Amherst Magazine

Anthony W. Marx
President Anthony W. Marx

From the President

Toward Amherst’s Third Century

After a year of intensive deliberations, the Committee on Academic Priorities (CAP) has issued its report to the faculty, which lays out guideposts for an ongoing process of planning the college’s coming decades. No activity could be more important for ensuring the continued vitality and influence of Amherst, and the campus community has engaged in this process with appropriate and impressive vigor. The CAP was informed by the reports of the Special Committee on the Amherst Education and its working groups, more than 50 planning reports from departments and programs, and meetings with students, staff and alumni. More than 90 percent of the faculty participated in CAP meetings. We are eager to hear the views of the widespread Amherst College community as we shape the decision-making that will now proceed from the CAP report.

Deliberations began with a simple but often unheeded proposition: to plan for the future we need a vision of the goals we seek to achieve. Simply to recount and maintain the college’s many strengths is not sufficient. Instead, we need to ask what kind of world we hope our students will live in, and determine how the college can ensure that every student uses her or his full capacities to make that hope a reality. We have placed our bet on efforts to hone our students’ intellectual passions and abilities, in the belief that learning to think critically also inculcates moral reckoning, so that knowledge can be brought to responsible action. We have heard from many of our alumni who share this aspiration for the college, and we are inspired to seek its further achievement.

In a sense, the committee modernizes the wisdom of our founders by insisting on the intensity of student-faculty interactions while avoiding insularity through the founding principles of serving the world and broadening the net of talent brought together here. Those values also inform our current aspirations.

The college has impressively sought to live up to our historical ideal of inclusion by bringing together the most talented students, unconstrained by other considerations. We celebrate the fact that we are a college for men and women; that we can maintain need-blind admission and full-need aid; that our racial and ethnic mix parallels national demographics; and that our students bring to our campus community a stunning array of interests and special talents. By ensuring a broad and representative applicant pool, we are able to select the very best students and bring them into dialogue with one another, which is one of the most important facets of their Amherst education. In so doing, the college teaches by example and demonstrates its moral commitments and high academic standards.

The CAP addresses the next set of challenges in access by calling for more vigorous outreach to highly qualified applicants from low socio-economic status who may not believe they can afford Amherst, and by recommending that aid for those students be provided. The committee is also concerned about the loan burden, especially on middle-class students, and about how that burden may constrain future career choices. In a world increasingly globalized, for better and for worse, Amherst must attract the top international students without making their financial aid needs an obstacle to enrollment. The CAP also recognizes that increasing our reach in these ways should not come at the expense of any of our valued constituencies and therefore recommends a modest increase in the size of the student body, which the recent improvements to and expansion of student residences make possible.

The report also addresses how the college can maximize the breadth of ideas brought by our faculty, so that our expertise does not become a constraint. New faculty positions are proposed, both to bring new fields of study that build on our strengths and to foster interdisciplinary efforts that address issues and problems falling outside of neat academic boxes. New positions are recommended to add to the breadth of the faculty, in terms of their own experiences and views and to extend our engagement with global issues. But simply increasing the number of faculty does not by itself guarantee the broadening of ideas. Since our faculty must have the support to develop new ideas, recommendations for bolstering faculty scholarship are also included. The combination is designed to maintain Amherst’s great strength in both teaching and research and the synergy between them.

Broadening our faculty cannot be fully achieved in the traditional ways. Since departments alone cannot assure that the priorities of the college as a whole are being met, the CAP proposes a change in governance that may appear technical but is actually a sea change in our culture. The faculty is asked to endorse college-wide curricular priorities and then to consider the allocation of faculty appointments accordingly. Departments will still get the experts they need, but will also be obligated to meet the needs of the college in a more coherent and deliberate manner than before. We propose that a new position be granted to a department only when its members commit to teaching, for example, a writing-attentive course, a science course for non-majors, or a course in environmental science. If we can achieve this, not only will the curriculum be improved, but we will be able to model the sort of collective decision-making we hope our students will utilize later.

We also know that not all learning happens in the classroom. Our classroom discussions inform and can be informed by experiences in labs, in service or internships, in language study and study abroad. The CAP recommends enhancements to ensure that these opportunities are not only widely available but are as substantive as possible and connected to the curriculum. For instance, we envision a program in which students can engage in service in an area of their interest (e.g., in the Holyoke or Amherst public schools) and then participate in summer or January internships that build upon those service experiences. Faculty, too, will be encouraged to develop courses in the same areas. We also hope to involve alumni and other visitors in related programs that will draw on the experiences and talent of our graduates. The resulting combination would bring together a diversity of views and set a new standard for liberal arts colleges in connecting the ideas on campus with the realities beyond.

We now seek your input in order to shape the best possible plan. You may wonder whether further broadening of our student body will come at the cost of existing and valued constituents, including the children and grandchildren of alumni. Happily, since our legacy students come from well-educated households and compete strongly for admission, the legacies in our student body should not decrease. The proposed small increase in class size will help to preclude any unfortunate trade-offs.

How do we address the concern that some of our students do not take full advantage of a wide distribution of courses? The CAP proposes additional resources to help students in writing and quantitative reasoning and to provide for an array of courses in certain areas that students might otherwise avoid. A writing requirement, which would be the first new curricular requirement in a generation, is proposed. In a sense, the CAP argues that the strengths of the open curriculum in fostering self-determination and judgment can be maintained while diminishing the costs of any narrowness. This requires that we apply our resources and efforts deliberately, advising students more effectively along the way.

As you will see in reading the report and in the ongoing discussion about the college’s future, we seek a path between “just more of the same,” which can constrain an educational institution, and radical change that ignores or diminishes the strengths we have built up for so long. We welcome the debates that have shaped and will continue to shape our efforts to find this path.

Given our existing strengths, why are we so focused on a process of gradual but meaningful transformation? In a word, we must prepare our students for a world that is itself transforming. If we do not continue to expand the range of people, ideas and experiences brought together at Amherst, we cannot achieve the goal of educating critical thinkers who can lead in a responsible way. The college—its alumni and parents together—invest a quarter of a million dollars in educating each student, and society rightly expects from that investment something more than the mere selection and certification of students destined for high achievement. The CAP argues that with a marginal additional investment of concentrated effort we can greatly expand the return on that investment made possible by generations of alumni.

I also believe that our standing brings with it a responsibility. Amherst College has demonstrated and can continue to demonstrate that the aspirations of a liberal arts college are central to building the world we need. Only by continuing to change and refine ourselves can we meet this goal. And in doing so, Amherst can be a beacon to other colleges and universities; we have the talents, influence and access to resources to do so. Our small size means that we can deliberate together on how to proceed and then act. The college is re-dedicating itself to this end, knowing that how we act also teaches. We as an institution must aspire to moral leadership.

But of course, planning and refinement is an ongoing process. Not every issue has been taken up by the CAP. For instance, the First-Year Seminar Committee continues its deliberations about how to create greater commonality in the foundational experiences of first-year students. Even the issues raised by the CAP will continue to be debated before decisions can be reached and resources sought.

Conversations about the report are underway on campus, and I encourage all alumni and friends to enter the discussions about the future of the college. Just as we value a breadth of ideas and experiences in the mix of our students and faculty on campus, surely the varied experiences and the collective wisdom of our alumni and friends are necessary to move our planning efforts forward effectively. I hope you will take the opportunity to read the CAP report, keep abreast of ongoing deliberations, and join in them at every opportunity. To borrow from our motto, only then can Amherst “enlighten the world.”

To read the CAP report, and to participate in online discussions, go to www.amherst.edu/cap.