First Impressions

By Stacey Schmeidel

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Anthony W. Marx began work as Amherst’s 18th president on July 1. A Columbia University political scientist who has written widely on nation-building, he also has been a leader in strengthening public education. He founded the Columbia Urban Educators Program, a teacher recruitment and training partnership, and last year headed the Early College/High School Initiative, a Gates Foundation-funded program at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation designed to establish model public high schools as partnerships between school systems and colleges or universities. In the mid-’80s, Marx lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he helped found Khanya College for the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) Trust.

During his first weeks at Amherst, as construction crews hammered away at dormitory renovations on the Quad outside his undecorated Converse Hall office, Marx outlined his experience, his interests and his early impressions of Amherst.

After you graduated from Yale, your first job was as an assistant to University of Pennsylvania President Sheldon Hackney. Have you always aspired to a college presidency?

[Laughs] I wrote my senior thesis about Plato and the university he started in ancient Greece. I came to that issue as a political theorist, thinking about the university, education and democracy. As a result of my thesis, I was curious about issues of university governance in the current day. And then, by coincidence, a friend recommended Sheldon Hackney as someone I might write to. He was just starting [as president] at the University of Pennsylvania, and he asked me to join him. It was a rare and amazing opportunity to see the university from a particular perspective, and also to get substantively involved in the university’s relations with its community, through public education and economic development in West Philadelphia. It was fascinating, and I could not have had a more amazing first job, or a more generous mentor, teacher and friend.

After a couple of years, my focus started to shift back to the real substance of the university in the academic area, and to my interest in the study of politics. In particular, I wanted to learn about South Africa, a country that had long been fascinating to me, and repugnant to me in terms of apartheid. So in a sense, I suppose that my earliest experience with university administration convinced me to get out of administration!

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Marx addresses students and their families at Orientation

How did your work in South Africa influence your subsequent career?

I think it’s true that no single life experience has affected me as much as living in South Africa in the 1980s. The country was on the brink of—and then was—exploding, and we saw the ravages of that explosion on a daily basis. I saw colleagues on the run, maimed and sometimes killed. But South Africa turned that terrible experience into its own inspiring commitment to nonracial democracy, as well as an inspiring lesson for others.

My experience in South Africa taught me to put other forms of difficulty into perspective. It taught me to look for possibilities, for ways out of seemingly impossible situations. In difficult times, we often find what we truly are, what we truly believe and what we can become. In the worst of our days, the human spirit is invigorated.

You’d left university administration for activism and then the Columbia faculty. Why did you decide to return to academic administration?

It still surprises me that I did! I turned out to be a better scholar and teacher than I expected. I enjoyed it. And I was really very fortunate. Columbia is a great university, and I enjoyed being in New York. [My wife] Karen [Barkey, professor of history and sociology at Columbia] and I were the first couple to get tenure from inside the ranks of the university. My latest book had come out in May, and I was thinking about another book project.

I wasn’t looking for anything different—though I think I was ready for something different in a number of ways. I was exploring that through my work with the Gates Foundation [and the Early College/High School Initiative], which was a re-engagement with my activist side and my passion for public education as a basis of democracy. My readiness was further invigorated after September 11, when I witnessed the fall of those towers and then was shaken, as we all were, by the reality that life is shorter than perhaps we like to think, and that the need to engage in making the world a better place is not a project that we can delay.

Also, the death of my father, at around the same time, forced me to think about whether I wanted to do exactly what I had been doing or try something different. But I had no particular idea of what that new phase might be. I was then surprised to be asked whether I would be willing to be considered for the Amherst presidency. Then, as that process progressed, the presidency began to seem a more natural fit, in ways I don’t think I had always anticipated.

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President Anthony W. Marx at Reunion Weekend, with Elizabeth "Mahat" Guest, widow of former Alumni Secretary J. Alfred Guest ‘33 

In what ways did the Amherst presidency come to seem a natural fit?

Of course, it’s humbling and flattering to have been asked by this great liberal arts college to lend a hand. At heart, I am an educator. I feel passionately about education. In that regard, Amherst College plays a huge role in the community and the nation, even in the world. We educate the most astonishing and diverse group of students imaginable, but we also represent the liberal arts to the nation and the world beyond our campus. I was and am excited about the possibility of working with faculty, alumni and students to think about whether Amherst is doing everything that it can to educate our students and whether Amherst is doing everything it can to engage as a leading educational institution. The opportunity to work with a distinguished and wonderful group of colleagues in thinking hard about what education means, what education we are providing, what leadership we can provide—for someone who cares about education and social progress—that’s an amazing opportunity.

You’re coming from a situation where you’ve had a lot of time to do research. And you mentioned earlier that when you were approached about coming to Amherst you’d already started to think about your next book. Will you now have time to continue your scholarly work?

I think my scholarship, loosely defined, will change. I hope I will still be able to do some thinking and some writing, expressed more in speeches than in academic treatises. This position offers me a platform to share ideas with an audience that is different and broader than the audience I have reached as an academic. But it also is a position that will provide great opportunities for learning and research, particularly about the issues of education, as well as social justice issues as they connect with education. I hope to be able to turn that “participant research” into some scholarship in the years ahead, informed also by teaching.

You’ve been on the job for two weeks. What’s your sense of this place so far?

In these first weeks, I’ve had a lot of one-on-one meetings with faculty in their offices. That has been breathtaking, it really has; I’m amazed by the richness of this faculty, their level of engagement with this institution. Their thoughtfulness about the issues of education and our place in society is really inspiring to me. The willingness and eagerness of the faculty to think outside of the narrow boxes of their academic discipline is a breath of fresh air, coming from a major research university where we on the faculty too often place ourselves in smaller and smaller boxes that are very comfortable, but very dark. Lots of my new colleagues have given me things to read. I’m reading more widely now than I have in years. I find myself in an amazing perch from which to engage the issues that the college confronts.

It’s only when you get inside the community and talk to people that you see what everybody connected with Amherst knows, which is the astonishing and unique strength of a great liberal arts college that is focused on education in the broadest sense. This is an American invention that doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world, a jewel in our crown of educational achievement.

You’ve already mentioned Amherst’s role as a leader. What obligations do we have because of this role?

This is a subject I’m discussing with the various constituencies of the college, to get other people’s views on it. But I do come with some views of my own. First, our primary obligation is our educational mission to our students, to the research that informs our teaching and to extracurricular activities that enrich learning. On a regular basis, we need to think about and revisit the question of whether we are doing that as well as we can, even if we start out confident of our strength. Being willing to self-reflect and criticize and debate and reconsider is the essential hallmark of the highest quality of education. This college needs to always be ready to engage in that way.

Connected to our primary mission, but also in some ways distinct, is Amherst’s mission beyond its obligations to its immediate community, to the world beyond, to what we represent as a leading liberal arts college in the most powerful nation in the world. I think we certainly are obligated to set an example in our treatment of our community in the broadest sense. And we must speak beyond our walls. Amherst sits at the top of the educational food chain in this country, and the food chain below us is decaying, requiring redress. The best universities and colleges in the United States for too long have thought that this decay was not relevant to them. We were wrong to think that, and we had best correct that mistake. If we want to have the diversity of students that we need in order to be the educational institution that we aspire to be—and the society we aspire to be—we cannot ignore the educational decay below us. As an educational leader, we must speak of the nation’s need to confront the problem in a way that to date we have failed to do. And we must find ways for the institution to engage with this issue, which is closely tied to our own core educational mission, partly because we can do some good, but also because the world is and should be skeptical of any rhetoric that is not matched by action.

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Marx welcoming new students' families at Orientation

Do you have specific ideas about how we might do this?

I have been thinking and listening a lot on this subject, but there are no easy solutions. Maybe that’s why places haven’t done much—though I doubt it. It’s not always obvious what to do, and in some ways we as a society have used that as an excuse. I’m not sanguine with that excuse. But I don’t have specific proposals—yet.

Your interest in public education goes back a long way. You worked on this issue while you were at the University of Pennsylvania, and you started the Columbia Urban Educators program [which encourages recent Columbia grads to pursue careers as public-school teachers]. How did you become interested in public education?

I was a student in New York public schools. My son was a student in New York public schools. Both my children will be students in the public schools in Amherst. But my belief in the importance of public education as the bedrock of democracy, economic prosperity and justice was refined in my work in West Philadelphia after college. It was further shaped by the harrowing experiences I had while helping to found [Khanya College] in the midst of a civil war in South Africa. And it was refined again with the work I did in New York City, helping Columbia students become public school teachers in Harlem and Washington Heights. I spent last year working in various areas around the country to help build models of effective small public high schools in partnership with colleges and universities. All of that is tied together by my fundamental belief in education as the best tool that we have for making the world the kind of place we want it to be, and for making us the people we should be. That’s true in a high school program in Harlem or Soweto, and that’s true at Amherst College.

Why do you believe so strongly in the power of education? Where does that conviction come from?

My belief in the power and value of education comes in part from a basic optimism; that is, I don’t see anything else that can work, and I refuse to believe that nothing can work. It comes in part out of my own experience seeing how great teachers could open my mind to problems I might not have seen and to possibilities I couldn’t envision. If something like that can change an individual, then surely it can change society. I’ve seen this not only for myself, but in a broader way. In South Africa, I was privileged to be involved in establishing a college for black students who, under apartheid, had suffered every possible indignity and every possible form of educational disadvantage. We provided these students with a year or two of the best possible education, then watched them grow as intellects and explode on the scene of South Africa, just as the country was becoming a democracy. I will take those memories and those images with me to my grave. I’ve seen similar explosions of learning in Rio’s favelas and in Watts, and also in America’s greatest colleges and universities, and I’ve never seen anything more inspiring.

When I got to college and discovered great professors, like the professors at Amherst, who were willing to spend the time to see what was in me, it changed my life. It opened my mind to ideas and issues that I had never thought of before. It wasn’t always fun, it wasn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In a way, as I begin this presidency, I feel that I’ve been brought back to that freshman year.

In the remarks you made in Johnson Chapel in April, when your appointment was announced, you noted that this is a difficult time in the world. How does that affect your thinking about your presidency?

It is all too safe to predict that the world that our current students will live in is going to be very different from the world I grew up in. I grew up in the midst of the Cold War; students now grow up in a period in which the United States has single-power dominance in economic, political, cultural and military terms. That means we have great power, but also that we are confronted by great responsibility and great challenges. Not all of the world appreciates our power in all of its regards. These tensions have exploded dramatically already, and it’s sadly safe to assume that they will explode further in our lifetimes. We need to be preparing students for an uncertain future, which is always a difficult business, but it is the business of education.

To prepare for this uncertain and challenging world requires a nimbleness of thought that conventional forms of education cannot ensure. We cannot provide education in neat packages, certain that those packages will be what our students will need. Instead, we can be certain that what our students will need for the future is the capacity to keep learning; to be open to understanding our own society and other societies; to seeing how social, cultural, scientific and technical issues interact, both in terms of problems and in terms of solutions. No form of education that we have invented is better suited to this challenge than a liberal arts education as developed and refined in America’s great colleges. We need to provide that education to our future leaders, and to as broad a cross-section of our nation and our world as we can manage.

I believe in the power not only of education, but of individuals, even relatively small numbers of individuals. In the turbulent times that we may face ahead, having just a few people who have been educated in the way that Amherst can provide may keep us from falling into the worst of temptations, remind us of what we aspire to, what we still have to learn, what we still have to live up to.

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Marx talks with new students' families at Orientation 

Outside of the classroom, how is the current global situation likely to affect Amherst in the next few years?

Certainly, turbulent times can threaten us most directly through economic downturn and reduced resources to do all the things we aspire to do. That makes us all the more dependent, but also all the more grateful, to the alumni who have in effect invested in our future, providing resources for these difficult times.

Turbulence will also come into this campus because of our diversity, our backgrounds and views, and that is exactly as it should be. We do not want to wall ourselves off from the world, or even from our disagreements. We need to manage those disagreements and make sure that the conversation stays as civil and as informed as it possibly can. We can, oddly enough, benefit from our diversity by engaging around those issues, by learning from each other and thinking our way through them.

In a terrible way, the turbulent world provides us with a great educational opportunity. It’s grist for our mill, for it forces us to think hard about what we value, and to imagine solutions to the problems that we face.

Let’s switch from global and institutional issues to personal issues. Family is very important to you. This is a big move for your family—not just a job change for you, but a real lifestyle change for them. How have Karen and the children been feeling about the move to Amherst?

Karen is glad to be settling in and meeting people. She’s also looking forward to having time to write, to be with our children and to decide how to organize her professional life in the years ahead. Our children, too, are very excited about being in a place where we’ll have a house and a yard. They’re looking forward to going to the gym, swimming in the college pool, going to games and eating in Valentine. We’ll be looking for ways in which aspects of our lives and my work can overlap. But like any working father, I’ll have to find ways to ensure quiet time with my family—checking homework, talking with them about what’s going on in their lives. Our children are the most important thing in the world to me and Karen, and I’m not planning to give up any of the aspects of my life with them that I so value. But like me, they will benefit enormously from being part of this community.

Your family and your work obviously keep you very busy. What do you and Karen do for fun?

Like hobbies? [Laughs] We have two kids! So I’m afraid there’s not much time for hobbies. Karen and I both try to get to the gym, and we like reading. Right now, I’m writing a lot of speeches [for Amherst] and so I’m reading a lot of books about liberal arts education. I’ve been reading Stanley King on the history of Amherst College. I’m rereading the Culture of Narcissism (still a thoughtful book, though a little dated). Last night, I read some essays that [Professors] Kim Townsend, Bill Pritchard and Arthur Zajonc had recommended, on issues that I probably wouldn’t have been reading before. I’ve been reading a lot of [Alexander] Meiklejohn. I’m looking again at Hannah Arendt. I’m using this time before school starts to read broadly in a way that will inform the conversations we’ll be having on campus.

Karen and I love opera, but we don’t have an opportunity to go that often. We like to go to museums. And I love poetry—especially Richard Wilbur [’42]. He gave a reading of his poems when I was a freshman in college, and I was so moved by his work that I read his poetry at my sister’s wedding and then to my wife and children.

Would you like to take this opportunity to unveil your agenda for Amherst?

[Laughs] Having been here for two weeks, I honestly don’t have a ready-made agenda for Amherst! Right now, my most pressing agenda is to get out and learn about this place, to meet everyone that I can, to take advantage of every opportunity to interact with and learn from the faculty, the students, the alumni, the staff, the college community at large. That will both refine and shape my sense of where the community is interested in going, but it will also inform my thinking about what our priorities are. My first agenda is to have as many conversations as I can in whatever form that I can. That includes meeting with faculty, as I was doing this morning, or going out across the country and meeting with alumni. That is an opportunity for me to talk about Amherst, but also an opportunity for me to learn from a wide array of people, both about Amherst and about how to think about Amherst and the world. I can’t think of a more absorbing educational experience for myself.

Photos: Frank Ward