December 28, 2015

Dear Alumni and Families,

I write to wish you a happy 2016 and to thank you for your support of the College. Those of us on campus look to you for ideas and inspiration—in smooth sailing and in storms. The events of the past month have made me aware of the need to communicate with you more directly and frequently, regardless of the immediate circumstances. The speed at which stories are spread through social media and the unavoidably abbreviated and sometimes misleading accounts that appear in even the best newspapers make it difficult to cut through the noise with messages that accurately convey what is occurring on the campus.  What matters at Amherst today is what has always mattered—a rigorous liberal arts education that enables talented students from a range of backgrounds to understand the world they will enter so that they may have a positive impact on it.

Our students' activism this past fall has focused the media's attention only on protest and conflict.  What most reports missed or ignored is those same students' passionate desire to participate fully in an Amherst education, a desire expressed sincerely through the recent protests on campus.  A love of learning unites Amherst students of every background. It is a quality that our current students share with all of you. The issues raised during the protests reflect the existence of barriers that stand in the way of success and wellbeing for too many of our students. We are committed to reducing any barriers to learning and thriving as an academic community.

Amherst College has spent the last decade creating increasingly broad educational opportunities for talented students from a wider range of backgrounds. Forbes published a study on December 20 about the composition of student bodies on elite college campuses. Amherst was described as exemplary. We take pride in the combination of academic talent and diversity. Our strategic plan affirms the value of a liberal arts education in a setting that brings students with widely varied experiences together—and it also recognizes that care and effort are needed to create a strong community in the face of significant societal divisions.  For that reason, the plan also commits us to rethinking aspects of the liberal arts—curricular, pedagogical, and residential—for a new population of students and a new era. The work we have laid out for ourselves is ongoing, it is significant, and it takes time. Think of what was involved in the transition to coeducation.

This past month, our students highlighted the need for change. Those who took part in the recent protests and formulated the demands that got so much press also came together and, with reflection, rethought their initial list and their rhetoric and crafted a more constructive set of goals. There is great wisdom within the student body of which we can be proud. I know of no other campus where protesting students openly acknowledged that their demands were too hastily formulated and presented. What students are asking us to do is consistent with our overall goal of combining educational access with the academic quality for which Amherst has long been known.  Creating educational opportunity does not stop with the recruitment and admissions process. It requires more of us once students arrive on our campus. Decisions about the specific goals that our students have developed are being made using the College's usual governance processes and relevant administrative offices.

Amherst has the talent and resources to work with the differences in our students' backgrounds and preparation while also maintaining the high academic standards that are our signature. We can address prejudice while protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech. We can create an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries.  Working with our students, we will.  Doing so requires candor about the inevitable tensions, as well as about the wonderful opportunities, that diversity and inclusiveness create.  It also requires humility about our imperfections as individuals and the inevitable imperfections of human institutions.  There are few institutions that have the history, the principles, and the human and financial resources to excel in a time of great challenge and increasing complexity. Amherst can.

I am pleased to report that our academic semester and calendar year have ended on a very bright note. The Mellon Foundation has awarded Amherst a grant of $1.5 million to enhance teaching and learning and to reimagine what an intellectual and residential community can be. The grant includes funding to support our faculty as they seek new strategies for teaching and ensuring that students acquire the intellectual abilities they need. The College's first-ever instructional designer has worked with more than three dozen Amherst professors over the past year, helping them redesign courses, introduce new teaching methods, and pinpoint which approaches best reach their students—work that many faculty have embraced. The Mellon grant will support a second instructional designer, course development, innovative pedagogical approaches, and opportunities for students in internships and course-related projects to put ideas to work in the world.

Building intellectual community also means encouraging open intellectual exchange, and the grant provides support for faculty and student initiatives on that front.  We submitted the proposal this past summer and are pleased that the Mellon Foundation awarded the full amount of our request.  The grant will help us implement the goals outlined in our strategic plan and make progress on some of the problems that students have called to our attention.

The curriculum committee that was established as part of our strategic planning process is taking a broad look at how and what we teach and asking whether our students are gaining the intellectual skills and abilities necessary for the world they will enter. At a recent retreat, the committee focused on the importance of shared intellectual experiences for our students, among other things. Its work will continue through the spring semester with recommendations by early next fall.

The strength of our students and faculty and their intense intellectual engagement with one another continue to distinguish life at the College.  The qualifications of our student applicants for early decision were particularly strong this year.  We have admitted a slightly larger percent of our class by means of early admission than we typically do.  The admitted students' academic qualifications and achievements are remarkable and there is a record level of diversity in this talented early-admitted group.  The deadline for regular-decision applications is January 1, 2016.

We are now in the midst of our faculty hiring process and expect to appoint ten new tenure-track faculty members before the end of the academic year in areas that range from astronomy to Chinese literature.  Departments report that candidate pools are very strong and will result in outstanding appointments.  The administration will also recommend that the board approve three faculty members for tenure at its January meeting.  It has been a pleasure to review the three cases that came forward this year; they demonstrate the combination in our faculty of excellent teaching, research, and engagement with students.

Our bicentennial history committee is now developing ways to integrate research on the College's history into new and ongoing courses in anticipation of the Bicentennial Celebration in 2021. That remarkable milestone is only a few years off.  When we get there, Amherst will continue to stand out as a leader in successfully recruiting and enrolling extraordinary students from all backgrounds, regardless of need; in the quality of the education it offers; in the success and contributions of its graduates; and in the renewal of the liberal arts as a form of education the country urgently needs.

Your active engagement with the College, in good times and in the face of challenges, is one of Amherst's greatest strengths.  We appreciate the range of your perspectives and the care and commitment you bring to them. I look forward to continued conversation with you as Amherst approaches its 200th birthday. Thank you for your support of the College.  I wish you a happy and rewarding 2016.

Sincerely,
Biddy