Here’s Looking at You, Biddy

11 years, 47 pictures, countless memories

Text by Katharine Whittemore; photos by Maria Stenzel

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.

 

President Martin hold a number 19 jersey, gifted to her at her inauguration.

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.


President Martin and past president Tony Marx dance playfully while surrounded by students.

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.


Biddy Martin and Richard Wilbur at her 2011 inaugruation.

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.”


Biddy Martin and others honoring Rose Olver.

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.


Scenes from inside the Frost Library during the Amherst Uprising.

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.


Biddy Martin on the site of the science center during construction, and the finished building.

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.


Biddy Martin on stage during the 2016 Commencement ceremony.

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.”


Biddy Martin shares a laugh a student as he receives his diploma during the 2016 commencement.

“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.


Biddy Martin at an exhibit in the Mead Art Museum.

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.


Audience members listen intently to Ta Nehisi Coates.

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.


Students gather to listen during a protest; and students lie prone on the ground in support of Black Minds Matters.

In Protest: Scan the Letters and Statements section of the president’s homepage, and you’ll see scores of missives from Martin, many of which mirror the headlines of the day and address larger issues that affect the Amherst community: the war in Ukraine, DACA recipients, anti-Asian violence and proposed changes to Title IX, to name just a few. At left: Martin speaks from the stairs of Converse Hall, in 2017, to students protesting the federal immigration ban barring entry to the United States for refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. At right: In 2021, students stage a walkout for #BlackMindsMatter. Martin responded to the event.


Biddy Martin speaking to Reunion 2017 attendees.

Alumni Come By: Martin speaks to the annual meeting of the Society of the Alumni at the 2017 Reunion Weekend. “Thank you for coming home to this home—which is all of yours,” she told those assembled. During her tenure, Martin shared insights about the College today, and took questions, at scores of alumni association receptions across the country and the world. Just a smattering of places she visited to meet alumni: Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Chicago, Paris, Seoul and Hong Kong.


The new college mascot, a mammoth, is revealed on the side of a red brick building.

Mascot Hysteria: Amherst’s new Mammoth mascot is revealed at the 2017 Homecoming, as bonfires light the night sky outside Fayerweather Hall. The choice is a symbol of strength and a nod to the mammoth skeleton found by an Amherst professor and displayed at the Beneski Museum of Natural History. Since then, the adjectival form of the word has had a mammoth increase, as Amherst has found  ways to protect the herd and go Tusks Up.


Biddy Martin poses with the women's soccer team during the 2017 homecoming football game.

They Are the Champions. Martin was a star basketball player at her rural Virginia high school (and held the record for top scorer for many years), and was thrilled to head to Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2017 to watch the Amherst women’s team win the NCAA DIII national championship. Here she poses with the team and coaches, showing off their championship rings. Martin even wrote about the experience, particularly the after-party at the Marriott. There, she watched “the team break into a rousing performance of ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’ (joined by a wedding party that happened through that part of the lobby) and was persuaded by the parents of the Doswell twins [team members Ali Doswell ’17 and Meredith Doswell ’17] to join them for a tequila shot, my first ever and probably my last.”


President Martin listens to a group of students, and poses for a portrait with other students.

First and Next: Martin is a first-generation college graduate (William & Mary ’73) and has supported initiatives geared toward first-gen students at Amherst. At left: She hosts a 2018 gathering of the Next Generation Leadership Institute, which helps first-gen, low-income, transfer and military veteran students. As one such veteran, Bryan Miller ’19 says, “College for us is uncharted territory. In many instances, we do not have friends or family who know the ins and outs of college life. I think the Institute, in some ways, might have helped us find our own family here on campus.” At right: Martin poses with staff at the opening reception of the organization now known as the Class & Access Resource Center.


President Martin heading to the stage during 2018 Commencement.

Let Us Commence: Martin greets students at the 2018 Commencement, with Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein just behind and the Mammoth mascot above. In her speech that day, Martin spoke of the power of a liberal arts education: “The liberal arts, including not only the arts and humanities but also the sciences and the social sciences, open a space for our exploration and attentiveness to basic human truths so we can make common cause.”


Biddy Martin attending the 2018 Promise Campaign kick off event.

Full of Promise. The College’s new capital campaign, called Promise: The Campaign for Amherst’s Third Century, launches in 2018, with the goal of raising $625 million over the next five years. At the launch party, Martin sits with her wife, Gabriele “Gabi” Strauch, a professor emerita in Germanic studies and former associate dean in the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland. The campaign’s stated goals: attracting and supporting outstanding students and faculty; meeting student need in the sciences and math; promoting innovation in teaching and learning; providing critical facilities; and creating a stronger sense of community and belonging. So far, the five-year campaign has received 25,001 donations and raised $595 million toward its goal.


Biddy Martin poses for a photo during Winter Fest.

Festive at the Festivals. “I experience joy in this job every day,” said Martin in a 2021 interview. “I love so many of the events on campus and am especially attached to the fall, winter and spring festivals.” The winter festival, shown here, takes place at Orr Rink. In 2018, Martin and Strauch break the ice on a faux chairlift. Martin pushed hard for more fun occasions on campus and, during her presidency, the fall and winter campus festivals both debuted, as well as City Streets, the College’s internationally flavored annual spring festival.


A packed house listens to Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking with President Martin

RBG! In 2019, the College hosted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She joined President Martin onstage in front of crowd of 1,600 and spoke about various court cases, her love of opera and her famous nickname. Here is one RBG-ism from the occasion: Of her mother, Ginsburg said, “What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in the garment district and a Supreme Court justice? One generation.”


President Martin, faculty and students attending convocation inside Johnson Chapel

“Truly Impressive” Faculty: About 40 percent of Amherst’s current faculty has been hired since Martin became president. Some professors were hired at the midcareer stage, in order to avoid a leadership gap over time. And the College was resolute about increasing the diversity of the faculty by actively seeking candidates of color. As Martin said in that 2021 interview: “The faculty who have been hired and tenured during my time here are truly impressive.” Pictured at bottom left: Adam Sitze (law, jurisprudence and social thought); Amanda L. Folsom (math); Pawan Dhingra (American studies); Solsiree del Moral (American studies). Bottom right: Sonya L. Clark (art and the history of art).


Biddy Martin greets students at the covid testing center; a student of Noah Webster in a mask, and a screenshot of a zoom class.

The COVID Era: In March 2020, Martin became one of the country’s first college presidents to cancel in-person classes, ask that students not return to campus after spring break, and pivot the institution to remote learning. All this in order “to keep members of our community as safe as we possibly can,” as she wrote to the Amherst community. In 2021, she reflected: “The pandemic continues to be one of the more challenging moments for the world and, thus, for the College; it has also had some silver linings, because of the way students, faculty and staff have risen to the occasion with the support of the board and our alumni.” At left: Martin greets students at the testing center on Move-In Day in August 2020. At right: Noah Webster demonstrates his definition of the intransitive verb mask up.


Amherst College board of trustees gather for a photo outside.

On Board: The Board of Trustees meets in the fall of 2021. During Martin’s presidency, the trustees voted to make no new investments in public or private-equity fossil fuel investment funds, and planned to phase out all such investments by 2030; unanimously approved the College’s new Climate Action Plan; sanctioned the adoption of a new mascot; pulled off transformative building projects such as the Science Center plus the Greenway dorms and landscaping project; and greenlit plans for the new Student Center/Dining Commons.


Staff enjoying themselves at the Bicentennial Party; and President Martin admires the cake.

On Behalf of Staff: During the pandemic, students, faculty and staff offered much gratitude (via verbal comments, written notes and campus signage) to the College’s essential staff. In an April 2020 email to the community, Martin herself wrote: “Today I want to acknowledge the work of our frontline staff in dining, custodial services, facilities, student affairs, public safety, and in other domains.” She especially noted the contributions of two dining hall staff members—one who had memorized the names of all 179 students still on campus early in the pandemic, so she could greet them by name, and another who left encouraging notes in their to-go meals. At left: Facilities staff members compete in a potato sack race at the Bicentennial party in fall 2021. At right: Carl Charrette, first cook and baker, wins a round of applause at the Bicentennial party for his cake created in the shape of South College, Amherst’s oldest building.


Several students share a laugh with Biddy Martin.

The Humor Mill: At the Bicentennial party, students share a laugh with Martin just before the concert with the Grammy-winning rapper Common, who delighted the crowd with his rhymes, including “freestyle verse / at Amherst.”


President Martin rides onto campus on white horse.

Horsepower: Yes, that’s Amherst’s 19th president, riding on a dappled horse past Johnson Chapel, impersonating Amherst’s first president, Zephaniah Swift Moore. It was Martin’s Bicentennial party trick: she reenacted Moore’s infamous defection from Williams College in 1821, as a few students trailed her, also on horseback, symbolically carrying books (which Swift owned and did not steal from the Other College, to combat a 200-year-old rumor). We’d cop to cliché and say she’s riding off into the sunset—but Martin will be back to Amherst in 2023, to teach and once again enjoy the ride.


Additional photos credits: Rob Mattson, Jiayi Liu, Sam Masinter '04, Henry Amistadi, David Le '16, Janna Joassainte '17, Takudzwa Tapfuma '17,  Kaelan McCone '19, Matai Curzon '22, Haoran Tong '23, Amanda Huhmann, Mark Idleman ’15 and Mike Reid.