Eleven years ago, students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison put on a flash mob performance of Katy Perry’s “Firework” for Biddy Martin, then the university’s chancellor, who was celebrating her birthday. We can’t quite compete with that—though Amherst has put on its own fireworks, thank you very much. But we can flash on a mob of pictures that fire up the story of her 11-year Amherst presidency, as she readies to depart.
A Prime Number: The 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote. Becoming the 19th president of Amherst—its first female leader in history—gave Martin the right to note: “If the fact that I’m a woman or that I’m an openly gay woman gives comfort or hope to people who are in a position to worry about the limits on their opportunities, that makes me very happy.” The Amherst shirt was gifted to Martin when she first arrived at the College, in 2011.
A Few Pointers: “When a body moves, it’s the most revealing thing,” said Mikhail Baryshnikov. “Dance for me a minute, and I’ll tell you who you are.” What are these two dancers—Martin and her predecessor, Tony Marx—telling us about who they are? That, no matter how intense the presidency gets, they are sure to put the fun in fundamental. They prove as much, again, in the “Presidents in Conversation” podcast recorded for the Bicentennial. This photo was taken at Martin’s inaugural celebration, in 2011.
Gaining Altitudes: At Martin’s inauguration, the eminent poet Richard Wilbur ’42 read his poem “Altitudes.” Martin considers this reading “one of the greatest honors of my life.” She added in a 2021 interview, “His voice and presence will always be one of my most vivid memories.” The poem imagines Emily Dickinson peering out from her window “in which she sees / Bird-choristers in all the trees / And a wild shining of the pure unknown / On Amherst.”
Olver and Above: Martin has made it a priority to make Johnson Chapel feel more inclusive to today’s student body. The room is full of august portraits of Amherst’s previous presidents, all male, all white and, over her decade here, she brought several other portraits up to the front of the building. They include Charles Hamilton Houston (AC 1915) and Rose Olver—Amherst’s first female tenured professor. Here, the audience applauds Olver at the unveiling of her portrait in a 2013 ceremony. Martin’s own forthcoming portrait will showcase the third woman to grace the walls of Johnson Chapel, after Olver and Emily Dickinson.
Picturing the Amherst Uprising: Over several days at Frost Library in 2015, students of color and others offered testimony about their struggles at the College. The protest came to be known as the Amherst Uprising. In a 2020 look-back conversation with students who were there, Martin shared her reflections on the event and its reverberations: “It would be impossible to overstate the impact that the Amherst Uprising had, and it can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways.” She listed some of these effects: the opening of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; hires in Asian American studies and Black political thought; the new Latinx and Latin American studies major; hiring of faculty of color; the “Being Human in STEM” initiative; and the STEM Incubator program. Another effect: the College’s Anti-Racism Plan.
Building the Future: During Martin’s era of leadership, the physical campus has changed in notable ways. The new Science Center (bottom right) opened in 2018 and has gone on to win several design awards. In 2014, an old steam power plant became the Powerhouse event space. And the Greenway dorms and landscaping project redefined the eastern side of campus. Pictured here is the Greenway ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2016, with Martin (as is her custom) taking a photo of the crowd in attendance.
Speech, Speech! Oh, and Speech, Speech, Speech, Speech, Speech, Speech, Speech, Speech Speech… Recently, when asked what were some of her most challenging experiences at Amherst, Martin said, only partly tongue-in-cheek, “Writing a new Commencement speech every year!” Most of Amherst’s peer institutions invite others to offer commencement speeches. Here, the president does the honors. Martin’s trademark is that she ends each address with the same poem. In 2016, as pictured here, she concluded with these lines from “Salute,” by A.R. Ammons: “May happiness / pursue you, / catch you / often, and, / should it / lose you, / be waiting / ahead, making / a clearing / for you.”
“Amherst Students Bring Me Tremendous Joy.” So Martin wrote in her 2021 announcement about concluding her presidency: “Amherst students bring me tremendous joy, whether I am interacting with them at a festival, guest-teaching in a class, listening to groups or individuals in office hours, attending student concerts, poster sessions, public speaking contests, athletic events, or just chatting with them at the top of Memorial Hill.” Here she shares a laugh with a graduating senior at the 2016 commencement.
Keep Palm and Carry On: In 2016, at the Reimagining the Mead event at the Mead Art Museum, Martin gets her palm read by a fortune-teller. The seer was clear: Martin would leave Amherst in 2022, then take a sabbatical year to rest and recharge, come back to teach at the College after that and, in the meantime, serve part-time as a president-in-residence at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. OK, we’re kidding: these predictions did not come from deciphering Martin’s life lines. But, hands down, it’s all true.
Set of Speakers: Martin and Cullen Murphy ’74, then chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, listen to the renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2016. He spoke to a crowd of 1,400 at LeFrak Gymnasium. During Martin’s tenure, the College hosted multiple notable speakers, including U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and many writers who came to the College for LitFest, an annual literary event that launched in 2015. These writers have included, among many others: Zadie Smith, Mark Bowden, Jennifer Egan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Amherst Writer-in-Residence Min Jin Lee and Charles C. Mann ’76.