A Conversation with the New Board Chair


In July the Amherst Board of Trustees elected Cullen Murphy ’74, editor-at-large at Vanity Fair and a critically acclaimed author, as its new chairman. He succeeds Jide Zeitlin ’85, who served in the position since 2005.

Murphy is the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (2012) and Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007). Before arriving at Vanity Fair in 2006, he was managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly for more than 20 years. Until 2004, Murphy also wrote the comic strip Prince Valiant, which was illustrated by his father.

Murphy joined the board 12 years ago and most recently chaired its Buildings and Grounds committee. President Biddy Martin describes him as a person of “integrity and wisdom” and as a skilled leader with “a deep appreciation of academic values.”

Murphy answered our questions by email.

What brought you to Amherst as a student?
I’m from a large family—the oldest of eight children—and my parents ran our home as if it was a small liberal arts college: lots of reading, lots of arts and sports, lots of late-night chatter, and the occasional disciplinary infraction. In my parents’ minds, liberal arts colleges represented the educational ideal. My father, who never went to college, took me around to a lot of these schools—but always kept bringing up Amherst. I know he regarded Grace Coolidge, a baseball fanatic, as one of the finer First Ladies, so maybe the Coolidge connection played a role.  

I loved the place from the moment I arrived: the small seminars, the relationships with faculty members, the ecosystem of ideas, the fact that you could try your hand at any activity, and the presence of inquisitive people one’s own age in large numbers. On top of that, students were treated as if they were already functioning adults. That sort of faith often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ll never forget the sensation that came from suddenly being treated that way. When I worked on The Amherst Student, my colleagues and I felt as if we were putting out The Washington Post; I still remember the agonizing discussion about whether to call for the impeachment of Nixon. And the world waited!

What do you consider to be your job description as the chair of the board?
The board of trustees is the steward of the college’s long-term well-being and the ultimate decision-making body, though much of its authority is delegated. It does not function as an executive—it doesn’t manage or administer, and it shouldn’t, though on some issues, notably finances and facilities, it does roll up its sleeves and work especially closely with the team at the college. The board manages the endowment and sets long-term budget priorities. It is deeply engaged in oversight of all aspects of Amherst, and it’s also deeply engaged, in partnership with the broader college community, in thinking strategically about the future.

In consultation with board members, including the president, the chair helps set the agenda: what should the board be thinking about, and with what urgency? Just as important, the chair needs to assist the board in arriving at a point of view. Finally, on some matters, the chair serves as a channel of contact between the board as a whole and the president.

The previous two Amherst board chairs have been in finance or industry. What do you bring to the table as an author and editor?
I served as a trustee under Amos Hostetter [’58] and Jide Zeitlin [’85], and like everyone else who did, I learned an enormous amount from each of them. The one trait that every editor has is faith in the power of the written word. It’s not just the power to communicate. Even more fundamentally, the very process of writing is essential to the process of thinking. And one of the great characteristics of an Amherst education—as true now as it was 50 years ago—is the emphasis on written expression. Amherst is a writing college, and writing seeps into every aspect of college life. As a community we’ll be calling on the written word in the years ahead as we restate, for different times, the case for liberal arts education, which—sometimes to the surprise of those of us who had one—not everyone takes for granted.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities facing Amherst today?
I mentioned one: making the case for the liberal arts to a society that may be skeptical. Times of economic downturn always ignite this debate—people are understandably focused on near-term ends and means. Amherst has a good argument to make: that the education we offer is not some optional luxury but necessary equipment for the kind of world we’re heading into.

Getting a better handle on costs is paramount. Amherst is an expensive proposition, and at the same time our resources are limited. One group of people who understand financial constraints all too well are those who are paying for the enterprise, whether it’s students and parents or our generous alumni. It’s incumbent on us to explain and justify what we’re spending (and charging), and to do so in an open, persuasive and public way.

That aside, we’re in the midst of a technological revolution that has already turned my own profession, publishing, upside down and has enormous implications for education. The college needs to grapple with technology—not to change the essence of what we do but to leverage technology in ways that enable the essence to be pursued in even better ways.

And what is that essence? Biddy Martin has made the point that, having paid a lot of attention in recent years to the question of who comes to Amherst, we should look afresh at what happens to students when they’re here. That covers everything from what we teach and how we teach to the nature of social life on campus. We hold out an ideal of a diverse learning community. Are we living up to it?

Do you anticipate that the board will have to make changes to the current financial aid policies?
No one should walk voluntarily into the prognostication business, and I won’t. But it’s worth looking at the recent past for what it says about the college’s values. Amherst is a leader when it comes to fostering access. Well over half the student body receives some measure of financial aid. (Actually, because tuition covers only 60 percent of costs, every student is heavily subsidized, even those paying the full fee.) We have long been need-blind for American students, and are now need-blind for international students. Because we don’t want students carrying huge debt burdens, we replaced loans with outright grants. Doing this year after year costs a small fortune—it’s some of the best money we spend, and our alums help make it possible. When the financial crisis hit, in 2008, some institutions dialed back on financial aid. Amherst did not, and there are no plans to do so. Amherst’s response to the financial crisis also illustrates, more broadly, its way of doing business. Some schools resolved budgetary issues with across-the-board cuts, by fiat. Amherst convened a committee with representatives of all constituencies to advise the administration and the board. The work it did was real—it became the college’s blueprint.

College governance has been in the headlines recently, first with Penn State and then with the University of Virginia. Are college trustees under greater scrutiny?
It’s not just boards—institutions in general are under greater scrutiny, and should be. In a society where institutions as a category—Congress, the press, religion, you name it—are held in growing distrust, colleges and universities enjoy more respect than most. Imperfectly, and in the face of many challenges, they try to do the job that society asks them to do. But trust is easily eroded, and colleges and universities need to earn it every day. A college like Amherst must be clear in its principles and transparent in its operations.

Your newest book is about the Inquisition, and before that you wrote a book comparing the United States and the Roman Empire. Do these books offer insights that will help as you lead the board?
As in, “Can the rack be a useful tool in forming opinion?” I’ll answer in an oblique way. The subjects I’ve written about have roots in the history classes I took at Amherst. I had an influential advisor in Fredric Cheyette, a history professor, and a good friend to this day. Historians are skeptical that history can be “used” in any narrow sense—the past can warn, but it’s hard to derive a detailed roadmap from historical events that can guide us through current events. No set of circumstances is identical to another. But history does teach a kind of radical humility: nothing ever quite works out the way you think it will. That being so, the most important things to hold onto are the values you bring to your life and work.

Photo by Gasper Tringale