Amherst Magazine

Leaning Into the Wind

imageFormer U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur '42 gives a master class.By Emily Gold Boutilier

In the weeks leading up to the official launch of Amherst’s new fundraising campaign, Lives of Consequence, the national news was categorically bleak: investment banks went belly-up, 401(k)s nose-dived and comparisons to the Great Depression abounded.

And in keeping with the times, the campaign launch, which coincided with the annual Family Weekend on Oct. 24-25, was more cerebral than lavish or festive. The weekend’s centerpiece was not a glamorous party but a set of lectures, master classes and panels by Amherst faculty members and alumni, who addressed matters of politics, economics, poetry, physics and more. Speakers included Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur “genius grant” recipients and two Nobel laureates—economist Edmund S. Phelps Jr. ’55 and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center president Harold Varmus ’61. A third Nobel Prize winner, economist and Amherst trustee Joseph Stiglitz ’64, also took part in the weekend’s activities.

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Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus '61 at a panel on
science education.
The campaign’s goal is to raise $425 million over five years, in large part for the very thing that can most benefit students and their families during an economic downturn: financial aid. (Financial need has increased by $5 million already this year.) Other campaign objectives are similarly fundamental: to modestly increase the student body, to expand the size and scope of the faculty, to fund student research and service, to update labs and the library.

The name of the campaign comes from a sentence in the college’s mission statement: “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them and lead principled lives of consequence.” Lives of Consequence will not only ask alumni for financial support (when and at the level they can give it, Marx says); it will also ask them to reach out to students and to one another, by offering to mentor students, for example, or to help them find internships.

“At a time when we are facing some fierce economic headwinds, it is more critical than ever for us to lean into the wind and maintain Amherst’s commitment that all of our students—regardless of their ability to pay—have the opportunity to receive a top-notch liberal arts education,” Marx said in announcing the campaign. “Nothing could be more important than preparing this next generation of leaders to serve and improve a world that needs their help so much more.”

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From left: Lucy Wilson Benson, trustee Laura Yerkovich '80
and Sarah Staples Wagner '80 listen to the science-
education talk.
The campaign co-chairs are Board of Trustees Chairman Jide Zeitlin ’85 and trustees Hope Pascucci ’90 and Brian Conway ’80. All three spoke on a panel with Marx and other trustees over the launch weekend. Pascucci said that the college's endowment, which was roughly $1.7 billion as of June 30 (and which returned an above-average 17.2  percent over the past five fiscal years), was down an estimated 25 percent as of mid-October.

Like most fundraising campaigns, Lives of Consequence commenced more than a year before its official launch, and it had raised more than $216 million by the kickoff weekend, says Megan Morey, chief advancement officer and campaign director. The college’s last campaign, which concluded in 2001, raised $269 million.

During the weekend, Phelps, the 2006 Nobel laureate in economics, addressed the current economic downturn and struck a note of optimism, observing that the 1930s was actually a decade of great innovation and productivity in the United States. He argued that a robust economy is one that values change, discovery and exploration. “If there’s some insecurity that goes with it, well, that’s the price of admission,” he said.

Varmus, the 1989 Nobel laureate in medicine, joined former FDA commissioner David Kessler ’73, an Amherst trustee; MacArthur “genius grant” winner Amy Rosenzweig ’88, a biology and biochemistry professor at Northwestern University; and John Cheney, professor of geology and associate dean of the faculty, in a panel on science education.
Former U.S. poet laureate Richard Wilbur ’42, now John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst, offered a master class on poetry with David Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English. Paola Zamperini, assistant professor of Asian languages and civilizations, gave a talk on the 2008 Olympics. And Richard Goldsby, professor of biology and John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer, spoke about advances in stem cell and cloning research.

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Professor Richard Goldsby lectures about cancer stem cells.

Among the other offerings, trustee Cullen Murphy ’74, editor-at-large at Vanity Fair, discussed campus architecture with Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin ’79 (who said he is “getting sick of brick”) and Nicola Courtright, professor of art and the history of art and associate dean of the faculty.

At a dinner in Converse Hall’s lobby, Marx remarked on the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression. During those financial crises, he said, Amherst pushed “against the headwinds,” increasing student scholarships. “As we have in the past, Amherst needs to recommit by coming together,” he said. “We can solve what seems insolvable, through collective efforts to prepare individuals for future lives of consequence.”

If history is any indication, alumni will continue to support the college, financially or otherwise, downturn or not. Depending on one’s perspective, the timing of the campaign launch might at first glance appear to be ill-advised. But history also suggests that, in the long run, it might well prove to have been impeccable.

Top photo by Ben Barnhart; other photos by Timothy Sofranko.