September 14, 2017

Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, Parents, and Friends,

Amherst is an academic gem, full of avid learners and distinguished faculty who combine high expectations with an unusually strong commitment to student success. The class of 2021, Amherst’s bicentennial class, arrived at the College in late August. Their academic scores are exceptional: the class’s ACT composite is 33, which is a record. Their SAT composite (the “old test,” which had three components) is 2232—also a record. Among the members of the class are winners of Gates Millennium, National Merit, Coca-Cola, Davis, Goldwater, and Jack Kent Cooke Scholarships. 

The Class of 2021

These new students speak more than 45 languages and have lived in more than 50 countries. Their ages range from 16 to 32. Some 43 percent identify as U.S. students of color, while 8 percent are non-U.S. students, and an additional 8 percent are dual citizens and permanent residents of the United States. In this class, 55 percent are recipients of Amherst financial aid, and 11 percent are first-generation college students.  

This bicentennial class landed on a campus that had been percolating with activity this summer, hosting 4,600 participants in 45 different camps, classes, and other programs, including Great Books, in which secondary school students engage deeply with historic literature. Hundreds of Amherst students remained on campus to take advantage of research opportunities, to work on a senior thesis or to complete on-campus internships. Five interns at the Mead curated their own exhibit, “Picturing American Identity,” which highlights 20th century American photography of urban spaces.

The Mead Art Museum interns (pictured here with some Mead staff members) curated their own exhibit this summer.
The Mead Art Museum interns (pictured here with some Mead staff members) curated their own exhibit this summer.

One of the programs that I found particularly compelling was the Warrior-Scholar Project, an “academic boot camp” for military veterans making the transition to civilian life and higher education. This is the Project’s first year at Amherst, though the College has played a role from the start, thanks to Mark London ’74, who has been on the WSP board from its early days and who created a short, moving documentary on its website. There are currently five veterans enrolled at Amherst, including Nathan Needham ’18E, who was the campus program coordinator this summer for the Warrior-Scholars. I am eager to bring more veterans into the Amherst student body. 

The Rev. Phillip A. Jackson '85 speaks to students at the DeMott Lecture
The Rev. Phillip A. Jackson '85 speaks to students at the DeMott Lecture.

Orientation Week culminated in this year’s DeMott Lecture by the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson ’85, a member of our board of trustees. Phil is the vicar of Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan, where he leads the Mission and Ministry programs. His lecture highlighted several remarkable people who had the “courage to make their gifts felt on earth,” including the civil rights visionary Charles Hamilton Houston, class of 1915, who developed the strategy and laid the legal groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, ending legal segregation. Phil’s call to make a mark on the world for good received a standing ovation from our first-year students. 

Students held poster sessions on the research they did this past summer.
Students held poster sessions on the research they did this past summer.

The first week of classes always creates a palpable sense of excitement among new and continuing students and faculty. Students are quick to express enthusiasm about their classes, and faculty appreciate the eagerness with which students dig into the work. At the end of last week I walked across the gorgeous first-year quad to Merrill Science, where our students were holding poster sessions on the research they did this past summer. I heard presentations by students in psychology, math and statistics, astronomy, and chemistry—those who had discovered two new quantum Jacobi forms arising from combinatorial generating functions, those who had studied the effects of enzymes with possible cancer-fighting properties, and those who had rendered a planet-like object visible by separating it optically from the dust and gases of a star. One group had grappled with what the rings in the red pines on campus might tell us about climate change; others asked whether it is possible to discern the attribution of bias in very young children. As is the norm in science, their studies confirmed some hypotheses and earlier findings, failed to confirm others, and exposed the limits of what could be proved or concluded in other cases.

I am deeply impressed by the opportunities our faculty offer undergraduates to participate in significant research and by the enthusiasm with which students seize those opportunities. It was marvelous to hear their articulate presentations of the work they had done and to witness their excitement at sharing it. The science library in Merrill was full of faculty, staff, and students—those who had been involved in the work, staff who had organized the event, and many who simply wanted to know more about what students had done.

The interdisciplinary science center is taking shape on the eastern part of the campus.
The interdisciplinary science center is taking shape on the eastern part of the campus.

The experience also added to my excitement about the new interdisciplinary science center, which is taking shape on the eastern part of the campus. This remarkable facility will set Amherst apart from our peers in undergraduate science education and scientific research. When it opens next fall we will have launched a campaign with the aim of not only supporting the facility but also helping to increase the number of faculty in STEM fields. Amherst has seen 56 percent growth in STEM enrollments; our fastest-growing majors are computer science, math and statistics, and neuroscience. To make good on our promise of an 8:1 student faculty ratio across all disciplines, we must add faculty in math, science, and economics. Among our newest faculty are two assistant professors of computer science, an assistant professor of mathematics, and assistant professors of environmental studies and psychology. These new faculty come with doctorates and/or postdocs from powerhouses in the sciences: Harvard (two), Carnegie Mellon, and UW-Madison.

Meanwhile, Amherst continues to set itself apart in the humanities and humanistic inquiry across a range of disciplines. Many colleges and universities are experiencing decreases in humanities enrollments. At Amherst enrollments and majors in the humanities remain steady, a testament to the strength of our offerings, great teaching by our faculty, and the College’s well-deserved reputation for demanding close reading, critical thinking, and persuasive writing. Among new faculty in the humanities and social sciences are assistant professors in Spanish, French, film and media studies, political science, environmental studies, theater and dance, and economics.

The health of humanistic inquiry at Amherst has been evident at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Last week I attended the opening fall reception at which the center’s director, Professor Martha Umphrey, introduced the postdoctoral scholars who will spend two years at Amherst conducting research on speech—as a right, as image, and as spectacle. The center was alive with music, food, and people. When I returned Wednesday for this week’s colloquium I was treated to a discussion of free speech, during which one of our philosophers raised questions about one of my recent letters to campus. The discussion was Amherst at its best. 

  Poster session Nothing is more important to Amherst’s continued leadership than hiring great faculty to replace the legendary teachers and scholars who are now retiring. Their big shoes are being filled by outstanding junior scholars at a relatively rapid clip. We have also made it a practice over the past several years to hire more experienced faculty in some instances, so we can avoid a demographic gap between our most Advisory session during orientation. junior and more senior faculty, and as a way to ensure strong faculty leadership and faculty diversity. Amherst’s Russian department, which continues to stand out for its strengths in scholarship and teaching, recently hired a new associate professor with tenure who came to Amherst from the Institute of Advanced Study. And we are delighted to have been successful in the recruitment of a full professor of black studies, who left Bowdoin for Amherst.

The curriculum committee that was established as part of the College’s strategic plan expects to complete its work this semester after nearly two years of deliberation. With support from Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein, several departments have already redesigned majors or introductory course sequences. Geology, for example, has made quantitative reasoning and effective writing a more integral part of the major. Economics changed its introductory sequences, incorporating field- and team-based learning and reducing class sizes. Three additional departments devoted time over the summer to redesigns that will help our students develop the intellectual abilities and versatility they need in a world of change and uncertainty.

Our vision of shared intellectual experiences differs from earlier iterations (for instance, a core curriculum), but considers those experiences to be no less important. Indeed, they have become even more essential. We aim to use the intimate environment of a small, academically rigorous, residential college to bring students into close contact with one another and with their faculty in pursuit of opportunities to learn by doing. Building strong relationships occurs most readily and naturally when people with different backgrounds, interests, talents, and points of view work together on shared goals. Dean Epstein has seeded several pilot projects that will give students more such opportunities. In addition to making project-based work a key part of introductory courses, the dean has also offered funding for faculty-led trips abroad, part of a new effort to link the classroom to the wider world. This past year Ethan Clotfelter and Rachel Levin led a tropical biology class to Costa Rica, and Amelia Worsley shepherded a Wordsworth poetry class to Grasmere, England. In 2018, Paul Schroeder Rodriguez will take a class on film and culture to Puerto Rico, and Christopher Dole (Anthropology) and Monica Ringer (History) will travel with a class to Istanbul to study that city’s history and culture. These trips have allowed students to bond over the excitement and challenge of intellectual discovery at home and abroad.

The faculty has been inspired by the diversity in talent and experience of our students and is experimenting in a wide variety of ways. More than a hundred members of the faculty have made use of the instructional design resources at the still relatively new Center for Teaching and Learning. Many are integrating digital tools into their classroom teaching; others are reinventing courses to emphasize the importance of team- and project-based learning. Still others are building more research opportunities into their classes at every level.

Faculty are also collaborating creatively with our transformed career center. The Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning and the Center for Community Engagement have established a formidable partnership that draws on Amherst alumni and community networks to provide students with real-world problem-solving skills through internships, community-based learning opportunities, and sustained research experiences. This year the CCE and Loeb Center were able to fund 229 students taking advantage of internships, off-campus research, independent projects, and skill-building programs—40 percent more than last year’s program participation rate.

Poetry and Politics: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of President John F. Kennedy

There is a great deal of transition and transformation at the College, all in order to preserve what has made Amherst great over time—opportunity, academic excellence, and friendship. In October we will mark the 100th anniversary of President Kennedy’s birth by presenting “Poetry and Politics: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of President John F. Kennedy.” The event will feature a film of the remarkable speech he gave at the dedication of Frost Library in 1963, as well as a symposium at which current faculty and students will make remarks. We are honored that U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III will give the keynote speech. I hope many of you will be able to return for the event.

When he spoke at Amherst, President Kennedy exhorted liberal arts colleges to do their part for our country: “I hope your commitment to the great public interest in the years to come will be worthy of your long inheritance since your beginning.” Amherst has been an acknowledged leader, but the work of inclusion and a shared sense of belonging is far from over. I thank each of you for your support of this extraordinary College and the promise it represents.

Warm regards,

Biddy