Amherst Magazine

College Row

CAP report and Business Week spark discussion

Always mindful of its distinguished past, the college community turned its collective thoughts to the future in January, when the Committee on Academic Priorities released its recommendations in a report titled “Toward Amherst’s Third Century.”

The report, available online at cms.amherst.edu/academiclife/dean_faculty/cap, includes 22 recommendations, which are grouped into four broad areas: curricular innovation, co-curricular program enhancement, excellence in faculty scholarship and pedagogy, and excellence in the student cohort through the broadest possible applicant pool.

Within these four broad areas, specific recommendations focus on enhanced financial aid support, increased international admission, a modest increase in the size of the student body, new faculty positions (especially in support of interdisciplinary ventures), expanded community service opportunities, the requirement of a writing-attentive course, and others.

The recommendations are evolutionary, not revolutionary, said John Servos, the college’s Anson D. Morse Professor of History and co-chair of the CAP. “We have aimed to renew and intensify Amherst’s core commitments: to seeking out the most talented students, to stimulating their thoughtful engagement with the world, and to fostering the critical acuity and principled independence that are prerequisites of humane leadership.”

The recommendations are now being discussed at faculty meetings, in student forums, at Board of Trustees meetings and at alumni events across the country and internationally. All members of the campus community, including alumni and parents, are encouraged to weigh in on the online bulletin boards at the CAP Website or via e-mail to cap@amherst.edu.

A January 27 Business Week story focused particular attention on a subset of the issues addressed in the CAP report—those focusing on socio-economic diversity. Reported by Bill Symonds, who spent eight months interviewing Amherst students, faculty, administrators and Board members, the story correctly portrayed Amherst as a leader in national discussions about how to increase student diversity without sacrificing academic rigor. But some of the details were off, and several people on campus, including Marx, expressed surprise at the way the story sensationalized the campus climate around diversity. “I was disappointed to see that some students, such as athletes and legacies, were unfairly stereotyped as not meeting high standards and as not contributing to the mix of experiences on campus,” Marx said in a statement on the college’s Website.

In the wake of the article, Marx and all members of the CAP were eager to stress that increased socio-economic diversity  will lead to a deeper pool of candidates and higher levels of academic rigor. “As has been the case for generations, we seek to enhance the college’s intellectual standing,” Marx said in his statement. “To do so, we hope to further expand the pool of our applicants so as to keep improving our standards while broadening the mix of students who learn from each other.”

Servos noted that members of the CAP hope to broaden the college’s applicant base without harming any of its existing constituent groups. The CAP has recommended a small increase in the size of the student body—about 15-25 students per class—to allow the college to admit increased numbers of low- and middle- income students without reducing the representation of legacies, students from a range of cultural backgrounds, or musicians, artists, athletes and students with other interests who enrich the collective life of the college.

Marx noted that despite its faults, the Business Week story had helped build interest in and discussion around some of the CAP proposals. “The article has certainly sparked discussion, and I am enough of a believer in education to think that’s a good thing,” he told the Amherst Student. “These are important issues and we need to make sure that what we do is in the interest of Amherst and of society. Only by being forthright and discussing along the way can we be sure we’re making the right decisions.”

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