Amherst Magazine

College Row

New committee to consider the college’s long-term academic needs

Predicting the future is a dicey pastime. History is littered with hollow prophecies of approaching apocalypse and dreamy visions of technological nirvana. But a new committee created by President Anthony W. Marx hopes to put prognostication to a more productive use. The Committee on Academic Priorities—a 12-member group drawn from the faculty, staff and student body—is looking at the world that Amherst students will face a decade from now and considering how the college might best prepare students for that world.

“The basic premise,” Marx says, “is that in serious education institutions, we need to step back on a regular basis and assess what it is that we’re doing and what it is that we think we could do differently or better. This is the committee that really will be asking: ‘Where are we, where should we be heading, and how do we get there?’ That discussion will then inform the board’s decision about what aspirations we need to raise money to meet. We think it’s very important that the conversations be focused on the education priorities and commitments of Amherst College and that we let those determine the financial requirements.”

 “We are charged with considering every aspect of intellectual life at the college,” says Anson D. Morse Professor of History John Servos, who co-chairs the committee with Marx, “from the operation of the advising system to the challenge of ensuring that we are giving adequate attention to emerging fields of study on the borderlands between traditional subjects.” 

The CAP’s purview extends to academic infrastructure, including computer systems and supporting institutions, such as Frost Library, the Mead Art Museum and the Natural History Museum. Servos says that the committee will consider whether the college’s current academic program offers students everything they will need over the coming decade, whether there might need to be new areas of teaching or an expansion of faculty, whether there should be an increase in support for scholarship and a wide range of other issues.

“What distinguishes Amherst College is this issue of excellence,” says committee member Tekla Harms, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Geology. “So the first thing I want to know is, ‘Are we fulfilling our present mission or goals with excellence?’ If I’m satisfied that we’re doing that, then I think the most exciting question is, ‘What else could we do that would have significant impact in the lives of the country, society, the world and the young people we’re going to bring here?’”

Although the CAP will be assessing the options available to students, several members emphasized that they do not anticipate recommending major reorganization. “I don’t imagine we’re going to come up with a long list of five or 10 new departments,” says Stanley Rabinowitz, the Henry Steele Commager Professor and professor of Russian. Rabinowitz says that the college’s small size and current effectiveness make dramatic expansion impractical and largely unnecessary. “It’s not really a question of inventing new fields,” he says, “but rather examining what we have and seeing whether there have been changes within the field. Are we on top of changes in pedagogy? Are we on top of changes in machinery?”

The CAP’s report will provide a major benchmark, but the process of self-examination is a continuous one for the college, and several committees recently have produced reports analyzing various elements of Amherst’s approach to education and the ways in which those elements are changing. All of these reports will provide a basis for the CAP’s attempt to anticipate future needs. Servos says that one of the most helpful of these earlier studies is the one produced in 2003 by the Special Committee on the Amherst Education, which drew special attention to enhancing students’ writing and quantitative skills, improving their understanding of global society and facilitating their engagement with the community.

In terms of the future, committee members say that while specific predictions are impossible, they do foresee certain broad possibilities. “I think it’s going to be a very multicultural world,” Harms says, “a world in which Anglo-American culture may not be the dominant one. I think it will be an economically intricate world—haves and have-nots, those kinds of issues. I think it’s going to be a complex technological and scientific world. In the past, we got to move about in ignorance of the connectedness between burning fossil fuels and breathing air and having cars, and now we see that those things are tremendously connected. How we’re going to manage our place in those connections is both ethically and politically challenging.”

“It seems that the change that is taking place is so much more rapid than it was 30 years ago or even 20 years ago,” Rabinowitz says. “I can think back when President Julian Howard Gibbs had a long-range planning committee, and Gibbs spoke about the reinvention of the world; but the world seemed to be simpler then. It really is a more integrated and complicated world today, and that makes this task more important, but also more difficult.”

While forecasting, even in broad terms, is always uncertain, there is one thing that committee members say can be predicted with some assurance: the continued relevance of the liberal arts. “I think this world will need all kinds of people,” Harms says. “It truly is going to need engineers and people who spend all their time focused on a very narrow subject. But it’s also going to need Renaissance people and broad thinkers—people who are fast on their feet moving from one subject to another. And that’s what a liberal arts education does best.”

The CAP’s charge is on the committee’s Website, www.amherst.edu/~cap. Comments and suggestions for the CAP may be sent to cap@amherst.edu. The committee’s report is due in early 2006.

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