Brief Interview with a Five Draft Man

The author David Foster Wallace '85, a towering figure in modern literature, died on Sept. 12, 2008.  Best known for his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace received an honorary degree from Amherst in 1999. That year, Amherst magazine writer Stacey Schmeidel interviewed Wallace by mail. The feature-length Q & A, titled "Brief Interview With a Five Draft Man," ran in the Spring 1999 issue of the magazine, and is reprinted here:

1) This interview-by-mail is an unusual medium for an Amherst magazine interview. From your perspective, what are the benefits of presenting you and your work to readers this way?

I am a Five Draft man. I actually learned this at Amherst, in William Kennick’s Philosophy 17 and 18, with their brutal paper-every-two-weeks schedules. I got down a little system of writing and two rewrites and two typed drafts. I’ve used it ever since. I like it. My problem with most interviews is that they’re terribly first-draftish.  If an interview question is even remotely interesting, it’s going to be hard to answer it briefly. I always wish they’d let me scuttle into the next room and do five drafts and come back out. This way, unless it turns out your deadline’s real short, I can do five drafts. Actually this is better for everybody, because the more drafts I have the more succinct I can be (usually).

2) You were a talented tennis player and an outstanding student at Urbana High School in Illinois.  What brought you to Amherst?

I was a marginally talented tennis player as a teenager. I got hurt freshman year (Sp. ’81), but I probably wouldn’t have made the Amherst varsity anyway; there were at least two other freshmen who were clearly better than I. People tend to think I’m a better player than I really am.

            Nor was I an outstanding student in high school. I wasn’t anywhere near the top of my class, anyway. I was sort of too much a jock to be a really first-rate student and a little too nerdy to make a good jock.

            My father is an Amherst alumnus, and he also teaches at a big public university. The sum total of his college-application advice was that small liberal arts schools tended to be better for undergrads. So I visited several small LAS schools, of which Amherst was one. What I hadn’t known was that if you were the child of an alumnus, the Admissions guy would tell you right in the interview whether they’d take you or not. [Editor’s note: This no longer is true.] This is a huge perk, it seems to me, given the amount of hand-wringing and knuckle-biting my high-school classmates had to go through. Anyway, this perk, plus a laziness that made me not even bother applying anyplace else, is what brought me to Amherst.

3) How will people who knew you at Amherst remember you?

4) How do you remember Amherst? What are the experiences—in and out of the classroom—that shape those memories?

5) Similarly, what aspects of your Amherst education served you best? And what are the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint you?

I don’t know that many would remember me at all. For one thing, I had a tendency to take semesters off and stay home, so I started out as ’84 and ended as ’85. For another thing, I was cripplingly shy at Amherst. I wasn’t in a fraternity and didn’t go to parties and didn’t have much to do with the life of the College. I had a few very close friends and that was it. I studied all the time. I mean literally all the time. I was one of those people they had to flicker the lights of Frost Library to get out of there on Friday nights who’d be out there right after brunch on Sunday waiting on the steps for them to open the doors.

            There were happy reasons for all this studying, and sad reasons. It was at Amherst, with its high expectations and brilliant profs and banzai workload, that I loved to read and write and think. In many ways I came alive there. But I was always terrified. Amherst terrified me—the beauty of it, the tradition, the elitism, the expense. But it was less Amherst than me: I was a late bloomer and still deeply in adolescence when I entered college. I had an adolescent’s radical self-absorption, and my particular self-absorption manifested as terror and inadequacy. This is the sad part. The same obsessive studying that helped me come alive also kept me dead: it was a way to hide from people, to try to earn—through ‘achievement’ or whatever—permission to be at Amherst that I was too self-centered to realize I’d already received when they accepted me.

            So ‘the things about Amherst that, in hindsight, disappoint [me]’ are things not about Amherst but about who I was when I was there. I let almost no one know me, and I lost the chance to know and learn from most of my peers. It took years after I’d graduated from Amherst to realize that people were actually far more complicated and interesting than books, that almost everyone else suffered the same secret fears and inadequacies as I, and that feeling alone and inferior was actually the great valent bond between us all. I wish I’d been smart enough to understand that when I was an adolescent.

6) You did two honor theses at Amherst. What on earth were you thinking?

My very best friend at Amherst, Mark Costello ’84, had done two the year before, one a piece of fiction. So there was precedent. Plus I was having a hard time deciding whether to go to grad school in philosophy or writing, and it seemed like a good idea to try doing sustained work in both and seeing which I liked better. (The option of not going to grad school at all didn’t occur to me; that’s how much an academic brat I was at the time.) Plus I didn’t exactly have huge demands on my time during senior year, since most of my closest friends had graduated the spring before. Anyway, it turns out that a thesis isn’t any more work than two hard classes—and we got one class per semester off for thesis work. The trick was starting early, in September instead of February. I’d watched several friends put themselves through hell the year before by futzing around the first semester, so I started early, and it wasn’t that hard.

7) Amherst is an institution that places a high value on the written word. Your writing is consistently singled out for its distinctive voice. To what extent was your writing style influenced by the courses you took and by the professors and students you met at Amherst? (Also, what influences outside of Amherst do you credit with shaping your style?)

Praise is always nice, but I don’t really feel like there’s anything terribly distinctive or original about the ‘voice’ of my stuff. Most of the modern writing I like the best is both sophisticated and colloquial—that is, high-level and complicated but at the same time intimate, sort of like a smart person is sitting right there talking to you—and I think I do little more than try to achieve this same high-low blend. Just having to write paper after paper—more writing my freshman year at Amherst than I’d done in three years of high school—and having first-rate adult minds respond to my stuff (I can still remember the wonderfully dry acerbic little comments that profs like [William] Kennick and [John] Cameron and [Alan] Parker and [Dale] Peterson would put in the margins when I tried to BS or be too cute)…all this helps.

8) Can you talk about your writing process? When/were/how do you write? Do you rewrite?

Well, like I said, I am a Five Draft man…the first two of these drafts are pen-and-paper, which is a bit old-fashioned, but other than that I don’t think there’s anything very distinctive about my work habits. I fluctuate between periods of terrible sloth and paralysis and periods of high energy and production, but from what I know about other writers this isn’t unusual. Work-wise, my only real distinction is that I am incredibly fast and accurate two-finger typist, the best I’ve ever heard of (another skill honed at A.C.).

9) Amherst magazine likes to profile alumni whose work has had an impact on the world outside of Amherst. How would you describe the impact of your work? (That may be a two-part question: What kind of impact do you hope your work will have as you’re creating it? And what do you think the actual impact has been?) And how do you measure the success of your work?

Sneaky, Ms. S.: this question actually comprises more than two subquestions. And unfortunately this is all stuff that I’ve discovered it’s in my own best interests not to think much about. ‘Impact’ is tricky because it has so much to do with interpretation and fashion (which phenomena are far from independent of each other). Plus plain luck: the fact that you’ve got to find first an agent and then an editor and then an editor’s publishing co. who not only like your stuff but believe it to be ‘viable’—which in 1999 America means salable in sufficient numbers to permit an approximate 7-percent net profit—before you even get to consider something like ‘impact’ the way Q9’s using it. And I know way too many fine and serious writers who haven’t been able to get anything published to be able to regard the whole process as anything much more than a lottery. Then, if your thing does get published, and if some combination of cultural kismet and corporate hype garners it an audience, you get to discover how extremely remote people’s takes on your work are from anything you had in mind when you were working on it, plus how little whatever they feel and think about the work’s author has to do with you as you know and experience yourself…

            I’ve hit on an effective way to handle all this schizogenic stuff, which is to keep the whole thing at a very simple level, roughly a level/vocabulary that an average U.S. fifth-grader can understand. I want my work to be good. I want to like it. This is the only part that has anything to do with me. I can’t make it have an ‘impact’ on anybody else. This doesn’t mean I can’t hope it has one, but I can’t do anything to guarantee it, or even to cause it. All I can do is make something as good as I can make it (this is the sort of fact that’s both banal and profound), and promise myself that I’ll never try to publish anything I myself don’t think is good or finished. I used to have far more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking about ‘impact,’ but they always left me with my forehead against the wall.

10) You’ve received attention for both fiction and non-fiction work. What do you see as the merits and drawbacks of each genre?

I think of myself as a fiction writer. The nonfiction thing is a result of a patronage of a Harper’s editor named Colin Harrison who in the early ‘90s started dreaming up marvelous little experiential assignments for me, mostly I think to keep me alive (I was really, really poor in the early ‘90s, though this was mostly my own fault), and then also helped shape them, etc., and they got a good response, etc. etc. And the interesting thing about the U.S. magazine industry is that it runs almost entirely on Herd Instinct, so that if one or two things in Harper’s turn out well, editors at all sorts of other magazines start calling and pitching prose-intensive experiential non-fiction assignments, and even if you take only one in a hundred of these offers (offers that flood in during the interval in which you are considered ‘hot’ by a couple dozen editors who must surely go through one another’s mail), there are still enough for a book pretty quickly…especially considering that magazines will always (a) lavishly overpay you and then (b) feel free to chop and mangle the hell out of your piece before it runs, ignoring your squeaks of protest because it turns out the lavish payment in (a) bout them the right to chop and mangle, which everyone in the Industry appears to understand but you.

11) Much of your work has to do with our seemingly insatiable need for instant gratification through passive enjoyment of entertainment. Can you talk about the challenges of looking critically at entertainment media while also trying to provide an experience that is—at base level, anyway—entertaining? Why do you choose this medium to deliver this message?

Unanswerable within the constraints of a condensed back-and-forth like this (see Q14).

12) Do you read reviews of your work?

It’s tempting to. It’s also tempting to try and eavesdrop on people who are talking about you and don’t think you can hear them. But you almost always get your feelings hurt if you eavesdrop like this. It’s the same way with reviews. It took me a while to figure out that reviews of my work are not for me. They’re for potential book-buyers. I have a nice tight established circle of friends and associates I can send stuff to and get honest critical response that helps me make the stuff better. By the time the stuff is published, though, anything I hear about it amounts to me eavesdropping.

13) What writers move you?

The question’s verb is tricky. I regard Cynthia Ozick, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo as pretty much the country’s best living fiction writers (with Joanna Scott and Richard Powers and Denis Johnson and Steve Erickson being the cream of the country’s Younger crop). But that’s no quite what you’re asking. I’m not sure I want to respond to what you’re asking. ‘Move’ is tricky. I heard all kinds of sneery stuff about the book Bridges of Madison Country when it came out, and joined in the sneering, and then saw the movie version on an airplane and bawled my head off at the end, which was mortifying. I find the part of It’s a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart is yelling at Donna Reed that he doesn’t want to get married and stuck in dreary airless little Beford Falls and at the same time hugging her and kissing on her and crying and saying ‘Mara, Mara!’ tremendously moving. I find the end of Lord of the Rings when Frodo says ‘I have been too badly wounded, Sam’ moving. Etc. There’s some top-shelf literary fiction I find moving—David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one, and Power’s Operation Wandering Soul—but it’s more a more complicated kind of ‘moving’ because this stuff involves cerebration and aesthetic apprehension and so on. Cerebration may produce a richer and more sophisticated kind of ‘moving’ but it’s not the kind of stomach-punching emotion I guess I associate with ‘move.’ The truth is I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as purely ‘moving’ as the end of The Velveteen Rabbit when I first read it.

14) What’s the one question you always wish interviews would ask?

There really aren’t any. The problem with interviews (including even very considerate ones where you let me write answers out instead of just saying them) is that no truly interesting question can be satisfactorily answered within the formal constraints (viz. magazine-space, radio-time, public decorum) of an interview. At least that’s what I end up feeling. It kind of puzzles me that people seem so keen on asking fiction writers straightforward interview-type questions, since if the fiction writers really thought interesting stuff could be talked about straightforwardly they probably wouldn’t have become fiction writers.

15) What were your aspirations when you left Amherst? And what are they today?

This is a good example of the Q14 phenomenon. Questions like this almost demand a quick pithy burst of pious methane. The fact that we’d need four pages of back-and-forth to nail down exactly what you mean by ‘aspirations’ before I could even start trying to answer you…and this would not be pithy or brief or probably even very interesting to anybody else. I’m 99+ percent sure you’d have the same problem if somebody asked you, Ms. S., the question in any kind of compressed public forum. Why do we do these sorts of things to one another?

Kenneth H. Bacon ’66

Deceased August 15, 2009

NY Times Obituary
The Atlantic Obituary
Wall Street Journal Obituary

In Memory

Ken’s achievements at The Wall Street Journal, at the Pentagon and at Refugees International have been widely recognized. At his memorial service in Washington, colleagues spoke of his prowess, vitality and warmth, and his daughters Katie and Sarah stood together to deliver a loving tribute to their father. At the memorial service at Amherst, President Emeritus Peter Pouncey spoke eloquently of Ken’s courage. I could listen for hours, and if you search the Web, you will come away with a vivid sense, from the words of refugees and from the words of royalty, of how many lives Ken touched and to what good effect. 

Ken was a driven student, and over and over again his friends have remarked on his hunger for facts. He had a ravenous curiosity, a quest to reach beyond conventional discourse or conventional wisdom to touch the real. His was an adventurous mind and one not afraid of speaking in earnest.

It could be exasperating to those who respected Ken’s persuasive power—and who may have provoked his formidable capacity for ridicule—to see him rise above the fray. Though fully armed, he shunned partisan clashes because he believed that we could join him in a more elevated and serious discourse. He believed that we, too, could rise above our fascination with the convenient or the possible or the dramatic to share his devotion to the actual. He believed that our sympathies could kindle to join his efforts to recognize and heal suffering that the world conspires to ignore. It is an extraordinary faith he had in us: a tribute to his education at Amherst and a generous challenge to ours.

We will miss his friendship and his example, and the class extends its sympathies to Darcy, to Ken’s daughters Katie ’93 and Sarah ’98, to his brother Doug ’71, to his father Ted ’42 and to his many, many friends.

John B. Jacoby ’66


extras work space

See an October symposium that reunited 60 percent of the pioneering women who taught at Amherst between 1962 and 1984.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur ’42, David Ferry ’46, Dan Chiasson ’93 and Professor David Sofield read from their work and that of James Merrill ’47. Watch videos


Watch President Biddy Martin’s inauguration from start to finish and read a transcript of her address. Also: watch an inauguration-weekend panel about the future of the liberal arts.

Biddy Martin
See President Martin welcome the “class of Irene” at this year’s opening convocation and watch her talks at homecoming and family weekends.
Jeffs Victory Homecoming 2011
Videographer Sam Tang ’15 captures the Lord Jeffs’ 24-10 homecoming victory over Wesleyan.
Science Center Atrium
See a virtual tour of the planned new science center, narrated by architect Stefan Behnisch, and find background information, FAQs and an image gallery.
Monica Ringer
Find out what Professor Monica Ringer has to say about whether recent “Facebook revolutions” portend radical change in the Middle East.
Matthew Zapruder
Listen to Tess Taylor ’00 interview fellow poet Matthew Zapruder ’89 about his poetry collection Come On All You Ghosts.

Three Alumni Join Board of Trustees

Walter Donovan ’85, Julie Segre’87 and Jim Tsai ’85 are the newest members of the Amherst College Board of Trustees.

Donovan, a history and political science major at Amherst, is the chief investment officer and senior managing director of Putnam Investments in Boston.

Appointed by the trustees, Donovan describes himself as “an ardent champion of the Amherst community because of the support it gave me to pursue a better life.” After working his way through high school at Phillips Exeter Academy (which Tsai also attended) and Amherst, Donovan grew committed “to helping others share in the dream Amherst afforded,” he wrote in a biographical statement.

In addition to serving on the Amherst board, Donovan is a trustee of Cathedral High School, a private inner-city school in Boston, and of Phillips Exeter. He has also founded and supported numerous financial assistance funds for students’ educations.

The alumni body elected Segre and Tsai.

Segre is a researcher for the Human Genome Project in Bethesda, Md. She also directs a flagship project at the National Institutes of Health that explores the diversity of microbes on healthy and diseased human skin. A mathematics major, she graduated summa cum laude from Amherst before earning her Ph.D. in genetics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Segre is interested in the role of science in a liberal arts education. “We need both to provide future scientists with a well-rounded education and to provide non-scientists with a good understanding of how science contributes to our society,” she wrote in her personal statement.

Tsai is the chair/chief of ophthalmology at the Yale University Medical Center in New Haven, Conn. After graduating magna cum laude from Amherst, he received an M.D. from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from Vanderbilt University.

 “[A]n Amherst liberal arts education is best able to prepare tomorrow’s leaders for utilizing scientific and technological advances in an effective, efficient and ethical manner,” Tsai, a neuroscience major, wrote in a personal statement. “Amherst’s opportunities have never been greater to become a world leader in reshaping the future of liberal arts education here and abroad.” –Rebecca Ojserkis ’12


Some Bricks

By Professor of Philosophy Alexander George

Some bricks at AmherstCollege have felt the presence of Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson.

The tale begins in the early 18th Century, when Newton moved into a house at 35 St. Martin’s Street, just south of

Leicester Square
in London.  He retained the house from 1710 until his death in 1727, lived there much of that time, and revised his Principia there.  The house was eventually demolished in 1913. 

At some point, George A. Plimpton ’76 purchased some surviving items from the demolished house, including the bricks and wood that were used to construct its fireplace.  These he gave to an AmherstCollege fraternity on the occasion of its new house, for reconstruction in it of Newton’s fireplace, in the hope that “the members of this Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity may catch Newton’s spirit.”  The opening of the house in 1915 was a grand event and President Meiklejohn likewise expressed the wish that “The spirit of Sir Isaac Newton should abide in this house.”  The fireplace was located in what was then considered the house’s smoking room, though it was noted that it was suitable for dancing as well.  On the walls were hung manuscripts in Newton’s hand as well as a large oil painting of the scientist (all believed to be gifts of Plimpton).

Newton Room

The Newton fireplace in Plimpton House, then (above) and now (below)image

The room underwent further development in 1936 when it was transformed into the first College-supervised library in an AmherstCollege fraternity.  Plimpton, now chairman of the Board of Trustees, once more donated materials he had purchased in England.  This time, his gift was of old wood paneling, much of it coming from Jesus College, Oxford, but some also coming from the house of Lord North, Prime Minister to George III during the American Revolution.  The room now had shelving for some 2,000 books.  Photographs show that the Newton memorabilia was removed, though the oil painting remained over the fireplace mantel. 

Over the years, the Newton Room in Plimpton has been neglected and it is now in a dismal state.  The Newton portrait has vanished.  Few books line the shelves.  Dancing, however, survives. 

But what is the connection between the Newton Room and Samuel Johnson?  In 1774, Dr. Charles Burney settled into the house once owned by Newton; while there, he would write his famous history of music.  Living with him was his daughter, Frances, who would herself become well known as the novelist Fanny Burney.  Dr. Burney’s guests included the leading social and artistic lights of his day: Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke and many others.  During the wet winter months, no doubt these luminaries took turns standing before Burney’s fireplace, warming themselves by its bricks – except for one evening around 1778 when Johnson had been invited. 

Johnson was used to holding forth at gatherings.  Some people loved him for it, while others did not, especially if they found themselves on the receiving end of his ferocious wit.  But this particular gathering at Dr. Burney’s caught Johnson during one of his attempts to cultivate in himself a good-natured disposition and so Johnson had decided he would hold himself in check and allow others to fill the conversation.  Unfortunately, Johnson’s reputation preceded him and no guest dared to say anything, including Fulke Greville, a supercilious man who had wanted to meet Johnson but who now feared to make the first move.  And so Greville “planted himself,” Fanny Burney later reported, “immovable as a noble statue, upon the hearth, as if a stranger to the whole set.”  As a long, strained, and tedious evening drew to a close, Johnson had not yet said a word.  Finally, rousing himself from contemplation, he looked straight at Greville and made his first remark of the evening: “If it were not for depriving the ladies of the fire, I should like to stand upon the hearth myself.”  Greville stood silent for a few moments before ringing the bell for his carriage “with force.”  (This incident so amused Virginia Woolf that she wrote a short piece about it, “Dr. Burney’s Evening Party,” for her collection The Second Common Reader.)

And so it is that some bricks that warmed Newton and failed to warm Johnson find themselves at AmherstCollege.


Amherst Love Stories

We asked our Facebook fans and Twitter followers: What’s your Amherst love story? Here’s what some of them told us.

Via Facebook:

Mathieu Chamberlain: I have started dating the woman I was dating senior year....20 years later we found each other again

Regis BrownPark: Met the man I was to marry at Amherst. He had just graduated and was doing a PG year as sports information director. I did work/study for Doug Wilson. Eighteen years later, we are still happily married and have two future Jeffs!

Jim Hamilton: Our story began in the winter of 1992. ... 18 years and three future Lord Jeffs later we're still going strong.

Gina Herrera Moreno: My fiance and I met my last semester and his very first at Amherst. I graduated from Smith that winter, and two years later we are getting married, next March!

Andy Winchell: Married in Johnson Chapel, 20 years ago this June.

Paul B. Linn: My Amherst girlfriend and I are happily married; just not to each other.

Yvette Johansen: “Of course, i went to casino with a dorm-friend. When we were walking back from Valentine, it had snowed. My friend-date, Zach Shriver ’95, gave me the shoes off his feet and walked to the dorm in socks, so that I would not have to navigate the slippery paths back to the dorm in 4 inch heels. That gallantry has set the bar to this day.


Via Twitter:

rgibralter: IDid 12 college exchange from Amherst to Wellesley in 1974, met Terry Houston, married 32 years.

Scheeatow: My husband of 5 years and friend of 17 years met in an Intro to Computer Science class. He was the skinny boy behind me. :)

JakeGint: Interesting... wonder if they were in my class? I did same, but married her five years later...

Ursamajor: I met my husband ... via Choral Society! We got married last year, and will be back for Reunion this year. :)

Josh_edu: 2 doors from future wife in frosh dorm '87, but SOMEHOW Amh env not conducive to dating. Got tgther in 99 & ever since


Amherst College Professors Seek Change in Local Schools


Two Amherst College professors—one an expert on health and behavior in teenagers the other on the economics of education—have joined forces on the Amherst School Committee, united in their commitment to bring about change in Amherst public schools.

Psychology Professor Catherine Sanderson was elected to the school board in April  2008, and Economics Professor Steven Rivkin’s election followed in March 2009. The two co-founded the Amherst Committee for Excellence (ACE) over lunch at Lewis-Sebring in the fall of 2007.

Sanderson has three children in Amherst schools, in Kindergarten, third and sixth grade, while Rivkin’s two children are in second grade and Kindergarten (“So we’re getting our money’s worth,” Sanderson jokes).

In addition to their school board service, Sanderson blogs about Amherst schools at, and Rivkin and Sanderon team up on education-themed op-eds that run regularly in the Amherst Bulletin, the local newspaper.

The two professors recently spoke with Director of Public Affairs Peter Rooney about their educational beliefs, as well as their school board service and its impact on their teaching, research and on town-gown relations.

Listen to the interview and read the transcript below, or download the file here.

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Please tell me a little bit about the founding of the Amherst Committee for Excellence, Committee for Excellence’s founding, formation and what it stands for.


The main part of the background is that Catherine said ‘there are real problems in the schools and we have to do something.’ I work in this area professionally but I didn’t know much about the schools.


A number of things came together that led to our decision to start this organization. One had been there was failed override attempt in May 2007 – an attempt to raise taxes which would have provided significant funding for the schools. I was one of the coordinators of the override attempt, and I was shocked by the number of people who expressed a lack of support because of a lack of confidence in the schools’ ability to use additional dollars well.

Another thing that happened is that several principals of longstanding in the district announced their resignation. It looked to us like four of the six principal’s jobs were going to turn over in the Spring of 2008. Given that the principals jobs who were retiring had served 17 to 18 years, we felt this was a crucial time to make sure our voices were heard and priorities and programs were possibly changed. Little did we know that the superintendent would also leave.”

One of the things I’ve read about the Committee for Excellence’s beliefs is that you believe strongly in assessment, evaluation and empirical research to see whether programs and policies that are instituted actually work. Is that an accurate summary?


Amherst schools have made decisions with very little reference to empirical evidence and in particular with very little reference to what’s happening at other schools in other districts, anywhere. Decisions have been made more on strong beliefs in programs rather than on evidence and experience of whether they work, or a willingness once a program is adopted to actually see whether it works. We find that to be a very bad structure if you want to have an organization that’s vibrant and of high quality and reaches the goals you hope to reach.


There has been almost a total absence of willingness to critically evaluate, and rigorously compare anything in the district. That includes the curriculum for elementary school math and the high school science program. It also includes the kind of intervention support we provide to students who are struggling.

To what extent are your priorities as school board members informed by your experiences as professors? It seems to me, for example, that demanding empirical evidence is a real economist’s viewpoint.


I’m an educational economist and I certainly draw from that in thinking about the importance of evaluation in setting goals and measuring progress. It’s been all too easy for a long time, especially in public schools, to talk about how wonderful we are and that we’re doing a great job in the absence of evidence to support such statements.


At the college we’ve both been through outside reviews of our departments within the last six months. It’s extremely valuable to have outside people coming in and looking at the curriculum, the structure, the honors program whatever it is.

Catherine, you were the first person elected to the school board expressing these views and for a while you were perhaps a lone voice. Then Steve was elected as well as another school board member (Irv Rhodes) who shares the views of the Amherst Committee for Excellence. Do you both get the sense that the ice is starting to break here?


I do. Catherine and I were the two leaders of the movement to close a school (Mark’s Meadow Elementary) and redistrict in order to achieve socioeconomic equity at our schools. There was disproportionate poverty at one of the elementary schools and it was the two of us who championed the movement to change that, and it got done.

Looking back was this the major accomplishment so far?


“I think it was the major victory because it will save the school district about $800,000 a year to not have this extra school and it will virtually eliminate differences in the distribution of students who qualify for subsidized lunch -- the share of poor kids. 37: 50 “it was a decision making process that was systematic and it was based on data and it wasn’t even a close call.”

Catherine: "It was unanimous."

How do you think your service impacts the town-gown relations between Amherst College and the community?


“I think having a connection between faculty at Amherst College who are on the school board increases our understanding of what kinds of shared opportunities are possible.”


“As we do our work and as people see were not just for high achieving kids, but we want to work hard and do right by the schools, then maybe we can break down this perception that Amherst College is an elitist, snobby place, and that professors are this way. That’s not at all true, but some people hold it up as a myth.”

Looking forward, in the next year or so what are the major goals or priorities you would like to achieve?


“Fundamental changes in the way the schools operate. That’s a tall order.”


“If we could have impact this year on creating policies that require the use of data driven decision-making that would be a tremendous win and would set the stage for future and a change in the culture.”

Has your service on the Amherst school board influenced your work as professor in any way?


“I’ve actually done research in high schools before but I was looking at issues of health behavior. So the age is of interest to me. Also, a number of students who major in psychology have interests in and in teaching as a career. That’s been interesting to me.” 


“For me, teaching the economics of education, I can bring back some personal examples of what’s happening in our schools when we’re discussing research or topics. It’s been more valuable in terms of research for motivating ideas. As an example, I’m starting a research project on principals and principal effectiveness."


Verbatim: Overheard on Campus

Professor Lawrence DouglasRead a Q & A with Professor Lawrence Douglas on the international criminal court.

Hear Mead Art Museum docent Suzannah Luft '08 give a 10-minute gallery talk on Thomas Cole’s The Past and the Present (1838).

Take a tour of Meaghan Stern ’09’s dorm room.

Read about Piercarlo Valdesolo ’03’s Interterm course, “Figuring Out Who To Blame.”

Read a dispatch by Alain Hunkins ’90 from the presidential inauguration.

Trustees explain endowment losses and budget plans

Submitted by Emily G. Boutilier

By last summer, the Amherst endowment had reached an all-time high of $1.7 billion, representing a 5 percent increase in value during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008. “We actually felt quite good,” says Bill Ford ’83, a member of the Amherst Board of Trustees and chair of its investment committee. “And then, the world turned against us.”

Ford spoke on Tuesday, Feb. 17, at an open forum for students, faculty and staff in a crowded Johnson Chapel. He, along with two other trustees—board chairman Jide Zeitlin ’85 and budget and finance committee chairman Steven Gluckstern ’72—discussed and answered questions about the college’s endowment, investment strategy, overall budget and pending budget cuts. They tried to explain what has happened over the past several months and how the college will move forward.


Left to right: Amherst College trustees Bill Ford '83, Jide Zeitlin '85 and Steven Gluckstern '72 answer questions from the Amherst Community during the Feb. 17 open forum. Hear audio and watch slide show presentations from the meeting (login required).

The endowment fell 26 percent in value, to $1.26 billion, during the first half of the current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2008. Until that happened, the college’s highly diversified portfolio had kept it from dramatically feeling the ups and downs of the market. “Diversification,” Ford said, “which is your port in the storm, so to speak, didn’t work, for the first time in recent memory.”

And the worst is likely not over. The college is predicting the endowment to be down 30 percent by the end of this fiscal year. Projections are for no growth next year and 5 percent growth the following year. Assuming those numbers, “you can see a very, very horrible picture” if spending were to remain the same, Gluckstern said: “You’d run the college out of business.”

The total budget for the current fiscal year is around $155 million, up from about $80 million 10 years ago. (The increases to the budget followed gains in the endowment.) About half of the $155 million goes to salaries and benefits for faculty and staff members. The other big chunk of the pie—21 percent—is for student aid and academic awards, Gluckstern explained.

The college is now undergoing an “exercise in belt-tightening,” as Gluckstern put it. Earlier this winter, every department at the college was asked to propose immediate 5 percent and 10 percent budget cuts; salary cuts and layoffs were off the table. In addition, the college announced a salary freeze for next fiscal year and began to more carefully review whether to fill open positions. Now, every department is planning for an additional 5 percent in non-salary budget cuts.

But, Gluckstern said, “you still have a picture that is untenable.” Long-term plans must allow for growth in such areas as financial aid and the faculty, he said, and for things like new buildings, “but the pattern with which we enjoyed growth for the last 10 years cannot sustain us for the next 10 years.”

In large part, that is because the percentage of the college’s budget that comes from the endowment “has grown dramatically from the low 20s to 35 percent this year,” Ford said. “The budget’s dependency on the performance of the endowment and financial markets is much, much greater than it was only 10 years ago.”

During the question-and-answer period, a student asked whether it’s reasonable to assume that cuts will be made to the two biggest pieces of the budget pie—salaries and benefits for staff and faculty and financial aid. “No, I don’t think that’s a fair assumption,” Gluckstern replied. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that there are less faculty, less staff, less student aid ... I think it’s a fair statement that over a 10-year period, the growth in all those areas that we might have wanted to have—that we can’t have all that growth.”

In response to another question, Zeitlin said the board has no specific plan for what to cut in the short term. “We almost certainly will, in some form or another, slow down the rate of growth in compensation,” he said. “I don’t know what form that takes.” He promised that the board has no secret list of what to cut. “The board doesn’t have an agenda here other than to make sure within 10 years we get back to financial equilibrium. We don’t have answers. Those answers have got to come from you.” —Emily Gold Boutilier

Members of the Amherst community are invited to hear audio and watch slide show presentations from the meeting (login required).

How to Beat the Market

“I know that internships and jobs are drying up in some of the more traditional fields,” acknowledged Rhamey Elhosseiny ’10 at the start of this year’s Business Leadership Seminar. He was speaking in Stirn Auditorium, where 60 students—eventual job-seekers all—were gathered for the three-day seminar.

Elhosseiny is executive director of the Pre-Business Group, the student organization that runs the seminar. Opening line aside, his attitude about the economy is far from gloom-and-doom. Just before presenter Philip Gorth ’04 gave a speech on “demystifying the investment bank,” Elhosseiny offered a pep talk. “We’re young,” he said, smiling at the audience, “we’re geographically mobile—and we’re cheap!” He rattled off a list of businesses that got their start during a recession: General Electric, FedEx, CNN, Hewlett-Packard, Trader Joe’s. Most of the students in the crowd were sophomores and juniors getting the lay of the land. Some were job-hunting seniors. Many were dressed business-casual, but some wore interview suits; all looked better than usual for 10 a.m. on a cold winter’s day.


Mike Jordan '83, creative director at the advertising firm Gotham, speaking at one of the power lunches.

The Business Leadership Seminar began in 2003 and, in recent years, has focused mostly on how to get jobs and internships in investment banking and consulting. This year, Elhosseiny says, “I wanted to expand our notion of business,” in part because of the economy but also because “our generation is very entrepreneurial.” In addition to presentations like “An Inside Look at the Summer Analyst Position,” this year’s seminar featured power lunches with Mike Jordan ’83, creative director at the advertising firm Gotham; Michael Kopko, who founded DormAid; and Andrew Miller, co-founder and CEO of Quattro Wireless. Ken Natori ’98, vice president of finance and director of e-commerce at the Natori Co., gave a talk on operating a fashion business.

“Opportunity always comes from inefficiency,” said Paul Wolansky ’78, chairman and CEO of New China Management Corp. and New China Capital Management, in a talk on investing in private equity in China. Today’s economy, he said, “gets you thinking about what you really want to do at a time when the opportunity cost is low.”

The Pre-Business Group began to feel the effects of the bear market a year ago, when several speakers on the 2008 seminar lineup cancelled at the last minute, says Michael Guttilla ’09, who organized that year’s seminar with Justin Holtzman ’09. For this year’s program, Holtzman helped to recruit speakers, working off a list of business e-mail addresses the group had on file. “We’d send e-mail,” he says. “It would bounce back.”

Still, Elhosseiny (who, in his spare time, is already working for Kopko, the DormAid founder) remains optimistic. “The low-hanging fruit of a bull market isn’t there anymore,” Elhosseiny says. “But there’s no technology that can displace the skills you’ve learned.” If you take the long view, he says, “I don’t see how you can’t be optimistic. This is a huge opportunity.”