Interviewing Biddy Martin


That was a terrific cover story (“A Conversation With the 19th President,” Summer 2011). It’s a rare treat to read an interview that has such give and take, and from it a wonderfully full picture of our 19th president emerged. Truly, it was like listening in on a really good conversation. Thank you, President Martin and Emily Gold Boutilier, for the pleasure of your company!

Moira Driscoll ’84
Portland, Maine

I have just read with fascination and great admiration the article on Biddy Martin. In 1982, the fall of my freshman year at Amherst, on Homecoming weekend, I was walking into town near the common. I of course, proudly, had an Amherst sweatshirt on. I passed a man, presumably on campus for Homecoming. After he passed me, he turned around and shouted, “Women with Amherst across their chests—it was never meant to be!” and stomped off in the other direction. To say I was shocked is an understatement. It was thrilling and exciting to read about Amherst’s 19th president, not just because she is a woman, but because of her background in education and leadership and the talents she brings to Amherst. Bravo to Jide Zeitlin [’85] and the rest of the Presidential Search Committee; you have certainly done Amherst proud. Ms. Martin, I wish you well on your new appointment and hope to get the chance to meet you in person sometime.

Joanie Brewster ’86
Breckenridge, Colo.

When the Search Committee announced that they would welcome input with regard to those qualities we would like to see in our new president, I sent them an email with my thoughts: “I fervently hope that your selection will help reverse President Marx’s way overboard kick on making Amherst the most ‘diversified’ college in the country. Although I salute his initiative in opening the doors to both minorities and foreign students, for that category of students to represent over 50 percent of incoming students is just way out of line with their proportion in the country.”

Part of my concern reflected a strong bias on this subject, because my grandson was turned down by Amherst—despite being a legacy, a straight-A student in high school, a speaker of four languages and captain of a debating team recognized as one of the top 10 in the country. (He subsequently graduated in three years from The College of William & Mary, magna cum laude.)

I concluded my letter by stating: “Among my classmates, I have heard numerous comments complaining about this obsession with diversity, and I hope your committee will take the time to listen to what alumni have to say about the college’s current policies on admissions.”

Now that the president of Amherst is a person whose educational background and published writings reflect even more liberal and extreme diversity beliefs than that of the previous administration, it is obvious that the Search Committee was not listening.

At a time when the extreme leftward political leanings of the college faculty and administration appear to be running contrary to the current backlash against those beliefs being exhibited around the country, if diversity is to be the norm in selecting incoming students, then the same principle should apply to incoming faculty members as well.

Roger H. Clapp ’50
Naples, Fla.

Biddy Martin has done work on psychoanalysis and gender theory, two of the most jargon-addled, unrigorous areas of the humanities—maybe she is an exception. But it seems almost symbolic that she was unable to convince even her own parents of the interest and value of her studies. Their prejudices got in the way. They did not think broadly, deeply, critically, arguing things on their merits—and they were unwilling to change. Their failure to understand was all their fault.

Bringing the humanities to the public in a way that excites and interests them, perhaps by encouraging more debate, is the only antidote I can see to the spreading decline in respect for humanistic studies. Will Biddy Martin do that? Today it’s hard to imagine a serious critic of the old theoretical regime—Camille Paglia, for example—being invited to Amherst. Pretty words about diversity and open-mindedness mask this self-righteous insularity, this incuriosity. Biddy Martin might escape the stereotype she seems so perfectly tailored to fit and lead Amherst to new fields of intellectual fertility. Or this may be remembered as the moment when Amherst’s reputation began to catch up with its reality.

David Bishop ’72

The Chinese have a fascinating curse: “May you live in interesting times.” My classmates and I have lived in interesting times, to say the least—a few wars, a few depressions, immigration problems, ethical breaches and tensions involving ethnicity and gender. Despite all this, the American people, by and large, think their glass is more than half full. We are solving our problems, sometimes painfully, to the end of preserving our freedoms and improving our lives.

The Class of 1940 was fortunate to have Stanley King as president—we respected him and enjoyed our stay in Amherst during his tenure. Now, 70 years later, we’ve seen astonishing changes in our society and the world. Amherst has progressed from a superior, small men’s college to a world-class institution, recognized for its liberal arts tradition, the caliber of its teaching and the accomplishments of its alumni.

Along the way, we abolished the fraternity system and its bias, invited remarkably able young ladies as students and strove to resist prejudices based on race, religion and gender.

Our new president, Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin, is a beautiful fit for these times. She is one of the most respected leaders in the world of education. From what I have read and heard, she is remarkably bright, full of upbeat energy, with a delightful sense of humor. She has found that after being chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and, before that, provost of Cornell University, Amherst offers her the role of a lifetime.

She believes in the liberal arts tradition. She looks to be a very warm and friendly human being that I would like to hug someday. She brings her very best friend—a four-footed, wet-nosed, tail-wagging package named Oscar.

So let’s all wish her good fortune and great success. Amherst is lucky to have her, and so are we.

Tom Shepard ’40
Sarasota, Fla.

The writer is president of his class.

Courage and hope on 9/11/11

I just finished reading, for the second time, the article “For the Rest of Her Life” in the summer edition. It was extraordinarily moving, and I want to express my appreciation to Tara Neelakantappa Safronoff [’97] for telling her story and to Emily Gold Boutiler for her sensitive journalism in writing it. As a clergyman, I found in the story the courage and hope that I will share with the congregation on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

George Van Arnam ’58
Cazenovia, N.Y.

Drawn to read more

Typically, I flip to the 1988 and 1991 notes to read about my classmates and “my freshmen” (I was an RC in Valentine my senior year), then I recycle my issue of Amherst. The summer issue was different: I was drawn to learn more about our new president—she sounds perfect!—and I was excited to read “A Matter of National Interest,” about talented, low-income students at Amherst. The story about Tara Safronoff and her husband who died in the 9/11 attacks touched my heart. I stopped there, as my 6-year-old had already built a school and playground for her animals out of Lincoln Logs and was ready for the next thing. I didn’t read every article, but I read enough to know that Tony Marx has left an excellent legacy of diversity, that Biddy Martin is going to take the ball and run with it and that Amherst grads will continue to touch lives.

Kristin Kennedy ’88
Dana Point, Calif.

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