From President Biddy Martin
September 17, 2015
Dear Faculty, Staff, Students, Alumni, Parents and Friends,
The academic year is underway, and it could not have started more auspiciously. The week before last, a new class of students and their families drove through purple and white balloon arches on the first-year quad, where they were greeted by upperclass students and members of the College staff eager to help them unload cars, move belongings into the residence halls, and get to know them. On their second day, students learned that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would visit Amherst in their second week. Her visit to campus on September 8 moved and energized the community, leading us to make her memoir, My Beloved World, available to students who wish to read and own it. Video of the event in Johnson Chapel is available online until November 1 for anyone with an Amherst College account. I encourage you to watch it.
Our new students hail from 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The 9 percent who are international students come from 28 countries. As a class, these students boast a record composite SAT average. Their distinctions include recognition as National Merit winners; Intel competition finalists; and Advanced Placement, National Hispanic Recognition, National Achievement, Jack Kent Cooke, Ron Brown, QuestBridge and Ventures scholars. Twelve percent represent the first generation of their families to attend college, 56 percent are recipients of Amherst financial aid, and 21 percent are Pell Grant recipients. Among our newest future alumni, 44 percent have self-identified as American students of color, and two are veterans of the U.S. military.
Our Strategic Plan, which we completed this past spring, commits us to preserving the fundamentals that have made Amherst great over a long period of time. In our view, a broad and intellectually demanding liberal arts education has never been more important, either to individual students or to the society as a whole. We are also reaching down into the fundamentals and adapting them for a new population of students and a complex set of challenges. Our goal is to ensure that every student has what s/he needs to be academically successful at Amherst, that every student reaps the benefits of the College’s rich diversity, and that the College itself is changed for the better because of it. Amherst more nearly represents the demographic realities of the country than virtually any of our peers, including the most selective Ivy League institutions. Our policies and reach allow us to bring the most talented students from all over the country and the world. Educational equity requires more than the recruitment of a diverse student body. For such equity to be meaningful, all of our students must have the opportunity to thrive. Over the past several years, we have made major changes in personnel, organization, policies, procedures, and practices across key functional areas at the College. Our goal has been to build capacity and add expertise, while also identifying and addressing the challenges our students face, wherever they arise.
The Strategic Plan provides guideposts for our work. Our approach is holistic; it promotes educational excellence as its priority while also improving co-curricular learning and student life outside the classroom. Achieving our goals requires intentionality, collaboration, discipline, and careful assessment of new initiatives. We have an extraordinary foundation on which to build. Our students, faculty, and educational offerings, our leadership in financial aid, and our recent investments in student affairs, facilities, and finance allow us to take Amherst’s leadership to the next level, creating an even more transformative learning environment and helping build a vibrant and collaborative atmosphere on and off campus by:
- increasing the capacity of our faculty to teach a new population of students even more effectively, drawing on research into high-impact practices and new insights into the science of learning and cognitive development;
- expanding work at the intersection of curricular and co-curricular life, with a focus on “learning by doing,” in courses and collaborative projects;
- transforming residential and social life to help all students thrive academically and socially, ensuring that all students are ready to learn, that they feel part of a community that promotes collaboration, and that the community welcomes a range of perspectives; and
- providing models for dialogue and public discourse that help our students build the forms of civil society that are urgently needed society-wide.
Among the bedrock advantages of studying at Amherst is the close colloquy between distinguished faculty and talented students. Classes have now begun, and our new students are learning that the Amherst faculty combines high expectations with a strong “ethic of care” for their success and well-being. I have already had the pleasure of hearing students express their excitement about their first class meetings. Intellectual excitement remains the coin of the realm at Amherst.
Eleven new tenure-track and tenured faculty joined the College this year, in the Departments of Art and the History of Art, Biology, Black Studies, Classics, Computer Science, Economics, English, French, History, Philosophy, and Psychology. In addition, longtime faculty member David Hansen has returned to the Department of Chemistry. Their teaching and research interests range from Latin American literature and film to leveraging open-source big-data platforms for scientific computing applications. They join a faculty of outstanding teachers, scholars, and artists who attract competitive grant funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, publish influential articles and books, and contribute to the creative and performing arts on a national, and even international, stage. The faculty treats teaching as an art and is experimenting with approaches that have been shown by the scholarly literature to enhance student learning, including independent research, project- and field-based learning, and community engagement linked to academic courses. Faculty members continue to experiment with new digital tools and course design, and the addition of an instructional designer has provided much-needed support for faculty who are enhancing or rethinking their pedagogical practices.
Student Research and Engagement
Carrying out significant research, either on their own or in collaboration with an Amherst faculty member, is an important part of an Amherst education for a growing number of students. More than 180 students received College funding to conduct research this summer. They worked on everything from linguistics to the organelle shape in sea urchin eggs. Another 200-plus students participated in internships in the United States and abroad through programs coordinated by the Center for Community Engagement and the Career Center. Our goal is to increase the number of students who take part in research, internships, community engagement, project- and field-based learning, international study, and entrepreneurial activity of various kinds. Changes in the Career Center are providing students with the opportunity to reflect on possible careers earlier in their time at Amherst while pursuing a broad and deep liberal arts education. We have several different initiatives in place to achieve our goals and to test the impact of such opportunities.
Student Life and Well-Being
The importance of improving student life at Amherst led us to reorganize our Office of Student Affairs. Our efforts to more effectively support students and faculty are ongoing. Three of the class deans in Student Affairs are now tenured faculty members, ensuring that faculty perspectives are central to student services, and helping faculty understand what students experience and what they need outside the classroom. The College is offering a wider variety of programs to promote students’ readiness to learn, their sense of responsibility for themselves and one another, and their ability to bridge their differences, building friendships across the wide array of students. Two important examples of change have come in the area of student health and wellness. We have made changes in personnel and programs at the Counseling Center. Staff, faculty, and students continue to develop innovative programs to promote sexual respect and prevent misconduct and assault. We have also succeeded in bringing medical services into the College. In the past, our Health Center was operated and staffed by UMass Amherst, an arrangement that served the College well for many years, but which needed to change so we can offer year-round and increased daily hours of service to our students.
The Powerhouse enters its second year as a student-operated social space for club meetings, movie screenings, art exhibits, panel discussions, pub nights, and much more. The Pindar Field Dinners, now in their fourth year, bring together a mix of students from across majors to enjoy a special meal and to hear remarks from a member of the Amherst community. Meanwhile, staff members in Student Affairs are developing policies and online tools that will put students in a position to take more initiative in organizing their social lives and their precious free time.
In March, we broke ground on the new residence halls, which will be located south of Merrill Science Center and will play a role in our ongoing efforts to promote and support social interaction on campus. The new residence halls will offer a range of living options, student study spaces, and gathering spaces, including seminar and club rooms; a large, versatile events area; and bridges that connect the dorms and include kitchens. By 2018, a beautiful Greenway will transform the eastern side of the campus, adding outdoor spaces that connect not only buildings but also people, creating a campus more conducive to exchange across disciplines, interests, and identities.
The Science Center Entry Landscape
Enhancements of academic facilities are crucial parts of the Strategic Plan and are guided by a campus framework that was developed as part of the overall planning process. Construction on a remarkable interdisciplinary Science Center will begin in 2016, and the center will be complete in fall 2018. The facility will provide state-of-the art research and teaching labs, classrooms, and study space, strengthening Amherst’s already well-established reputation for undergraduate science education. The extensive use of glass on the side of the building that faces campus and on the internal laboratories will show science at work and draw the entire community to the east campus.
Arts, Museums and Events for All
Over the past several years, we have placed greater emphasis on the arts at Amherst, and they are thriving. In the past year, the Mead Art Museum, the Beneski Museum of Natural History, and the Emily Dickinson Museum welcomed more than 60,000 visitors, including students of all ages. They also offered Amherst students special projects and research opportunities. Meanwhile, our art, creative writing, dance, film, music, and theater programs are offering an intensive curriculum, creating opportunities for students to get engaged, and sponsoring numerous special events featuring visiting artists.
At the end of August, we welcomed David Little, the new director of the Mead Art Museum. He brings 25 years of experience, most recently as curator and head of the Department of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He has exciting plans to sustain the Mead’s centrality to the teaching mission of the College.
Together, our arts programs and museums host more than 300 events in the performing, literary, and visual arts each year. (You can stay abreast of these events by subscribing to our free new arts e-newsletter.) This spring we also will host the first Amherst College Literary Festival, including a finalist for the National Book Award. Our aim is to build on the College’s longstanding association with great writing. Look for announcements throughout the year about guests and events. Whenever possible, we will stream these events live online or post the videos for you to watch at your leisure.
Meanwhile, in the year ahead alumni and parents can enjoy more than 200 regional gatherings; an online book club; and an online network featuring regular posts from Amherst writers, artists, scholars, professionals, teachers, parents, students, and more. We encourage our alumni and parents to take advantage of these opportunities to connect and engage with the campus community.
Frost Library and the New CHI
Last spring, the Association of College & Research Libraries named Frost Library a winner of its 2015 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award. This prestigious prize honors one college library, one university library, and one community college library each year as “outstanding in furthering the educational missions of their institutions.” Under the leadership of Bryn Geffert, librarian of the College, Frost has become a hub of activity. Joining The Common and Amherst College Press in the library is the College’s new Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI). The CHI is designed to promote interdisciplinary exchange and intellectual community on the campus. It has just welcomed its first set of visiting fellows and will host a series of events to promote discussion of a variety of important issues in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, including their relationships to the natural sciences.
Amherst was recently recognized by the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) as the 2015 Division III Institution of the Year. The award is presented annually to the ECAC institution that best exemplifies the highest standards of collegiate academics and athletic performance. Last year, the football team had an undefeated season and won the NESCAC title, the women’s basketball team set an NCAA women’s record for 100 consecutive home wins, men’s hockey won a NESCAC championship and made a Frozen Four appearance, and women’s tennis finished third in the Division III national championships. Our student-athletes were also recognized individually: Connor Sholtis ’15 won a national championship in men’s swimming and diving, Chris Tamasi ’15 was named one of five finalists for the NCAA’s all-division Wooden Citizenship Cup, and Stephanie Ternullo ’15 earned the prestigious NCAA postgraduate scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge. Our Athletics Department is placing greater emphasis on club and intramural sports and recreation, and I look forward to seeing our students on the fields, ice, courts, and track; in the pool and gym; and on the quad with Frisbees.
None of the efforts I have described would be possible without the involvement, commitment, and generosity of our alumni, parents, friends, and donors. The Amherst Annual Fund ended the fiscal year at just over $10 million, thanks to the gifts of 11,028 donors. On behalf of the entire community, I express my gratitude to those who contributed. The support of our alumni, parents, and friends makes Amherst’s educational excellence and our exceptional financial aid programs possible, while giving students meaningful mentoring and internship opportunities and building the bonds that make for lifelong friendships.
Our endowment is our most important asset and the key to sustaining a great liberal arts education into the future. Several media outlets have recently published op-eds suggesting that colleges and universities with significant endowments be required to increase the rate at which they spend from their endowments or pay an excise tax on endowments above a certain threshold. These calls are uninformed about how college and university endowments work and what it would mean to spend at the rate they recommend or to pay taxes as a not-for-profit institution. Rather than countering these recommendations here, I provide a link to a document produced by Chief Financial Officer Kevin Weinman about the importance of college and university endowments and about how they are used.
I hope you enjoy learning more about the College you love. Thank you for taking the time to read this very long letter. Have a wonderful fall.