June 7, 2016
Dear Faculty, Staff, Students, Alumni, Parents, and Friends,
With a beautiful Commencement weekend and a memorable Reunion behind us, I write to thank you for your contributions to the life of the College and to provide you with an update on some of our projects and initiatives. The links in this letter will connect you with stories, videos, photographs, and speeches from graduation and Reunion weekends as well as news highlights for this past year.
After the economic downturn in 2008, liberal arts education came under scrutiny from skeptics who questioned its practical uses in a challenging economic environment. Over the past couple of years, the tide has started to turn again--to the recognition that liberal arts education and the versatile intellectual abilities it develops are essential preparation for change and uncertainty, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Amherst has long been a leader in the liberal arts, because our outstanding faculty sets high academic standards and supports students' success in meeting them. The College has also entered an exciting period of reinvention as we seek new ways of preparing students to "bring light to the world."
Our efforts to promote and reinvigorate liberal arts education formed the basis of a major grant awarded to the College this past year by the Mellon Foundation. The grant allows us to establish a coordinated and enhanced system of support for teaching and learning. With that support, our faculty is taking advantage of promising research on how students learn as well as of opportunities opened up by the development of digital tools. With three-year funding in hand, we have begun to implement new initiatives even as we seek permanent funding to support teaching excellence and innovation. At the same time, as part of the strategic planning process, a faculty committee has been charged with reviewing curricular policies and course offerings and is expected to make recommendations next year.
As many of you know, a retirement bulge is providing an opportunity to hire a significant number of new faculty over a relatively short period that began several years ago and will last at least another several years. There is no more important challenge or opportunity than the hiring of outstanding scholars for whom teaching is a calling. The competition for the best faculty at our level is intense. The benefits of teaching at a liberal arts college of Amherst's quality are legion, but those benefits are not always known to Ph.D. candidates at universities where research productivity is the coin of the realm. Our goals are to find scholars who meet Amherst's high standards in teaching and scholarship, to bring greater diversity to the faculty, and to create the conditions that will keep outstanding teacher-scholars at Amherst. For that reason, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty is busy putting in place the best possible approaches to faculty searches, faculty support, and retention of the excellent faculty we already have.
Outside the classroom, Amherst's inventive and hardworking staff is enhancing students' preparation for lives after graduation. Across several functions--a reimagined Career Center, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, and the Office of Student Affairs–staff who support academic, residential, and career services are working to ensure that all students take advantage of high-impact educational programs that have been shown to increase student learning. Those programs and practices include research, study abroad, international travel linked to academic work, internships, project-based teamwork, and opportunities, often student-initiated, to develop problem-solving, bridge-building, leadership, and entrepreneurial abilities. Our ambition is to have all students take advantage of multiple opportunities of this kind to link their academic pursuits and intellectual growth to their experiences in the world.
The extraordinary class of 2020 will arrive in August. These 240 men and 237 women come from 40 states, 28 countries, and nearly 400 different secondary schools. Among many other academic distinctions, 89 percent of our incoming students are in the top decile of their classes. Their composite SATs have set a new record for incoming classes at Amherst. Eight percent are international students, 14 percent are first-generation college students, 14 percent are sons and daughters of alumni, and 47 percent identify as American students of color. As always, there is overlap between and among some of these categories. As many of you know, the College was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation prize for educational equity this spring. The prize recognized the College's success in enrolling and educating students from low-income backgrounds and afforded us an opportunity to celebrate Amherst's longstanding commitment to educational opportunity. In a recent column, New York Times writer Frank Bruni praised the many institutional changes the College has made to boost student diversity, access, and financial aid, and described Amherst as "an exemplar of such adjustments." The challenge now is to sustain our success in enrollments, build a stronger sense of community, and remove any obstacles to academic success that students may face once they arrive on campus.
Our plans to provide faculty and students with facilities adequate to their scholarly and educational aspirations proceed apace. The College is now set to complete the final stages of work on four new residence halls and to clear the way--with the demolition of the social dorms--for construction of the new science center. These two projects replace the socials and Merrill Science, both of which have long outlived their usefulness. The building designs support strategic imperatives–leadership in undergraduate science education, interdisciplinary connections across departments, and support for students' efforts to build a stronger sense of community.
The science center project is on time, with construction set to begin this summer. Recent projections suggest that the project will also come in well under budget. When it is complete in 2018, it will set Amherst apart in science education, because of what it makes possible for faculty and students alike. Amherst will be one of a relatively small number of liberal arts colleges with the facilities required for modern interdisciplinary science research and education. It will offer students remarkable opportunities to engage actively in research at the leading edge of scientific discovery. The center will house astronomy, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, physics, and computer science, as well as the Moss Quantitative Center and Keefe Science Library. It will feature the most advanced teaching labs and classrooms, including classrooms for non-science disciplines. It will bring people together in gathering spaces that give beautiful views of the campus. The center has been designed purposefully to encourage interaction of people and ideas and to lead to novel connections.
In 2018 the newly landscaped eastern part of the campus will connect the science center and new residence halls to the rest of the campus with a "Greenway" that stretches north to south from Fayerweather to the new residence halls and east to west from the new science center to the Mead Art Museum. Along the Greenway, we will have more indoor and outdoor gathering spaces, gorgeous flowering trees and plantings, and views that inspire our more contemplative moments.
The demolition of the social dorms is already underway and naturally elicits a mix of feelings. Many current students and alumni mourn the loss of the socials, because they were "home" and the locus of social life among friends. Many also welcome a new era in residential life and are busy collaborating on the opportunities that will be afforded by the new residence halls and associated outdoor spaces. The residence halls will be ready for move-in at the end of August and promise to be inviting, comfortable, and enlivening.
2015-16 has been a rich and stimulating year for the College. Student protests of racial bias and inequity opened up important conversations on and off the campus; they also accelerated our efforts to close opportunity gaps that are not always visible to those unaffected by them and to ensure that all students at Amherst can thrive. It has been a rewarding fifth academic year for me. I feel fortunate to be part of a community that so highly values the quintessentially human activities of thinking, reasoning, connecting, differing, empathizing, and learning. Amherst's intellectual quality, its principled embrace of educational opportunity, its commitment to academic freedom, its beauty, and, above all, its people make it a college that is well worth our best efforts to support. We will need everyone's help in the upcoming campaign to ensure we complete the projects we need and reach the goals we have set as a community. The world needs its Amhersts.
In my speech at Commencement and in my remarks at Reunion I cited one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, on the significance to the country of college and university communities. I end this end-of-year letter with her words: "We choose our colleges, if we have a choice, in order to be formed by them.... If the graft takes we consider ourselves ever after to be members of that community. As one consequence, graduates tend to treat the students who come after them as kin and also as heirs. They take pride in the successes of people in classes forty years ahead of or behind their own. They have a familial desire to enhance the experience of generations of students who are, in fact, strangers to them."
Whether you are faculty, staff, alumni, parents, or students, your efforts demonstrate a generous desire "to enhance the experience of generations of students" who may have started out as strangers, but who come to be part of the larger Amherst family. Thank you for your support of the College.