September 10, 2014

Dear members of the Amherst College community,

This week, 469 first-year students and 15 transfer students have started classes at the fairest College, long known for its rigorous education in the liberal arts. The combination at Amherst of high expectations and a commitment to students’ success has once again drawn talented students from a wide range of backgrounds. Our financial aid policies allow us to enroll the most promising young people regardless of socioeconomic circumstance, and the College continues to receive well-deserved attention for its commitment to access and affordability.

Let me begin this update with more information about the exceptional students who constitute our newest incoming class. These students enter the College having been recognized as Advanced Placement Scholars, National Merit winners, Intel Semi-Finalists, National Achievement winners, Jack Kent Cooke Scholars and National Hispanic Recognition Scholars. One marker of their overall excellence is that 85 percent of the class of 2018 ranked in the top decile in their high school graduating classes. This class earned the highest SAT composite (2,155 out of 2,400) of any entering class in Amherst history.

The diversity of these students will enhance the rigor of their shared learning here with the breadth of life experiences they embody. The 469 students (50:50 male/female) represent 39 states, the District of Columbia and 31 foreign countries. Forty-four percent are American students of color, 10 percent are non-U.S. citizens, an additional 7 percent are dual citizens of the United States and another country, and 15 percent are first-generation college students. Sixty percent will be receiving Amherst grant aid. We are also pleased to welcome the College’s 15 new transfer students, including one military veteran.

Our first-year students’ experience at Amherst began Sunday, Aug. 24, with a nine-day comprehensive Orientation program that introduces students to Amherst and to one another, so they can begin building the friendships that will last a lifetime. As part of Orientation, students heard the annual DeMott Lecture, delivered this year by Dr. Claude Steele, provost of the University of California-Berkeley and a distinguished social psychologist. Steele is well known for his work on the effects of stereotypes on student performance in academics and athletics. Steele argues that the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about the group to which we belong or are perceived to belong can affect individual performance even in the absence of prejudice in the immediate environment. Our incoming students read and discussed Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The questions they asked of him after his lecture provided evidence of how carefully, appreciatively and critically they had read the work and how engaged they will be by their studies at Amherst.

This entering class has a great example to follow in the success of our most recent graduates, including 17 members of the class of 2014 who were awarded prestigious national fellowships or assistantships for international study or instruction. Two of these won Thomas J. Watson Fellowships for study and exploration abroad, 10 received J. William Fulbright Fellowships for teaching internationally, two were offered Fulbright Research Grants for study, one was given a French Government Teaching Assistantship, one received a fellowship with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, and one was named a Churchill Scholar.

During their four years with us, members of the class of 2014 also enriched the great Amherst athletics legacy, winning 16 NESCAC team championships, three NCAA team championships and four individual national titles. They also added to the history of excellence in theater, improvisational comedy, dance, debate and music from choral and a cappella singing to jazz and orchestral music.

Members of the classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017, meanwhile, continue to demonstrate the value of an education that emphasizes research opportunities and experiential learning. This summer, for example, approximately 100 rising sophomores, juniors and seniors remained on campus to conduct research on topics ranging from parasites in tree swallow nests to cognition in children. More than 200 of our students—a record number—participated in internships in the United States and abroad, thanks to programs coordinated by the Center for Community Engagement. Other students used the summer to compete against the best in their areas of interest. Daniel Ang ’15—a triple major in physics, math and music—took third place in an international piano composition competition held in Vienna.

I send this update to you the day after we welcomed renowned journalist Bob Woodward to campus. During the afternoon, he met with groups of students and faculty, and in the evening we had a full house at Johnson Chapel for his presentation on “The Presidency from Nixon to Obama,” which was free and open to the public. On our website, you can watch a video recording (requires log-in) of the event, and see this brief interview with Woodward.

His visit was one of the first of the educational and cultural events that our students will enjoy on campus throughout this year. Another example is the Copeland Colloquium, which is focused on “The Cultures of Translation.” The colloquium will feature a year-long series of lectures, films, courses and performances that explore immigration, cultural and linguistic change, the role of the humanities and a great deal more. Faculty will embed social media and other forms of technology in the series to extend the conversation. 

Last year at this time, I outlined the College’s short- and long-term priorities, among which are (1) recruiting and retaining the best scholar-teachers as the number of faculty retirements grows, and (2) strengthening student life to ensure that our students are safe, able to devote themselves to their studies, and enjoying a healthy and connected community on campus. We have made progress on both fronts. The College added eight new faculty members this past year across a variety of fields, namely American studies, astronomy, economics, English, mathematics and statistics, political science, and Spanish. Of special note is that, after several years without an astronomer, our Department of Physics and Astronomy was successful in recruiting two outstanding new colleagues. Our new dean of the faculty, Professor of History Catherine Epstein, will oversee 11 faculty searches this year across computer science, economics, English, French, philosophy, political science, psychology, black studies/history and biology.

Our faculty is well balanced between senior and junior positions—of our 174 tenured and tenure-track faculty, 50 have joined the Amherst ranks in the last five years, while 39 have served at Amherst for 30 years or longer. In addition, this year we are fortunate to have 56 artists-in-residence, visiting faculty members, and lecturers serving in a range of disciplines.

The faculty consists of exceptional teachers who are also highly regarded scholars, researchers and artists. One marker of their recognized excellence is that 24 of our faculty have active National Science Foundation and National Institute of Health grants, which support faculty and student research and innovation. The published work of several of our humanists and social scientists has enjoyed scholarly and media attention this summer, including Judith Frank’s novel All I Love and Know; Ron Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-44; Ilan Stavans’ A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States; and Austin Sarat’s Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, which includes the work of student researchers.

Our commitment to our students has resulted in a major restructuring of our Office of Student Affairs and its staff to provide more effective support in areas most critical to our students’ success. Under the able leadership of Suzanne Coffey, we have made several important appointments, including a new dean of students, Alex Vasquez, who joined us from Wheaton College. In addition, three faculty members join Charri Boykin-East (dean of the class of 2015) as class deans: Professor Rick López is dean of new students, Professor Lyle McGeoch is dean of the class of 2017 and Professor Martha Umphrey is dean of the class of 2016. Having our faculty assume these roles will go a long way toward integrating living and learning at Amherst, which is the ultimate goal of our changes in student life.

Amherst has long been, and continues to be, engaged in the most pressing issues affecting colleges across the country. We want and expect that leadership responsibility. Our policies and programs around access and diversity, for example, are regular subjects of discussion in national media, where we are perceived as setting the standard in student recruitment and financial aid. We are working in an especially focused way now to provide structures and programs that allow every student at Amherst to benefit from the diversity and talent of our student body. Our restructuring in Student Affairs is driven in part by that imperative. 

I was honored earlier this year to be invited by President Obama to represent Amherst at a summit on access and affordability in higher education, and to be invited later in the year to meetings with the president’s task force on sexual assault and Title IX. As you know, we have completely overhauled our policies, procedures and personnel for the prevention and adjudication of sexual misconduct, rape and other Title IX issues, as well as for supporting students coping with the aftermath of assault. The year ahead will be the first full academic year affected by this comprehensive set of changes, and we will monitor the results closely and learn from our students about the effects of these changes. It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure student safety and to build student confidence that they will be heard, that resources and support are available and that the College’s Honor Code will be upheld.

Meanwhile, plans are well under way for key facilities projects to support our faculty and students. Our decision to re-site the new science center, though difficult, has allowed us to plan an adaptable facility that will serve the College’s needs far into the future and also to build new residence halls on the East Campus. The new residence halls will open in fall 2016, and the new science center in 2018. We will build the newly envisioned Greenway, a specially landscaped walking path designed to connect the new buildings to the main campus and to enhance the College’s beautiful environs. And this past weekend, some of you will have stopped in to one of the inaugural events at the renovated Power House, a dedicated student space. We are delighted by how students have begun to use this large indoor setting and its various features for performances and social life. Giving students more responsibility to exercise leadership in shaping their residential experience at Amherst is a high priority for the College. We will soon be sending you more information about these developments, including the effect of construction activities on campus spaces and parking.

Finally, I want to bring you up to date on the comprehensive strategic planning process we initiated this past year. Our goal is to identify priorities for meeting the needs of students and strengthening the College through the next decade and beyond. Processes such as these are inevitably complicated, but when this is complete, we will have a strong, comprehensive and transparent guide for years to come. We are grateful for the plentiful feedback we received from across the Amherst community on the draft materials shared this summer. The Steering Committee has been at work on the strategic plan since then and will encourage extensive campus discussion about it this fall. We intend to present the final proposed plan to the Board of Trustees at its January meeting, and we will keep you informed as the strategic planning process moves toward completion. 

As ever, additional information about these and other developments can be found on the College’s website. From the classroom to student life, strategic planning to facilities, our faculty and staff are energized by working with our students and advancing the mission of the College. The arrival of our newest class is a reminder of the great trust that all our students and their families place in us, and we look forward to doing our best to live up to their expectations as the fall semester gets under way.

I welcome your ideas and reflections at any time about the College and the work being done here. Thanks for your continued devotion to this great institution. 

Sincerely,

Biddy Martin