Amherst Magazine

Johnson Chapel in autumn.Charting a Course for the Future

In September President Anthony W. Marx sent all alumni, parents and friends a letter outlining the college’s plans for the future. This series of articles examines in depth some of the themes discussed in the president’s letter. Additional information and related discussion are available at www.amherst.edu/future.

Renewing the curriculum

This fall the college stands at a pivotal point in its history. In offices and classrooms, coffee shops and lecture halls, on campus and miles away, a discussion is taking place that will shape the future of the college.

In January, after a year of intensive deliberations with faculty, students, staff, trustees and alumni, the Committee on Academic Priorities issued a number of broad recommendations about what the college might look like in its third century. These recommendations (online in the CAP Report at www.amherst.edu/cap) cover issues connected to almost all aspects of life at the college, from the curriculum to community engagement, admission and the composition of the faculty.

Student holds poster paper with notes beginning "bold vision".

The CAP’s recommendations were debated by the faculty throughout the spring semester. Discussion was wide-ranging and often passionate, especially around proposals related to renewing Amherst’s curriculum. In the end—at the last faculty meeting of the year, a day before Commencement Weekend—the faculty voted overwhelmingly to endorse the priorities and goals outlined in the CAP Report, as modified and clarified by the Sum and Substance (a distillation of faculty discussion), as a strategy for moving forward. The Board of Trustees will discuss these priorities and goals at meetings this academic year, and various faculty committees will develop strategies for refining and implementing specific recommendations.

Of keen interest in faculty discussions this past spring was the question of how to shape education at the college. The CAP calls for expanding the faculty not only to meet departmental needs but also to meet the renewed focus on college-wide priorities articulated in its report, especially in fundamental areas (like writing and quantitative skills) or in departments committed to offering courses that are interdisciplinary, international or in other ways intellectually diverse. This is, says President Anthony W. Marx, “a sea change, one that will affect the shape of Amherst for years to come.”

Another key issue was a recommendation calling for student evaluations of all classes, including those taught by senior faculty. While many—perhaps most—of Amherst’s faculty already solicit some sort of student feedback about courses, the mandatory element of this particular recommendation was controversial, with strong feelings both for and against; some faculty found the recommendation too restrictive, while others felt it helped standardize an important process now inconsistently pursued. Ultimately, in a very close vote, the faculty endorsed the larger CAP Report goal of improving teaching throughout the college and agreed that a proposal for required teaching evaluations should be developed.

Another area of keen interest to the faculty was the proposal for a writing requirement—what would be the first new curricular requirement in nearly 40 years. The faculty broadly supported the proposition that the college needs to ensure better instruction in writing and will be discussing the proposal during this academic year. One approach, said CAP co-chair John Servos, the college’s Anson D. Morse Professor of History, might be to offer “writing intensive” classes, in courses across the curriculum, to help students become better writers. There was general agreement among the faculty that this responsibility should be met by regular faculty, rather than instructors hired to teach writing courses. Some faculty went further, expressing hope that the college would one day implement a similar plan for developing quantitative skills. The faculty are indeed discussing methods for enhancing students’ skills in these areas.

Many details, of course, remain to be finalized. The college continues to welcome feedback; e-mail president@amherst.edu, and follow the discussion at www.amherst.edu/future.

“This is,” Marx says, “the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it.”

Claire RannClaire Rann ’08 is a mentor to talented high school students from underserved schools.

Attracting the best students

In addition to being a class of political activists and community advocates (see College Row, p. 2), the Class of ’10 is distinguished by something else. It is, by any measure, one of the most diverse classes in the college’s history—and one of the most academically talented.

Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid, notes that the Class of ’10 includes students from 38 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 19 countries outside the United States. Thirty-nine percent of the class identify themselves as students of color; 18 percent of the first-years were valedictorians. Eighty-six percent were in the top 10 percent of their graduating high school classes, and the average SAT scores were 711 verbal, 706 math. At the same time, the Class of ’10 includes a record number of students whose annual family incomes are below roughly $40,000, making them eligible for Pell Grants. In addition, the class includes a higher percentage of children from alumni families.

Conventional wisdom—and last year’s Business Week story on admission at Amherst—suggests that increased diversity must come at the expense of academic excellence. How has Amherst been working to challenge that notion?

Credit goes first, says President Marx, to Parker and the admission staff, whose ongoing efforts to identify and enroll talented high school students have for decades made Amherst one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the U.S.

In addition, several new initiatives established to extend Amherst’s reach are already well along. In particular:

“Amherst’s conviction has long been that high academic standards can and must come with broad inclusion,” Marx noted in his September letter. For Marx, this is a simple proposition: “We must cast our net as widely as possible,” he says, “to reach out to the very best students from all backgrounds and all locations. When we cast a wider net, we reach a broader pool of applicants, and we are therefore more likely to attract those students who can most benefit from—and contribute to—the academic life of the college.”

The college retains its commitment to an array of constituencies, including alumni, and is focused on three pressing areas: middle-class students, who currently must take on tremendous debt to enroll at highly selective colleges (or who choose not to enroll because they don’t want to assume that debt); students from the bottom two quintiles of the nation’s economy, who often don’t apply to Amherst and other highly selective colleges because they wrongly think these schools are beyond their financial reach; and international students, for whom Amherst currently is not need-blind.

Marx noted, too, that initiatives in these areas are new, and will be evaluated and refined as they develop.

“The important thing,” according to Tom Parker, “is to retain our commitment to enrolling the most highly motivated, highly qualified students. We’re finding new ways to reach out to the largest number of these students, and we hope other schools will do the same.”

Dan Lowinger plays chess with a young student.Last year Dan Lowinger ’06 volunteered in local schools. A new Center for Community Engagement will promote a widespread culture of service on campus.

Community engagement

Community service at Amherst got a major boost over the summer, when the Argosy Foundation announced it would invest $13 million over the next seven years to create a Center for Community Engagement on campus. The mission of the new center will be to promote a widespread culture of service. It will build upon the successes of the current Community Outreach Program and the public service internship program within the Career Center. Alumni participation will be essential to the success of the new center, and there will be many ways for Amherst alumni to get involved, from hosting interns to presenting panels for students to serving on the advisory board.

Last year, according to Scott Laidlaw, director of community outreach, roughly one third of Amherst students did some form of volunteer work, with the majority serving as tutors or mentors to local students. Some volunteered their time at domestic-violence shelters and community farms in the area. Others traveled to New York City and Washington, D.C., during the January Interterm to teach in schools and to assist in pro bono legal work.

The new Center for Community Engagement will allow the college to dramatically expand student volunteer opportunities and increase partnerships with service organizations. Today, Amherst has seven local partners, including El Arco Iris Youth and Community Arts Center, an after-school program in Holyoke, Mass. Through the El Arco Iris partnership, around 20 Amherst students each year travel regularly to Holyoke to serve as tutors and mentors to Latino youth. Laidlaw says the Argosy Foundation grant and the Center for Community Engagement will allow the college to increase the number of local partnerships and build new partnerships with regional, national and international service organizations.

The college is now searching for the center’s founding director—someone who can help develop new opportunities for students and integrate community service into the academic experience. In addition to building more partnerships, the CCE will provide resources and logistical support to Amherst faculty interested in developing community-based learning courses. “The Center for Community Engagement,” says President Marx, “will encourage the integration of ideals and action by drawing hundreds of Amherst students into community service through linked curricular and
co-curricular programs.”

One important goal of the program is to expand public service internship opportunities for students who cannot afford to spend the summer working without pay. Plans are in the works to establish an incentive program through which Amherst students will commit to regular service in the local community during the school year in exchange for paid January or summer public service internships. The goal is for hundreds of Amherst students each year to intern at service organizations across the country and around the world.

The Argosy Foundation is a family philanthropy established by John Abele ’59, the founding chairman of Boston Scientific. “As a private family foundation,” Abele says, “we envision building communities, encouraging others to contribute in their own ways and collaborating creatively to find unique, even entrepreneurial, solutions to complex problems. College students can be especially good at all of these.”

Alumni who’d like to get involved with the new center should call the Office of Alumni and Parent Programs at (413) 542-2313 or send e-mail to cce@amherst.edu.

Debate in Cole Assembly Room.C-Span covered a talk at Amherst in which Joseph S. Nye and William Kristol debated America’s role in the world. Hear audio of the debate.

Broadening the range of debate

For years, pundits have professed that college campuses lean too far to the left. At Amherst, the focus is on broadening the conversation to ensure that both liberal and conservative views are expressed.

The most obvious examples of the broadening discussion tend to focus on visiting speakers. There was, of course, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s talk to an overflow crowd in Johnson Chapel in 2004. Since then, debate-style formats have proved popular: Students are still buzzing about the 2005 panel they organized featuring conservative author Ann Coulter and New Republic editor Peter Beinart. In another event former Kennedy School dean Joseph S. Nye and Weekly Standard founding editor William Kristol debated America’s role in the world. (Sponsored by the President’s Office, this event was broadcast on C-Span; audio is available online at www.amherst.edu/events_multimedia.)

Other events have sparked similarly thoughtful discussion with less media heat. Recent campus panels on topics
including the Iraq War, education reform and the crisis in Darfur have attracted large numbers of people from beyond the campus.

Increasingly, programs are making a point of involving alumni, too, in order to connect students and graduates with similar interests. Perhaps most notable in this category are the ongoing Colloquium on the American Founding and the Colloquium on the Constitution and the Imagining of America, organized, respectively, by political science professors Hadley Arkes and Austin Sarat. And a new series of Interterm Colloquia are designed explicitly to expose students, faculty and alumni to a broad range of expertise and opinion on current issues. In January, essayist Richard Rodriguez and Hoover Institution professor Victor Davis Hanson will lead a colloquium on immigration; school reform expert Wendy Puriefoy and University of Chicago professor William Howell will lead a session on public education; and Niall Ferguson, a Harvard professor and bestselling author, and Ronald Steel, an award-winning expert on U.S. foreign policy at the University of Southern California, will lead a colloquium on America and empire. The colloquia are supported by Mike Keiser ’67, Andrew Cader ’81 and the Victor S. Johnson 1882-1943 Lectureship Fund.

But efforts to expand the range of discussion on campus aren’t limited to visiting speakers. Since 1997, the college has brought young faculty to campus on two-year appointments that involve both teaching and research. These young professionals—“first-rate Ph.D.s,” says associate dean of the faculty Rick Griffiths, “who are thinking about careers at teaching colleges like Amherst”—have an opportunity to gain valuable experience teaching outstanding undergraduate students while completing significant research or publications projects. These fellows have brought expertise in areas ranging from medical anthropology to Spanish-American poetry. One of this year’s fellows is teaching on the American founding; another is teaching about education in Africa. Originally funded at Amherst by the Mellon Foundation, the program has now been endowed with a matching gift from Robert Keiter ’57.

The post-doc program “really does seem to have worked well for everyone,” Griffiths says. “It’s good for the college because it brings in new views, while allowing departments to explore and assess interest in areas and approaches that might not have been previously represented. It’s good for the scholars because it gives them a chance to focus on their work while teaching in a genuinely exciting intellectual environment. And it’s good for the students, who really seem to appreciate interacting with talented young scholars in emerging fields.”

That’s also one of the ideas behind the PIFs—the President’s Initiative Fund, established in 2004 to provide support for projects that focus on interdisciplinary themes and to inform new curricular programs and scholarship. Last year, a PIF program on human rights featured talks by a former undersecretary general of the United Nations, a human rights worker from Rwanda, a journalist and a Massachusetts domestic violence worker. At the same time a PIF on science and law featured talks by cloning advocate Lee Silver, geneticist Michael Lynch and lawyer Jennifer Mnookin.

Griffiths notes that this broad-based approach to thinking about the intellectual life of the college is consistent with students’ experiences of ideas at Amherst. One thing that’s apparent, he says, in the classroom and at campus events, is that students “tend not to think of things as black or white, right or left, liberal or conservative. These assumptions just don’t translate in our students’ lives,” he says. “Our students are actively reforming those categories, those axes of difference, and it’s important that the intellectual voices on campus reflect that.”

President Marx agrees, and adds, “This is what education is about. As a leading educational institution, we can’t do our job if people are talking only to people with the same views.”

Photos: Johnson Chapel: Frank Ward; Woman holding "Bold Vision" poster: Samuel Masinter '04; Claire Roann: Samuel Masinter '04; Dan Lowinger playing chess: Joel Haskell; Nye-Kristol debate: Frank Ward