Interview by Katherine Duke ’05
The glasses are different, but over 25 years, the man behind them has seen it all.
A native New Yorker, Ben Lieber got his education, began his career and met his wife at Columbia University before arriving at Amherst in 1984. He served as dean of students for 25 years. This year, he took on a new role, as dean of academic support and student research, a new position at the college. He sat down for an interview with Amherst magazine in his new office near the Writing Center.
On not choosing Amherst
When I was applying to college way back in 1968, my choice of colleges came down to Columbia or Amherst. March of my senior year of high school, I took the Peter Pan bus up here from the Port Authority of New York. In those years, at least my memory is that all of Route 9 was farmland, so I was going along in the bus and passing these cows and getting more and more anxious at the sound of crickets and weird things that I had never heard, and I decided I just couldn’t picture myself being outside a major metropolitan area. But I always wondered what I had missed.
On dropping out
I had always intended to go to graduate school in English and thought of myself as becoming an academic. But the year before I started graduate school, I decided to take off and got a job in the admission office at Columbia. I enjoyed the variety of the work and the interactions with students. I did go to graduate school in English literature and got up to the stage of writing the dissertation. I found myself very, very unhappy, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate at the time. I decided to drop out. The fact that I’d had this job doing admission work enabled me to get a job as an assistant dean of students there, and I thought I would do that temporarily, just until I figured out what I really wanted to do. But it turned out to be what I really enjoyed, so I was assistant and then associate dean of students at Columbia for a total of nine years. Then, when Peter Pouncey, whom I had known as an undergraduate at Columbia, was appointed president of Amherst, it also happened that there was a vacancy in the dean of students position. When the opportunity came to work here, it just seemed to be attractive in all kinds of ways, including the fact that it would allow me to see, literally, what I had missed.
On the kind of welcome he received
In the fall of 1984, when we had just gotten to Amherst, it was really contentious times. Fraternities had just been abolished, and the previous acting president, Armour Craig, and the acting dean of students, Kathleen Deignan, had been hung in effigy by frat members the previous spring. There was a huge percentage of disaffected students and a lot of animosity toward the college administration.
We had enrolled our daughter, who was 4 years old, at the Little Red Schoolhouse. Every weekday morning, my wife [freelance editor Ella Kusnetz] would take her down to the social dorm quad from our house. One bleak November day, she’s pushing the stroller with her head down, and all of a sudden, she hears our daughter call out, “Mommy! Mommy! I see our name!” She looks, and spray-painted in huge black letters on the side of the music building is LIEBER IS A DICK. So that’s when we first realized our daughter could read.
But one of the great things about the academic world is that things do develop fairly consistently over time: the student body turns over with regularity every few years, and memories fade, at least among the students. So I think, by the late 1980s, early 1990s, much of the animosity had faded.
On why his own kids could never shock him
As I grew older, I understood people between ages 18 and 22 a lot better than when I came here when I was 34. Part of what gave me so much perspective was watching my own children [Emma, now 29, and Alex, now 25] go through their teenage years. In the other direction, I was able to tell my kids very early on that there was nothing they could do that would shock me—that I had, in fact, seen it all before.
I tell people that I never had to give our kids any kind of sex education at all because I took them to the RC shows [put on by the Resident Counselors for new students during Orientation] every year. My first year here, I had no clue what the shows actually consisted of, so I took my daughter with me. Right in the middle, there’s a sketch, and my daughter yells out at the top of her voice, “Daddy! Daddy! What’s a condom?”
Both kids went to performances on campus all the time; my son would come with me to athletic events; we used to eat at the dining hall. I think they appreciated growing up in a college town. The academic atmosphere felt, I think, very comfortable to them as a result. I don’t think either of them considered for a moment going to Amherst, because a.) they knew it so well already, they figured they had to get away, and b.) their father was the dean of students, and who needs that?
On his new job
I’m supervising all of Amherst’s academic support programs: the Writing Center; the [Moss] Quantitative Center; and our two summer programs for pre-frosh, the Summer Science Program, which has existed since 1987, and the Summer Humanities and Social Science Program, which we just started last summer. I also teach an intensive writing course each semester. There are a couple of people who’ve been teaching [intensive writing courses], but we hope to have more, because there’s certainly a demand. They’re meant to give extra preparation for students in critical reading and analytical writing. Our support programs have grown almost helter-skelter over the years. There seems to be more of a need for a systematic coherence to the offerings we have.
The other part of my job is to work within the dean of faculty’s office to enhance research opportunities for students. We’ve always had a very, very active student research program in the sciences, because our scientists get funding specifically to engage students in their own research projects, and the role that our students play in our scientists’ labs is often akin to what graduate students do at big research universities. But there really is no equivalent for students in the humanities and social sciences, and it would be nice to establish more such opportunities for them. The path just isn’t as clear in those disciplines. If we can accomplish it, I think it would be fairly innovative.
On leveling the playing field
Schools such as Amherst started including a wider and wider range of students from all kinds of backgrounds in the 1960s and early 1970s. It used to be the case that there was a fairly narrow definition of what kinds of schools “prepared” you for Amherst, and the definition started expanding considerably. But it took a while, I think, for colleges to realize the degree to which the responsibility then fell on [them] to make up for whatever deficiencies existed in the preparation of students who went to, say, schools in relatively impoverished areas, or even just working-class public schools that didn’t offer the kinds of curricula that places like Andover and Exeter always did. There are vast differences, now, in levels of preparation of our students. These are students of generally equal talents, but they haven’t learned the same things. But they do have the same aspirations, so we do have a moral obligation to try to bring everyone, as much as possible, onto a level playing field.
Photos (from top) by Samuel Masinter '04 and Frank Ward