Dispatch from Martha M. Umphrey, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought

Martha Umphrey, Associate Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought

February 16, 2011

Jide Zeitlin has asked members of the Presidential Search Committee to write a number of “dispatches from the front” to offer our impressions of the search process as it moves forward.  In particular, he asked me to provide some thoughts on the challenges and opportunities our next President will face.  The following ruminations emerge out of the many “listening sessions” we have held with various constituencies (faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and trustees) in the past few months, out of conversations with colleagues on the Search Committee, and out of my own experiences as a faculty member recently serving on both the Committee of Six and the Committee on Educational Policy.

Over the last decade, Amherst has moved energetically in a number of directions that our new president will inherit and inflect.  We have developed and implemented signal curricular initiatives (among them a new major in Environmental Studies, a Program in Film and Media Studies, a new major in Biochemistry and Biophysics, and a refining of the First-Year Seminar program to emphasize writing and speaking skills), increased the diversity of the student body significantly, initiated planning for some important new building projects (including a much-needed research and teaching facility for the sciences), and embarked on an ambitious capital campaign.  It has been an exciting, innovative, sometimes strenuous period in the College’s history. 

Attending most of our listening sessions (fourteen in all, if my count is right), I heard deeply thoughtful, reflective, even passionate conversations about where we are, where we need to go, and beyond that where we wish to go as a College and community; and I came away noting a number of consistent themes that, taken together, can inform the Search Committee in its work.  Much of what we do now simply needs to continue in order for Amherst to flourish:  sustaining an outstanding teaching and research environment and a dynamic and diverse student body; remaining connected with our remarkable alumni; building on the deep talents of the staff.  Yet the College does face some important challenges in the decade ahead:

Demographic change in the faculty and staff

We have already experienced the loss of highly experienced staff and faculty in the past few years, and over the next decade a significant number of senior faculty will enter retirement.  That shift will reverberate throughout the College, its curriculum, and its institutional structures and memory.  It offers both challenges and opportunities and will require an important set of conversations about the meaning and contours of liberal arts education at Amherst and about how we attract and retain the finest faculty we can find.

Sustaining and supporting our diversity efforts

We heard a strong endorsement of the College’s commitment to diversity in the student body, and a concurrent belief that we must respond creatively and fully as an institution to some of the new challenges that commitment entails, from negotiating cultural issues to responding in and out of the classroom to differences in academic preparation and background.  One small but telling example:  with so many more international students and students of modest means, how must we reimagine housing and feeding those who cannot return home over holidays and breaks?  How do we support the deans and staff who care for our students as we make changes of that sort – changes that can entail an intensification of work demands?

Returning to financial equilibrium

Although we have weathered the most recent economic downturn as well or better than our peers, we have not fully recovered from its effects and must find the best way to return to financial equilibrium over the long term while maintaining excellence in what we do.

Investments in capital projects and technology

Preliminary plans for a new science center have been approved; and we are in the early stages of a broader planning effort that we hope will lead to the eventual reimagining of our library facilities and the social dorms, among other facilities.  We must stretch our minds far forward into the future to see how best to envision and design those projects, and continue to plan and structure our information technology resources thoughtfully to meet what will no doubt be changing research and teaching needs and expectations.

Governance challenges

We heard a desire among some across the spectrum of constituencies to turn an eye to our administrative and committee structures to ensure that they are working effectively, without overburdening faculty, staff, and administrators alike.   Those structures are, at the moment, both inclusive and “flat” compared with most of our peer institutions, which means that organizational responsibility is spread widely across the faculty and administration even as the burdens of managing the College and implementing policies fall on a disproportionate few in the administration and staff.  Moreover, curricular and managerial demands have increased in the last decade, for reasons both internal (e.g., the CAP report) and external (e.g., reaccreditation).  We now do more and are asked to do more by others; and there is little cause to believe that those pressures will lift soon.  We need to ask, in ways that are thoughtful and attend to the significant and varied roles and responsibilities of faculty, staff, and administration at Amherst, whether we are best organized to meet these ongoing challenges.

The alleviation of stresses in the community

In the past few years, much of the campus has been asked to do more with less.  In the listening sessions we sensed a level of fatigue among faculty and staff colleagues who have sometimes struggled to negotiate intensifying institutional needs, demands, and frictions (particularly in an era of financial contraction), and are searching for healthy ways to respond effectively to them. 

Advocating for liberal arts education nationally and internationally

Recently we have heard increasing calls for reform in American higher education, and in some quarters sharp questions specifically about the value of a liberal arts approach.  Reaccreditation itself now requires that we invest institutional time and energy addressing questions that may feel somewhat foreign at a place like Amherst (e.g., how do we quantify our assessments of educational “outcomes”?), and we will need to answer such questions in ways that accord with our values, our open curriculum, and an intensive educational approach that emphasizes close student-teacher interactions – one whose successes are not easily quantifiable.  Moreover, the market share held by liberal arts institutions in the United States is shrinking.  We will need not only to justify but to advocate energetically for a reinvigoration of the place of liberal arts in American higher education. 

What kind of remarkable person can best help Amherst meet these challenges?  Our listening sessions collectively conjured a guiding portrait that can help the Search Committee sift through what we hope will be a rich and varied pool of candidates.  From my perspective, that portrait suggests we are looking for:

One with an outstanding intellect who has a talent for communicating effectively to various constituencies both in the Amherst community and beyond; someone who can inspire students to love learning and reach high; someone who can spark and shape a conversation at the College and see what blooms; someone who can embrace and spur on the community as a valuable and valued place; someone who can connect alumni and parents to the best of Amherst as it has been and can be;

One with a warm and vibrant personality who has a strong inclination to immerse him- or herself in and thoughtfully engage Amherst’s particular conventions and culture (which one perceptive commentator likened to a “finely calibrated Swiss watch”); someone who can speak from, not to, the community;

One who is an excellent listener who can work fruitfully with a deeply invested faculty, a talented and independent staff, and a dedicated, interested board of trustees and alumni body;

 One who is a patient and realistic leader who can guide the College wisely and with agility through a period of demographic, financial, and physical transition; who can maintain our excellence while striking the right balance between the urge to grow (in student numbers and support, in faculty shifts and curricular programming, in technology and physical plant enhancements, and so forth) and a prudent marshalling of our resources; and who has the good judgment to make difficult choices when necessary, and a thick enough skin to weather the storms that may follow;

And finally, one who is also a visionary, devoted to continuing Amherst’s commitment to diversity at every level of the institution, and to advocating, forcefully and fiercely, for the liberal arts on a national and international stage.

We have and will continue to attend carefully to input from the Amherst community as we move forward.  It is a tremendous honor to be a part of this search effort and I look forward to the next few months with excitement at what lies ahead for us all.