The Hiring Man

Born in Quebec, Greg Call grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire, graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth in three years, earned his A.M. and Ph.D. at Harvard and taught at Tufts before joining the mathematics faculty at Amherst in 1988. His research is in the area of arithmetic geometry, which, he explains, combines geometry with number theory and algebra and involves using various mathematical tools to find the solutions to equations in whole numbers. Dean of the faculty since 2003, Call filled in as acting president of the college in the summer of 2011, between the departure of Anthony Marx and the arrival of Biddy Martin. He talked with Amherst magazine about faculty hiring, the planned new science center and how he uses his musical training at commencement.

Interview by Katherine Duke ’05

On a memorable lesson

I think I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I would investigate other possibilities, but teaching was always the most attractive idea to me. Working with my friends in school and doing a little bit of student teaching was always something that I enjoyed. And math was certainly my favorite subject, although I think that if I couldn’t have been a math professor, I would have chosen to teach another subject.

I started taking classes at Dartmouth when I was a junior at Hanover [N.H.] High School. When I was taking my first college-level math class, the professor was teaching in a large amphitheater, a physics lecture hall. There were various pieces of apparatus in the room, including this long representation hanging from the ceiling on a flexible aluminum rod, with horizontal bars on it like the steps of a ladder. The professor was trying to explain that mathematical induction corresponded to an infinite ladder: If you could get on the first rung, and always climb from one rung to the next, you could eventually reach every step of the ladder. He was using this prop, just sort of impromptu, for his explanation, and then he gave it a spin, and the twirl went up, illustrating the idea beautifully. I thought, “Well, this is really cool.” At that moment I was convinced I should be a math professor.

On what being dean of the faculty is all about

It’s fundamentally about supporting the work of our faculty and students. I’m responsible for hiring all of the faculty—I make all of the offers; I interview all of the candidates. I also interview and hire the coaches and some of the senior appointments in the library and in IT. I take particular pleasure in supporting our faculty’s research and thinking with them about how their scholarship can be incorporated in the curriculum and in their teaching. My office runs a number of programs that are designed to facilitate the faculty’s work with students, as well as the research that the faculty does that’s just theirs. I am an ex officio member of the Committee on Educational Policy, the Committee on Priorities and Resources and the College Admission and Financial Aid Committee. I serve as secretary to the Committee of Six, the executive committee of the faculty that reviews all tenure, reappointment and promotion cases.

On the generational shift in the faculty

Many great colleagues have declared plans to retire or are thinking about it. We have to invest in hiring well. Our colleagues—because they enjoy what they’re doing—are typically not ready to think about retirement in their early 60s. A small cohort is, and we have had, for a number of years, excellent phased-retirement options for them. [Phased retirement] is basically half-time teaching for a period of years with the agreement that you will fully retire at the end. But many colleagues don’t want to take on a reduced schedule until they are at least 65, sometimes 70. The options that we traditionally had for colleagues at that age were much less generous. So I developed an enhancement to our phased-retirement program and sought out a grant from the Mellon Foundation. What we have now for colleagues 65 and over is more similar to what we have for colleagues who are 60 to 65. This grant also provides funding to departments, so as they begin to lose some of the teaching of [a professor in phased retirement], they can bring in a new colleague and, for a period of years, have both of them.

We anticipate hiring more young faculty who will come to Amherst either with young families or planning to start families. The college is thinking [about] how to be more effective in providing excellent day care and parenting leave—an issue the faculty discussed last year. We’ve begun work on these issues through a couple of different studies.

On reading the graduates’ names at commencement

We ask our students to call in and leave a recording pronouncing their names. When I first started, students would call in, but the names would be in random order, and we didn’t have digital audio files. Now we’re able to transfer the audio files into a computer file and sort them alphabetically, which makes it much easier for me. I try to make phonetic notes and then go back and listen to the more challenging names a number of times. There is occasionally a name that has many syllables, and you have to get the rhythm of it. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 8; that musical training is helpful in terms of translating what you’re hearing into what you will then try to produce yourself.

On his presidential term

As dean, I’m involved in almost all the issues of the college, so it was not difficult to transition to being acting president. It was necessary for me to represent the college on occasion: to write additional letters, to sign letters to colleagues. There was more correspondence and “signature work.” With the presidential transition being a relatively short period of time, the simplest thing for me was to stay in my office, pick things up, deal with the most pressing issues and leave them in good stead for Biddy Martin.

On the planned new science center

It’s a project that many of us have been working on for years. I’m on the Planning Oversight Committee, a group that thinks about how we should plan and schedule projects that renew the buildings on campus and how the campus will evolve. Through that group and specific meetings about the science center, I’ve been involved going back all the way to a faculty planning group I convened in 2005. The project is likely to involve phasing: We’ll build a significant portion of the new center and then actually need to take down Merrill and build the rest of the center partially over the site where Merrill now sits. The new science center should be completed in 2017. I’m quite excited about the project. I think it’s going to be wonderful for our faculty and students.

When he’s not on campus

I’m single. I’ve often joked that I’m essentially married to the college. I do spend a great deal of time on campus. At home, I enjoy music. I enjoy sports; I’m a huge baseball, basketball and football fan. I’m a fan not only of the Amherst teams but of the Boston teams. Most of my reading is connected with the college, and the books I’ve been reading most recently are for tenure cases. I enjoy reading the works of our faculty in particular. When I get a chance to pick something else up, it’s typically connected with financial news and markets. I have a longstanding interest in economics, in part because of an interest in modeling and decision-making; that’s another area of my mathematical scholarship. I had a strong academic interest in economics when I was in college, and I was encouraged, actually, to go to graduate school in economics, by a professor at Dartmouth—though he thought it was okay that I was going into mathematics.

Top photo by Rob Mattson. Bottom photo by Kate Berry '12.