1.1 What Amherst Can Be

Amherst College was founded by the town to serve the world. Our mandate has traditionally been to produce leaders who think critically and who value honesty, responsibility, and sincerity. We expect much of our students, and they expect much of the College as a leader in higher education. In a troubled world our motto, Terras Irradient, “Let Them Give Light to the Lands,” calls for even larger aspirations.

Every member of the Amherst community will describe our ideals differently, but none would deny how powerfully the character of our graduates reflects and molds the character of the school. Over the generations, this larger community has coalesced around commitments to inclusion, excellence, and service. In ways that would astonish the founders, the town’s college has grown into a national institution that broadly, if still imperfectly, represents American society and contributes to the arts and sciences at the highest level.

Our current mission is not less visionary than what has come before, and we share it with only a handful of institutions: to join the research excellence of a university with the intimacy and accountability of a small college; to achieve intensity without insularity; and to forge responsible leaders by professing and practicing the union of intellectual and ethical engagement. This daunting endeavor calls for and creates students unusually capable of educational self-direction.

To fulfill this mission, the College summons its enduring strengths. Amherst thrives by the convergence of independent-minded students, a talented and productive faculty, a dedicated staff, and an alumni body of unrivalled commitment to our educational values. Students’ face-to-face encounters with faculty bear constant witness to a rare synergy of teaching and scholarship. Distinguished artists and scholars keep an open door for all students, without asking whether they come out of curiosity or disciplinary vocation. We are a small campus that offers through the Five Colleges the academic and cultural reach of a university. We occupy the geographical center of higher education in New England and live in proximity to the worst urban and rural poverty in Massachusetts. Among liberal arts colleges, Amherst may be the most fortunate and the most obligated.

As we look to the College’s third century, we have much to do. Even to stay essentially the same, by 2021 we will need to replace more than a third of the faculty; rebuild a third of our academic facilities; and renovate the remaining third of our dormitories. If current trends continue, by 2021 the comprehensive fee at schools such as Amherst will exceed the US median family income, and growing numbers of the most talented students will not even consider private education as a possibility.

And we cannot stay the same. For Amherst graduates will inhabit a global culture ever more connected by the circulation of people and information and, we fear, yet more unbalanced through poverty, disease, and war. On some estimates, a third of our students are training for jobs that have not yet been conceived. Twenty-first century society will need the intellectual versatility, informed judgment, and sense of civic obligation fostered by liberal arts colleges, but only 3 percent of American undergraduates now attend such institutions, and the ranks are at risk of thinning. The concentration of resources in first-rank research universities and their continuing growth raise the stakes for small colleges that aspire to stay on the frontiers of knowledge. We must find ways to innovate without incurring unsustainable cost.

No college is better positioned than Amherst to meet these challenges. By virtue of our size, we can be nimble, adaptive, and well-attuned to our students’ evolving needs. Where larger institutions have often fragmented into collections of isolated research institutes, learning centers, and departmental fiefdoms, Amherst has retained the ethic that students should be guided by teachers who are researchers and also the institution’s planners–at once specialists and full citizens of a cohesive and contentious community responsible to the world beyond. Despite the centrifugal pressures of increasing specialization and professionalization, Amherst faculty have organized across departments for curricular inquiry and experimentation. Starting with the Special Committee on the Amherst Education (SCAE) in 2002, a score of groups has investigated practices on dozens of peer campuses, arranged consultation on teaching and curriculum, and launched experimental courses with new pedagogies and in new fields. Almost half of the faculty have formed themselves into interdisciplinary groups under the President’s Initiative Fund (PIF). Mobilization at this level typically occurs only in institutions struggling for survival. Amherst’s willingness to struggle for excellence and to weave disciplinary ambitions into a common project has particular resonance for students who seek moral compass as they foresee careers that are nomadic, networked, and unpredictable.

Any curriculum is a work in progress, and we have learned much since 2002 about our strengths and weaknesses. Our curriculum demands that students take responsibility for their education as preparation for a lifetime of self-determination and intellectual engagement. Its flexibility and responsiveness to students’ interests allows faculty and students to put intense demands upon one another and serves us well in a time of rapid change. But in giving students unusual latitude to find and develop their strengths, we can also make it too easy for them to hide from their weaknesses. Their independence necessitates effective advice and support that not all of them receive. Because of diverse learning styles and levels of preparation in writing and quantitative reasoning, not all students are prepared to make full use of our curricular offerings. Attention is needed to supporting students’ breadth in foreign language fluency, the arts, natural science, and global comprehension, despite strong programs in these fields. Though disciplinary boundaries contain knowledge less and less well, in recent years Amherst has fallen from the vanguard of interdisciplinary innovation back into the ranks of followers. And we have not kept pace with students’ growing interest in inquiry and service beyond the classroom or developed ways to integrate such experiences with course work.

Our academic culture needs solutions that come from within the faculty. However, Amherst’s departments report that, acting alone, they cannot fully assess, let alone meet, the challenges mentioned above. We need mechanisms that fulfill the faculty’s corporate responsibility for the entire curriculum and for the needs of all students, and that support the networks of faculty experimenting with innovative pedagogies and new ways of integrating knowledge. We have such a structure in the often unrealized policy-making mandate of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP). That structure should be strengthened to take up and continue the planning function of our committee. A great adaptive strength of the small college is that it is still possible to see the big picture.

From our consultations with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, we offer a set of goals for the College as we look to our third century. These four goals correspond roughly to Sections II to V of this report:

  • To set the standard for higher education in choosing a student body for talent and potential, without exclusions for race, creed, national origin, or the ability to pay.
    The intelligence of our students and the range of their backgrounds, talents, and ideas are fundamental to everything we do here. As a national leader in admissions and financial aid, Amherst has the responsibility to take the next steps to ensure that the pool of talented applicants is not narrowed in any way. To the extent that the price of an Amherst education diminishes the diversity of our student body, the education we offer will not be worth the price. Through uncompromising equity in offering opportunity to the next generation of leaders, the College offers our students an example of institutional responsibility and demonstrates the public good of private education.
  • To develop a model of curricular integration for the research college. Amherst can demonstrate that a small college can contribute to rapid developments in knowledge and technology without becoming a mini-university or losing its focus on the core values of the liberal arts. In order to attract and retain first-rate faculty who work and teach in the forefront of their scholarly and creative fields, Amherst can expand our range of ideas by integrating and coordinating, not merely adding, new specializations, and provide faculty with the flexibility and resources they need to explore new fields and develop new pedagogies.
  • To expand and deepen opportunities for learning beyond the classroom and link them more effectively to course work. Increasingly, students seek experience and responsibility beyond the classroom in laboratory research, the arts, public service, community-based learning, study abroad, and summer internships. Such experiences enrich and are informed by classroom learning. Combining knowledge with action may inoculate students against the sense of entitlement that too often afflicts graduates of elite institutions. Amherst can set the standard in making such engagement both possible for all students and securely anchored in the curriculum.
  • To provide foundations that respond to the evolving needs of students. As students’ interests, learning styles, and disparate skill levels rapidly change, Amherst can demonstrate that the specialists best capable of meeting their needs are the regular faculty who know the demands of academic concentrations and of graduate education. The faculty can meet this challenge through stronger academic advising and through concerted attention to students’ verbal, visual, and quantitative literacy, not only in classes devoted to these separate skills but also across the curriculum. Students can meet their individual ideals of the broadly educated person by having access to a full range of innovative courses in the arts, scientific reasoning, and cross-cultural learning.

Amherst has the chance, then, to prove that a small college can lead the way in undergraduate education, even in the face of accelerating disciplinary, technological, and social change and of a deepening crisis in the financing of higher education. We can forge the vital links between knowledge and action, faculty research and student learning, intellect and moral courage, mental and physical vigor, and thereby sustain in a disrupted age the liberal arts ideal of education for the whole person and the whole life. By virtue of the talent on this campus and the remarkable sense of ownership of all participants, Amherst can have a faculty that is far more than the sum of its departments and offer curricular opportunities that realize the full potential of all students.

To do so, we must shape a strategy of disciplined growth and innovation, bringing together a widening mix of ideas, people, and experiences. The objectives outlined above will require some expansion of the student body and of the faculty, as well as of the resources devoted to financial aid and faculty development. But that increment can amplify the investment that generations of alumni have made and will make, and thereby fully realize their expectation that Amherst will produce leaders by showing leadership as an institution. As the College has grown in scope, from a provincial school to a national institution broadly representing and serving American society, we have grown in strength as well. The small college that can manage the yet steeper task of encompassing a global range of ideas within a principled and productive community will have rendered a crucial service to the future of liberal education. No school has a better chance than Amherst; it is a worthy goal for our third century.