The Newest Alumnus

President Anthony W. Marx will leave Amherst to head the New York Public Library.

By Emily Gold Boutilier


Eight years ago the doorbell rang at the downtown Manhattan apartment of Jide Zeitlin ’85. “When I came to the door there was a professor standing there,” recalls Zeitlin, now chairman of the Amherst Board of Trustees. Then a member of the college’s presidential search committee, Zeitlin had agreed, at the insistence of a student on that committee, to meet with a professor whom the group had earlier passed over for the top job. Expecting a courtesy visit, Zeitlin blocked out 30 minutes.

“Yet several hours later, with a lot of vigorous conversation in between, Tony Marx walked out my front door,” Zeitlin says. “And I had a sense that we may well have found the 18th president of Amherst College.”

Zeitlin told this story in Johnson Chapel on Oct. 7, 2010 (go to video and audio), two days after Marx announced he will resign as Amherst president on June 30, 2011, after eight years, to head the New York Public Library. Marx says he was approached by the library over the summer and was not looking to change jobs, “since I have one of the best I can imagine.”
In the chapel that day, Marx received a standing ovation before he explained why he accepted the position at the library, citing its status as “the premier public education institution of the greatest city in the world.”

Marx’s tenure has focused largely on strengthening the student experience by striving to make Amherst both the most selective and the most diverse liberal arts college in the country. Under his leadership, applications to Amherst have increased by almost 50 percent, driving up selectivity. The number of Pell Grant recipients has grown from 15 percent of the student body to 21 percent, according to the financial aid office. Students of color now make up 42 percent of the first-year class and international students make up 9 percent, the admission office reports.

Under Marx, “Amherst has changed profoundly for the better,” Zeitlin said in the chapel, describing the college’s transformation as “unmatched” in Amherst history, with an exception being the move to coeducation in the 1970s.
In 2008 Amherst became only the third college or university in the nation to replace all student loans with scholarships in its financial aid packages, enabling students to graduate with no debt. That same year it became one of only eight U.S. colleges or universities to extend its need-blind admission policy to international students. (“Need-blind” means that the school makes admission decisions without holding financial need against the applicant.)

In a recent interview in his office, Marx said he’s especially proud of his work in expanding access to Amherst—work that has helped to “ensure the fulfillment of an American ideal of opportunity and mobility based on talent,” he says, “and an Amherst ideal that is in our bones from the very beginning.”

In increasing access, Marx “defied a conventional wisdom that Amherst was strong enough,” Zeitlin said, “that pressing too hard on access would diminish our intellectual rigor. In defying conventional wisdom, Tony has remarkably changed it, both here and broadly.”

Under Marx, the college also added two new majors—in environmental studies and film and media studies. The Center for Community Engagement opened. Workers built a new home for the geology department and the Museum of Natural History, built or renovated 13 dorms and constructed a co-generation plant to help the college become more energy-efficient. A new Merrill Science Center is in the early planning stages. 

“Amherst taught me what it means to let principles guide hard decisions,” Marx says. He faced the toughest challenge of his presidency when the economy went south in 2008 and Amherst lost roughly 20 percent of its endowment. Under Marx’s leadership, the college managed to tighten its belt while avoiding layoffs and while sustaining its financial aid and need-blind admission policies. As other colleges reduced their faculty, Amherst continued to hire, significantly increasing the number of tenure-track faculty searches.

The economic downturn came as Marx announced the college’s five-year, $425 million Lives of Consequence fundraising campaign. Despite the bad timing, the campaign—which supports financial aid, investments in the size and scope of the faculty, student research and service and the updating of academic facilities—is already 90 percent of the way to its goal. It got a major boost last year when two Amherst graduates pledged separate gifts of $100 million and $25 million—the largest donations in the history of the college and, in the case of the $100 million gift, the largest unrestricted cash donation ever to a liberal arts college.

“No matter the challenge,” says Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call, “Tony seeks the best for Amherst and asks each of us to give our best in return.”

As president of the New York Public Library, he will face additional challenges. While circulation and attendance have reached record highs, the library has faced significant funding cuts. “We have to ensure that the public retains free access to ideas, information and books,” he wrote in a letter to the Amherst community. “And we have to ensure that our citizens have civic space and vibrant programs for learning and thinking, all the more so as the world seems to be turning away from enlightenment.”

Marx has deep roots in New York. He attended the city’s Public School 98 and Bronx High School of Science. He graduated from Yale magna cum laude in 1981 and earned a master’s and Ph.D. from Princeton. In the 1980s he helped found Khanya College in South Africa. He came to Amherst after 13 years on the faculty at Columbia University, where he was professor and director of undergraduate studies of political science. At Columbia he founded a program to recruit and train public school teachers in Harlem and Washington Heights.

His wife, Karen Barkey, is a professor of sociology and history at Columbia. They have two children, Joshua and Anna-Claire. Marx says his family is happy that he and Barkey will be working together in the same city again, but that he accepted the library post not for family reasons but “because it seems like such an important challenge right now and so in keeping with the values I and Amherst believe in.” He says he’s turned down other opportunities in recent years.   

Standing in Johnson Chapel on Oct. 7, Marx said he now considers himself an Amherst alumnus, a part of the college for life. Audience members asked him what he wants to accomplish before he leaves (“We’ll figure that out together,” he replied) and about the future of libraries (“Do not confuse libraries with books,” he said. “They are about ideas and information”). One student asked him for amnesty in paying library fines. “If you’re from Amherst and you have New York Public Library books that are overdue, let me know,” joked the newest alumnus. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04

Read a 2003 Amherst magazine interview with Marx.

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