuity of our community. Of course, none of these commitments to diversity have or should come at the cost of our highest commitment to academic excellence.
For all of our success, we do note that economic disadvantage seems to remain a barrier that keeps talented students—including international students—from attending, or even considering, Amherst or our peer institutions. Indeed, Harvard, Yale and Princeton recently have revised their aid packages to address this concern, though in doing so they have simply matched what Amherst has already been doing. Now we must ask at Amherst what else we might do to lead higher education in this important area. The Committee on Academic Priorities, together with the trustees and faculty, has been deliberating on whether and how we might adjust our loans, expectations of student earnings or parental contribution and even our tuition pricing.
We also are deeply engaged in a discussion of the education we provide to students once they come to Amherst. The faculty has begun to discuss how to provide even better advising for our students, so that the students can more fully take advantage of our curriculum. In consultation with the Committee on Academic Priorities, working groups are developing proposals for more intensive courses to improve students’ writing and quantitative skills. Other working groups are discussing how to increase global awareness in the curriculum, with more international students and more overseas study or work opportunities.
I am heartened to see mounting interest in one of the college’s oldest commitments: to our surrounding community. A working group has proposed that Amherst students be encouraged to provide hours of service during the year, with the college providing training, mentoring, placements and even staff support in public schools or agencies where our students are working. Perhaps, in recognition of that service and to complement it, students could be provided a paid summer internship, again with placement help from the college. Students would return to campus with experiences that would engage them further and inform their studies. For instance, a student who has worked in public schools might bring that experience to a course on the politics or economics of public education. An advisory committee on Interterm recommends that alumni who have worked in areas of interest to current students also be invited to meet with them and with faculty annually in January. Certainly that latter proposal would enable the college to benefit from the experiences of its alumni and provide additional opportunities for substantive interaction among students and alumni.
The President’s Initiative Fund, another aspect of current planning, already has supported the development of new interdisciplinary curricular efforts such as Science in Law, Global Sound, the Urban Imagination, Human Rights, Environmental Studies, and Public Education and Social Justice. Not only should these projects enrich the Amherst curriculum, but they might also integrate with student and alumni experiences and certainly should help our students understand how the liberal arts can be combined to better understand and possibly resolve pressing issues or problems.
The Committee on Academic Priorities also will be faced with the question of how all these efforts and plans affect the need for future faculty appointments. Those needs will emerge from advising, writing, quantitative, global, experiential and interdisciplinary initiatives, as well as from the expanding map of knowledge. Faculty hiring also may be influenced by efforts to contain class size, consistent with the traditions of a great liberal arts college; to provide the best possible First-Year Seminars; and to address the diversity and age structure of the faculty as a whole. And because we understand the valuable interface between teaching and scholarly or artistic work, we also will need to think about how to offer sufficient support for the art and research that inform and are informed by the classroom. Finally, in an era of rapid change, we must assure the continuing excellence of the libraries and information technology resources that support our learning community.
As you can see, the range of current discussions on campus is about as broad as it could possibly be. That is, in my view, appropriate—even essential—for a great college that aspires to continue to provide both individual leaders and institutional leadership. And as I said at the outset and repeat whenever I meet with alumni, we need the Amherst community as a whole to inform and join in these deliberations.
I hope you will take the opportunity to join our conversation about the future of Amherst College. If you have thoughts on the issues raised here or proposals that emerge in the coming year, we would like to hear from you. We need to hear from you if we are to do the best possible job we can of ensuring the future of this great college. You can enter this process simply with an email to the Committee on Academic Priorities at CAP@amherst.edu. You may also check the committee’s Website at www.amherst.edu/~cap.
Photo: Frank Ward