Views on Biddy Martin

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and faculty members, trustees, alumni, colleagues and
higher education leaders talking about Biddy Martin.

Search Committee and faculty members, trustees, alumni, colleagues and higher education leaders offer perspective on Biddy Martin’s personality and leadership qualities and on the search process.

Read the views below, and watch more on video.

Samia Hesni

Samia Hesni ’11, Presidential Search Committee member

“Biddy is fiercely committed to accessibility, financial aid and diversity.”

Biddy’s contagious passion for all things intellectual and her articulation of how the liberal arts makes this passion a possibility overlap perfectly with the mission and spirit of Amherst College today. Biddy is fiercely committed to accessibility, financial aid and diversity; she spearheaded a loan-elimination program at Cornell and an initiative to increase financial aid at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Part of this last project included a tuition raise that the students themselves voted to pass in order to increase need-based aid as well as to hire new undergraduate faculty and increase undergraduate course offerings. Biddy garnered support for this initiative not only among the faculty and administration but also by meeting with students to understand their desires and priorities. Biddy is a collaborative leader; she leads as she learns: by probing deeply, listening and understanding. In this way, she also leads by example. The harmony of her intellectual and leadership sides allows her to seamlessly and simultaneously fill the roles of paradigm, aficionado and champion of a liberal arts education.

Biddy is as equally committed to the model of the liberal arts as she is to its accessibility. She has made her home in a world of ideas—a world opened up and made available to her by the liberal arts. She “loves excellence” and approaches every part of her leadership with curiosity and a desire to learn. At the same time, she has a clear idea of—and ability to articulate—the importance and role of the liberal arts in a world that increasingly shies away from ideas and theory. She cites diversity—of background, of interest and of thought—as critical to establishing a community that stands for and represents this importance. Biddy brings with her a devotion to students, with whom she still strongly identifies and who have always played a strong role in her academic and administrative positions. Her relationship to students is symbiotic; the students at an institution inspire Biddy, whose energetic and affable nature cannot but inspire in turn. 

John Servos

John Servos, Anson D. Morse Professor of History and Presidential Search Committee member

“Biddy exemplifies the liberating power of [a liberal arts] education.”

Amherst needs a leader who can speak confidently and clearly about the value of the liberal arts both within our community and to a larger world. Biddy exemplifies the liberating power of such an education, has championed liberal learning throughout her career and possesses rare gifts for communicating complex ideas to all the audiences an Amherst president must reach. 

Amherst has made itself an exemplar of the educational value of diversity, and Biddy’s background speaks to a steadfast commitment to diversity in all its dimensions. More than this, Biddy can draw on personal experience in explaining the importance of openness and diversity. She was once poor. She is an openly gay woman. She does not make too much of these facts, but they surely give her understanding and compassion—an instinctive sense of what young people must feel who are neither privileged nor in the mainstream. 

Amherst needs a president who will be able to guide us during a period of faculty renewal. Biddy has been making decisions about recruitment, retention and tenure since she became provost at Cornell more than a decade ago. She has consistently demonstrated good judgment and a commitment to excellence as she has built faculties in both the humanities and sciences. 

Finally, Amherst needs a leader who can manage our increasingly complex institution both prudently and creatively. Biddy’s entire record demonstrates that she knows how to spend money effectively, save money intelligently and raise money in good times and bad. She’s been that kind of leader throughout her career, first at Cornell, then again at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Don Randel

Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, former president of the University of Chicago and former provost of Cornell University

“She was one of those young recruits of the kind that would make the future of the university—if we could just keep her.”

I remember well when Biddy Martin joined the Cornell faculty as an assistant professor of German literature. It was clear that she was one of those young recruits of the kind that would make the future of the university—if we could just keep her. She was clearly a gifted scholar, but she was also clearly committed to teaching and to being a productive citizen of the College of Arts and Sciences. These are, of course, dangerous characteristics for a young person to have. It meant that she was soon known and liked around the college and then asked to be the department chair at an early stage and then asked to be an associate dean at an early stage. The next thing she knew, she was the provost of a university characterized by its intellectual diversity and in which she would need to work with faculty and students with perspectives far removed from those of her own academic specialty. And of course she would need to be capable of making disciplined decisions in the face of highly competitive interests without losing sight of the institution’s underlying academic values. The German scholar led in the reorganization of a very large and diverse program in the biological sciences and much else. It’s not surprising that the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted her to lead in very complicated and demanding times for public universities. She has done this with extraordinary courage and determination, for which Wisconsin and higher education generally should be grateful. 

Biddy has a disarming smile, a ready laugh and a sense of humor that she does not exercise at the expense of others. But there is no mistaking that she is tough-minded when the occasion demands it. Most important is that she has the values that are essential to an academic community in which faculty and students care about the life of the mind. Students will be happy to have her as their teacher. Students, faculty and staff alike will be grateful to have her as their president.

Suzanne Coffey

Suzanne P. Coffey P’04, director of athletics and Presidential Search Committee member

Students and our alumni will get to know Biddy Martin as broad-thinking, curious and wonderfully competitive.”

Biddy Martin conveys a deep capacity for understanding how teaching and learning happen beautifully in many different contexts, including in the laboratory, classroom and dance studio and on playing fields. She told the committee that she loves to work in teams of good people. She came across as someone who considers it her job to see other people flourish. It was clear to the committee that she’s someone who knows students well and whom students get to know easily.

Each time we met with Biddy Martin, she spoke about college athletics in a way that not only directly referenced the importance of this educational milieu but also conveyed a healthy respect for the value of competition. Most recently she wanted to know how often this year we had beaten Williams. (Gladly, I could tell her that we won more than 70 percent of our contests against the Ephs). Her response? She thinks we can probably improve on that record! Our current students and our alumni will get to know Biddy Martin as broad-thinking, curious and wonderfully competitive.

Hunter Rawlings

Hunter Rawlings, president emeritus of Cornell University and president of the Association of American Universities

“Biddy offers more than leadership: She is funny and refreshingly candid, independent, iconoclastic, disarmingly personal, never stiff.”

Biddy Martin is above all an intellectual, a serious thinker who understands and communicates the essential purposes of higher education in all its dimensions. Her scholarship is strong and deep, her teaching inspires, and her academic leadership calls the community to its highest ethical and intellectual standards. But Biddy offers more than leadership: She is funny and refreshingly candid, independent, iconoclastic, disarmingly personal, never stiff. She is one of the most thoughtful and incisive speakers you will hear all year. No specious rhetoric, no cant, no humdrum. She gets to the heart of issues because she cares about them and the individuals affected by them. She is one of our most effective public advocates for higher education while at the same time a friend, a colleague and a supporter when you need her. She will be a great president for Amherst, a pleasure to have on campus and a superb representative to Amherst alumni.

Cullen Murphy

Cullen Murphy ’74, Amherst College trustee, Presidential Search Committee member and editor-at-large at Vanity Fair

“For her, as for so many, the liberal arts formed the essential bridge from one world to another.”

There are so many aspects of Biddy Martin that make her such a compelling figure, and a compelling leader in particular for Amherst College: her long record of accomplishment at some of our finest institutions of higher learning; her commitment to diversity and financial aid; her ability to forge partnerships among many constituencies; a personal manner that combines warmth and determination; her love of students; her abundant good cheer. There’s another aspect, one that she spoke eloquently about during conversations these past few months: a deep personal appreciation of the role that a liberal arts education can and does play in shaping people’s lives. As she herself explains, Biddy Martin is a product of the liberal arts—for her, as for so many, the liberal arts formed the essential bridge from one world to another. She understands in her heart what this kind of education—Amherst College’s kind of education—enables young people to achieve as they seek to explore their potential and make a mark.

Harold Tanner

Harold Tanner, chairman emeritus of the Cornell University board of trustees

“Her exposure to university-wide issues at Cornell and at Wisconsin will prove most valuable in her new role as president of Amherst.”

In Biddy Martin, Amherst College has selected as its 19th president  an outstanding educator and wonderful human being.  As chair of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, I worked closely with Biddy as provost, the university’s chief academic officer. She was promoted over many people senior to her and to many she was not an obvious choice. However, she dealt with difficult issues that affected the many constituencies of any university and excelled in every assignment. She provided leadership in financial as well as academic matters and initiated the Freshman Book Project, which engaged the entire campus community. In the process, she earned the respect of  the board, faculty, students, staff and alumni.  

Her exposure to university-wide issues at Cornell and at Wisconsin will prove most valuable in her new role as president of Amherst. Biddy is a passionate believer in the role that higher education plays in the future of American society and is a good spokesperson for that message. She will also be a good collegial member of the Five College community.

I have known many successful moves of Big Ten presidents to Eastern universities. Notable examples include Hunter Rawlings and David Skorton from the University of Iowa to Cornell, Harold Shapiro from the University of Michigan to Princeton, Frank Rhodes from Michigan’s College of Arts and Sciences to Cornell, Jim Friedman from Iowa to Dartmouth and Lee Bollinger from provost of Michigan to Columbia University. I am confident that Biddy Martin will further the excellence of Amherst College.

Martha Umphrey

Martha Umphrey, professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought and Presidential Search Committee member

“She comes to Amherst because our values are her own.”

Biddy Martin leads with ideas. She brings a sparkling and sophisticated intellect to all of the work she does, whether it be her widely admired foundational scholarship in the field of gender studies or her visionary efforts as a national leader in higher education at Cornell and Madison. A gifted administrator and autodidact, she choreographed a complicated and very successful reorganization of the life sciences and their facilities as the longstanding provost at Cornell, while at Madison she has worked tirelessly to support and sustain the humanities. At both institutions she has made financial aid a top priority and has broad experience in efforts to diversify the student body and the faculty.

Nationally, she is one of the foremost voices advocating for the liberal arts and is, among other things, a member of the National Academies Commission on the Future of the Humanities and Social Sciences. As chancellor at Madison during trying times, she has been driven by a desire to protect and better her institution in the face of daunting political challenges and changes in the organization of public higher education. She has won the respect of faculty, students and staff for those efforts.

More than that, Biddy Martin leads by helping others to flourish. A remarkable communicator with every kind of audience, she listens carefully and forwards her ideas in a broadly consultative way. She has a marvelous sense of humor and combines a lively imagination with a pragmatism born of both wisdom and experience. She values independence in thinking and being, and she views the educating of young people as an enterprise directed at the whole person, filled with the pleasures of learning. Indeed it is not too much to say that she has been beloved by students and colleagues wherever she has been.

She comes to Amherst because our values are her own. We share with her a deep investment in quality of thought and intellectual community; an unquestioned commitment to excellence in teaching a talented and diverse group of students; an unshakable embrace of liberal arts as a model for higher education generally; and a profoundly felt affection for place and community, for the forging of warm relations across the entirety of an institution and beyond. In my view she will be a terrific leader in all the ways that count at this moment in Amherst’s history. We are fortunate to have found her, and I am excited for all of us as we look to Amherst’s future as it plays out under her guidance.

Charles Longsworth

Charles Longsworth ’51, chairman emeritus of the Amherst College board of trustees, of counsel to the Presidential Search Committee and retired president of Hampshire College

“[She is] a rare combination of accomplishment, modesty and good sense.”

I found Biddy Martin to be a rare combination of accomplishment, modesty and good sense: leading a large public university with all its constituents and political intricacies, maintaining warm and respectful ties with students and faculty, beloved on her campus, approachable and self-effacing. She has great respect for Amherst. I think she will make a wonderful president.

Bill Ford

William E. Ford ’83, Amherst College trustee, Presidential Search Committee member and CEO of General Atlantic

“She’s been involved in very significant and successful building projects.”

Biddy Martin is a mature leader with a wide set of skills that include fundraising and financial management. She’s been involved in a number of very significant and successful building projects and has been involved with faculty tenure decisions for many years. She clearly has a deep set of experiences in presenting a budget, managing a budget and controlling costs. That breadth and depth of experience at Cornell and the University of Wisconsin persuasively convinced me that Biddy would be an excellent 19th president for Amherst College.

Isaac Cameron

Isaac Cameron ’11, Presidential Search Committee member

“Her previous student body organized a flash mob performance to celebrate her birthday.”

Students of Amherst College will be well served by the exceptional talents, leadership and passion of incoming President Biddy Martin. Her previous student body organized a flash mob performance to celebrate her birthday, and this, mind you, is after she successfully passed a bill specifically aimed at raising tuition (a measure Biddy Martin made sure was endorsed by students)! Her commitment to student issues, both academic and social, is reflected in every past administrative position. She has fought to increase financial aid and diversity, enhance curricular standards while improving student satisfaction with courses offered and accessibility, and strengthen a sense of campus community and cohesion.

More importantly, Biddy Martin conducts her work with an infectious sense of humor and air of humility that allows all to feel welcomed and heard. She doesn’t avoid tough issues and won’t shy away from any hard questions. I wish that I had another couple of years to spend at Amherst to experience her warmth and insight. Those close to her always state that she is fun. I have no doubt that she will move Amherst toward a brighter future, one in which all of those connected to the college will be proud.


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