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Thoughts on Amherst's Future

Letter from Anthony W. Marx
September 22, 2006

Dear Alumni and Friends,

I write directly for the first time to all alumni and friends because of the important decisions that Amherst now faces. At this juncture in the history of the College, I invite you to join a conversation to set our course for the next generation.

From talking with many of you over the past three years, I have heard longstanding questions, including: How will Amherst produce accountable leaders in a period of globalization and accelerating change? How will the College maintain the finest undergraduate experience and its leadership in higher education?

In May, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to endorse a set of priorities and goals reinvigorating the College's traditions of academic excellence, inclusion, and civic responsibility. The faculty has begun the process of curricular renewal to ensure the best and most coherent education possible while integrating learning in and outside the classroom. The faculty also seeks to build on Amherst's tradition of enrolling the most impressive and broadest mix of students unconstrained by their ability to pay. We now turn to you for your ideas and your voices to refine these proposals and to inform the trustees' deliberations.

Curricular Renewal

Many alumni are justly proud of the New Curriculum of sixty years ago for being both innovative and coherent. Inspired by the same spirit, we have now begun a process to revise the curriculum to meet evolving needs. The faculty has challenged itself to reverse pressures that fragment faculties elsewhere into collections of unconnected specialists, and that leave unaddressed students' fundamental critical, expressive, and quantitative abilities.

For the first time since 1978, the faculty has resolved to institute a new requirement: that all students select among courses specifically designed to improve writing and offered across the disciplines. In addition, a faculty committee is deliberating on how to ensure quantitative literacy. The faculty has, for the first time, affirmed that the courses of all instructors, including tenured faculty, should be evaluated by students. As part of our larger initiative to strengthen academic advising, we are also going to track the distribution of each student's courses electronically to flag gaps and imbalances for the student and the advisor.

Along with these new expectations, the faculty has approved a fundamental change to ensure that the curriculum as a whole meets students' needs. Until now, the College's most basic investment — in new faculty — has largely been driven by the needs of departments, not by College-wide educational priorities. Going forward, the faculty has resolved to set those priorities in areas that will include skills in writing, quantitative analysis, science for non-majors, the arts, foreign languages, global comprehension, and interdisciplinary studies (in fields such as environmental studies, for example). Faculty positions will be allocated to address those comprehensive needs. This decisive change will alter and enrich the shape of the College for years to come.

Community Engagement

Curricular issues connect to another important area: that of community engagement, inspired by our founding mission to prepare students for ethical leadership in a changing world. In that tradition, the faculty is eager to ensure that substantive experiences outside the classroom are available to all students regardless of financial resources. Such experiences should be informed by the classroom, and classroom discussions should in turn be enriched. Toward that goal, recently the College received a significant gift dedicated to the integral pursuits of community engagement and academic discussion and learning. Through the new Center for Community Engagement, all interested students will have an opportunity to participate in and learn from an expanded array of local service opportunities and subsequent paid internships in related fields. The faculty will have the opportunity to add to the curriculum in these fields, which might include the issues of public education, human rights, the environment, and public health.

Continuing to Find the Best Students

Amherst's goal of providing the finest liberal arts education also depends on the excellence of all our students as they learn from each other. The College has been a national leader in demonstrating how we can be most selective while bringing together students with the mix of experiences and viewpoints needed in the next generation of leaders. In doing so, we have lived up to our ideals of merit, social justice, and an inclusive community.

Our peers in the Ivy League and among the great colleges now share our concern that the under-representation of qualified students from middle- and working-class families constrains the supply of future leaders. Amherst's mission since the 1821 Charter has been to seek talent regardless of the means to pay, and we will continue aggressive pursuit of the strongest and widest applicant pool.

We remain particularly concerned about students from middle-class families, who must often take on a crippling burden of debt to send their children to college, or who are simply scared away by the price. We are working on programs to reduce this burden, while also reaching out to the most talented students from other countries.

Already, we see impressive results in recruiting students from working-class families. With an increase of strong applicants from the bottom third of incomes, that portion of this year's entering class grew from 15 to 20 percent. The class of 2010 also has more children from alumni families and more students of color, again because of impressive applicant pools. Amherst's conviction has long been that our high academic standards can and must come with such broad inclusion.

We will continue to assess and refine our efforts, even as we seek additional resources to maintain the broadest spectrum of talent. We are also considering an increase in the size of each new Amherst class — an expansion of 20 or so students — to make sure that all of Amherst's valued interests and historic ties remain well-represented. This modest growth in enrollment would be accompanied by a slightly larger increase in the number of faculty to maintain the College's enviable faculty/student ratio and to provide coverage of new fields.

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Let us be clear about what is at stake. The initiatives now under way will directly shape the future of Amherst College and the continuing commitment to our  traditions and values.

It costs roughly $300,000 to educate each Amherst College graduate today. About half of our students' families pay the full amount we charge for tuition and room and board, but even that amount covers just over half of the cost of an Amherst education. The College, through the endowment and through new gifts from alumni, parents, and friends, makes up the difference. For many students, as at our founding and ever since, the College covers the full cost. All alumni have benefited from this investment by the College.

Each year, the College sends into the world, in the form of the graduating class, an investment of more than $100 million, the essential return on our endowment. Our graduates justify this investment by the integrity that they show as leaders. In preparing such leaders, we change the world, as the alumni have proved for generations. The College also justifies this investment by the example it sets for higher education and for society. The changes now being discussed at Amherst are aimed at furthering those goals — goals we have pursued and cherished for almost 200 years.

We need your insight and engagement in our planning and in the intellectual life of the College. In this collective process, we hope to shape our aspirations for Amherst and to inspire excitement for the possibilities ahead. And when the current planning discussion then leads to fund-raising for new academic endeavors, we will need your support.

For now, please write or contact me at I look forward to reading your comments. On these Webpages you will find regular updates about the issues currently under discussion and read what other alumni, students, parents, faculty, and staff are thinking.

Anthony W. Marx