Interview by Emily Gold Boutilier

Martin arrives with Zeitlin in
Johnson Chapel on June 16

When Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin walked into Johnson Chapel on a sunny June morning, a trumpet played and a full house leapt to its feet, clapping and whooping for a full minute. It was the kind of standing ovation usually reserved for presidents of nations, not for the 19th president of a small liberal arts college. The excitement—of students, faculty, staff and trustees—was palpable.

Why such enthusiasm? Was it that Martin is the first woman to lead Amherst, a college that she herself couldn’t have attended when she was 18? That she is among the most distinguished and effective leaders in U.S. higher education? That she speaks passionately about the liberal arts? That she seems as warm and genuine as she is smart?

Martin comes to Amherst from the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison, where she served as chancellor since 2008. Previously she was provost of Cornell University from 2000 to 2008. As Cornell’s longest-serving provost, she oversaw construction of a $150 million life sciences building, increased the stature of humanities research, implemented a sweeping financial aid initiative and developed fundraising priorities for a $4 billion capital campaign. At UW she created the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, which, among other things, increased need-based financial aid and boosted the number of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. She also spearheaded a controversial effort to gain greater operating flexibility and increased autonomy for the Madison campus.

The audience leaps to its feet.

“I found Biddy Martin to be a rare combination of accomplishment, modesty and good sense: leading a large public university with all its constituents and political intricacies, maintaining warm and respectful ties with students and faculty, beloved on her campus, approachable and self-effacing,” says retired Hampshire College President Charles Longsworth ’51, chairman emeritus of the Amherst College Board of Trustees and of counsel to the Presidential Search Committee.

Raised in rural Campbell County, Va., which is near Lynchburg, Martin grew up “in a family that didn’t think higher education was necessarily a good thing for girls,” she says. After a guidance counselor encouraged Martin and her parents, the young woman applied to The College of William & Mary in Virginia, where faculty encouragement and the scholarships she received “made me a passionate advocate of access, affordability and great education.”

William & Mary opened new worlds for Martin but also created a gulf between her and her family. “One needs to think about education as an unlearning as well as a learning,” she says. “It’s not just about acquisition. It can be about a disjuncture or a break. It’s a profound experience, one that could be considered somehow sacred and which also often entails loss. [It’s] a complicated thing, an amazing thing, and something that we need to protect and enhance and continually transform.”

On stage with Marx and search committee members

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1973 with a degree in English, Martin received a master’s degree in German literature from Middlebury College. She continued her studies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, in Mainz, Germany, and then earned a Ph.D. in German literature from UW-Madison in 1985. She had joined Cornell’s faculty in 1984. A professor of German studies and women’s studies at Cornell, she authored two books—one on a literary and cultural figure in the Freud circle, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and a second on gender theory.

As Amherst’s president, Martin replaces Anthony W. Marx, who resigned to head the New York Public Library. Martin’s intellect and leadership experience made her the top choice, says Board of Trustees Chairman Jide Zeitlin ’85, who chaired the Presidential Search Committee. He described Martin as “an extraordinary individual, with extensive experience in senior roles at highly respected institutions. She believes deeply in the liberal arts and in the type of community that we at Amherst represent.”

Martin—who is also the college’s first openly gay president—spoke and took questions for half an hour in Johnson Chapel. She described herself as a humanist and a “crazed sports fan” who hadn’t been looking to move on from Madison but felt compelled to come to Amherst, in large part because of the college’s “storied academic excellence,” she says, and its commitment to diversifying the student body. “To live and study and work and build relationships with people from every conceivable background is the only way to live, and in the 21st century it’s the only way to thrive,” she said. The crowd also learned that Martin has a 6-pound toy poodle named Oscar, that she enjoys listening to a cappella groups and that she hopes to sit in on classes. She explained that it is her job to “facilitate the flourishing of others.”

After the speech and an all-campus lunch on Valentine Quad, Martin sat down for an interview with Amherst magazine.

You’ve said that people exaggerate the differences between schools like UW-Madison and schools like Amherst. In what ways are large, public universities and small, private colleges in the same boat?

There are indeed significant differences, but I don’t know of anyone leading an institution of higher learning in the United States today who isn’t asking the question of how best to balance affordability with quality. My impression is that Amherst has done a spectacular job of putting its resources into the kinds of things it values: access and affordability on one hand and top-notch faculty and educational programs on the other. That balance has to be sustained and continually reestablished. We want to reinforce the commitment to diversity at Amherst—economic diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, diversity of ideas—while ensuring, given the extraordinary competition for the best scientists and scholars, that Amherst keeps the great faculty it has.

You talked this morning about Amherst as a place where the poetic and political intersect. How is that so?

Amherst is the home of great poetry, in the literal sense. In the more figurative sense, it is the site of creativity, natural beauty, serenity and a dedication to thought. Amherst is also known for its lively exchange of ideas and differences of opinion. It is a community of people who are informed, engaged and concerned. I return to poets over and over to remind myself of the importance of civic and political engagement of a kind that is inflected by what Hélène Cixous would call a poetic approach to the other: an approach that attends to the other’s humanity and difference, that does not forego compassion in the rush to take and hold a position.

Someone wrote on Facebook that your appointment is the final frontier in coeducation. Another person, on the Out of Amherst listserv, which is for LGBTQ alumni, called it “a wonderful moment, after a very long journey, with even greater promise for the future.” How do you view entering this community as the first female, and openly gay, president?

What’s salient to me is the extraordinary opportunity to lead Amherst College and the great fit between what I value and what I think Amherst values. It is also wonderful that more institutions seem open to having women and people from underrepresented groups in positions of leadership. 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. But those are not the things that I associate most emphatically with the position.

Does everyone ask you to tell the story of your nickname?

Yes. No problem. Every woman in my family, for several generations, has a nickname starting with B. This is to some degree a rural Southern habit, to give nicknames of that sort. And all of the women for three generations have, as our actual name, Carolyn—my mother, my grandmother and me. My great-grandmother’s nickname was Blanche, my grandmother’s was Buck and my mother’s was Boolie. I had a brother who was 13 months older than I, and when my father would come home from work he’d say, “How’s the biddy baby?” [to distinguish the younger baby from the older one], and it stuck. No one ever called me Carolyn except my grandmother. She thought that Biddy was not an adequately pretty name for a girl, and she called me Carolyn for my entire life; she never relented. Having the name Carolyn exclusively associated with my grandmother is a wonderful thing. We were very close and she was extremely supportive of me, and when I hear Carolyn, I hear her.

How did your childhood influence how you see the world today?

I grew up in what was then the country and spent most of my childhood out of doors. I had two brothers, one older and one younger. We played sports and hide-and-seek and ran between my parents’ home and my grandparents’. We spent a lot of time in the barn. I played basketball, swam and rode horses, and I’m thankful to this day that I grew up in such a beautiful part of the country, on a lake, and that I had the opportunity to use my body as well as my mind.

As a high school basketball player, you held your school’s record for most points scored. How did basketball prepare you to be a leader?

I held the record for a number of years. Sports was the common language in my family and community. Playing basketball allowed for teamwork, shared purpose, fun and competition. Basketball requires that you keep your eye on the rim while knowing where everyone else is on the court. It taught me how to push myself to improve individual achievement in support of the team and a larger goal.

You didn’t grow up in an academic family.

There wasn’t a lot of emphasis on academics; there was a lot of emphasis on sports. My grandmother encouraged my interests in music and reading, not because those were interests of hers but because she saw that they were interests of mine. My family members influenced me in obvious and less obvious ways. They all had very strong personalities. My mother was the secretary at the local elementary school. Growing up, I watched her run the school, more or less. The principals were frequently off hunting or fishing, and I was always proud of how good she was at the job, how much she cared about the children, how much her sense of humor endeared her to the teachers and how much authority she exercised, but always without getting credit for it and certainly without getting paid anything to speak of. I wonder what my mother might have done had she grown up at a different time. She was an important role model.

“I expect to teach courses in German studies, English and/or gender studies,” says Martin, with her 6-pound toy poodle, Oscar.

When did you know you wanted to go to college?

I loved school from the beginning. I still can feel the pencil on that rough, lined first-grade paper, and the physical feel of putting pen to paper is still a great pleasure to me. I probably tacitly assumed I would go to college as senior year approached, just because I was doing well in school and the other kids in my high school who were achieving at that level seemed to assume they would go to college. I didn’t realize until my parents talked to me about it that affording college was going to be a constraint, and that they doubted its value for me. Affording it for my older brother may have been all they thought they could do and it was also considered more important. He went to a junior college on a football scholarship and became a high school football coach. I don’t think I was completely certain that I would go to college until relatively late. And it was a big move. My parents hoped I would stay within an hour of home. They picked Longwood State Teachers’ College. When people hear I went to William & Mary in Virginia, many imagine it was not much of a leap from Campbell County. It was actually a high and a long jump.

You said that college put a gulf between you and your family. How so?

It was partly the education I got and partly the historical moment. I went to college in 1969. The political changes that were under way then, even in Virginia, were profound and they were also disorienting. I had faculty members and fellow students who immediately opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about everything from war to race to relationships. My education began to give shape to the distance I had felt from some of my family’s views. The mere fact of encountering and becoming friends with students from other parts of the country was eye-opening, and sometimes threatening to my parents. My brothers put a confederate flag on the bed where “Yankee” friends from college were meant to sleep, on the rare occasion that I brought them home.

Did the gulf ever diminish?

Not entirely, not with my parents, but the relationships in the family never lost their intensity. My brothers and I came to a better understanding as adults and I am very close to my nephews and nieces. Family is important. In 1960, while still in elementary school, I became seriously enamored with John F. Kennedy. I memorized his speeches and saved every newspaper or magazine article I could find. This my family took to be a sign of my disloyalty. From an early age and no doubt for complicated reasons, I found it incomprehensible that there should be hatred and bias against entire groups of people. For me, as a child, the Kennedys signified a different point of view. Later, when my family discovered that I was involved in anti-Vietnam War activity, that I was missing classes along with my peers, that I was actively opposing the racism they expressed, they felt betrayed.

They felt betrayed, and you felt a sense of loss.

That sense of loss began earlier, but it was exacerbated by my growing interest in ideas and in academics, and by each decision I made to pursue my education in far-away places, rather than returning home. My parents began to object to the way I talked, to the words I used and to my pronunciation of those words. It seemed profoundly sad to me that class and social biases could create such divisions. I learned that language is a very powerful sign of identity and belonging, and that changes in its use can be mistaken for acts of treason. My relationships with my parents were complicated by these things and surely by many others, but we were never completely lost to one another. I took care of my mother during her fight against lung cancer a few years ago; we acknowledged the pain of the distance between us, the pain for both of us of her determined disapproval of me, and we were both glad to have as much time together as we did before she died. Our biases are a waste of our potential for human connection and for learning.

What’s something you read during college that changed you?

The first thing I read for William & Mary’s freshman book project was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It shocked me. I can still recall the sense of alarm I felt as I read it. Poetry may have had the biggest influence, ultimately. I remember two English courses—one in which we read e.e. cummings and the other in which I read late-19th-century and early-20th-century British poetry. Both classes had a profound impact on how I thought about language: poetry pushes the limits of language and condenses meaning, inviting thought, reflection and feeling. What I realized in those courses was just how much I loved ideas, compelling uses of language, and thinking, as an activity. I was asking myself just the other day: What were the courses in college that really moved me and defined what I loved? They were literature courses. I like ideas, and I like the ways in which literature—whether narrative or poetry—opens up the possibility of entertaining new ones or deepening our understanding of those we thought we had grasped.

What led you to German studies and gender studies?

I was an English major at William & Mary. In my junior year I studied abroad at Exeter University in Devon, England. While there, I continued studying English literature, but I also had the opportunity to get to know students from other parts of the world and was particularly intrigued by the German students I met. They were, along with the Nigerian students at Exeter, the most engaged and informed. I became interested in the impact on culture and literature of the split between East and West Germany and decided to pursue German studies on my return to William & Mary. German poetry and philosophy became the hook, and, eventually, my interests shifted to German literature and intellectual culture at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. I became fascinated with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a writer and lay analyst who traveled in some of the most interesting intellectual circles in Europe, including Freud’s. My interest in her work arose, in part, from my growing interest in gender and in the often-neglected work of women intellectuals.

I read that your father was uncomfortable with your becoming a German studies scholar, because he’d served in World War II. Do you think his experience in the war drew you to German cultural studies?

My father served in World War II for the entire duration of the U.S. involvement, from North Africa through Italy and into Germany. He was an artillery gunner. He was wounded at least twice. He saw the horrors of Dachau. He returned after the war with a persistent case of malaria and what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He never talked about the war or his experiences in it except to say that he did not understand why anyone would ever want to leave home. When I decided to pursue German studies, he was unable to understand why I, or anyone else, would want to study German culture. Perhaps his pain and our inability to understand it as children drew me to the study of German, but it was not a conscious motive. It has, of course, helped me understand him and the damage that war causes on all sides.

When did you know you wanted to be a professor and an administrator?

Being a professor was far removed from the realm of possible or desirable outcomes for a child in my family. It never occurred to me until I was a senior in college. Even then it seemed remote, but applying to graduate school was a first step. An English professor and a German teacher at William & Mary encouraged me to pursue graduate study and helped me with the process of applying. After getting my master’s degree through Middlebury’s program in Mainz, Germany, I stayed an additional year in Mainz to work as a nurse’s assistant in a nursing home for women. I relished the opportunity to learn German from non-academics, even though the work was hard. The women in this particular Altersheim were in their 80s and 90s and had lived through both World Wars. It was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I still think about Frau Weisenborn, Frau Jurrat and Schwester Kaethe. After my second year in Mainz, I decided to return to the United States for a Ph.D. in German studies.

Like most of the administrators I know, I had no ambition to be one. When I was asked to serve as chair of the German department at Cornell, I realized that I liked bringing people together to develop a direction and get things done. It had the feel of coaching, combined with an extraordinary opportunity to learn and to serve.

In Johnson Chapel you said you considered the Amherst presidency only because of the college’s success in making the student body more diverse. What do you see as the next steps for Amherst in this area?

We obviously want to sustain the commitment to access. The questions I would ask (and I don’t know the answers and don’t have a bias about what the answers might be) are: Are we doing everything possible to take advantage of the fact that the campus is now more diverse? Is everyone learning from and enjoying the differences that are now better reflected on campus? And if not, why not, and what more could we do? I think Amherst could possibly do more to serve as a model for other colleges by showing how this is possible and what benefits it brings. Potentially, every student gets the opportunity to live and study and work and have friends and build networks with peers from all over the world, from every conceivable background. Most students are leaving home for the first time. It couldn’t be more exciting that they have the opportunity to get to know and build their social worlds from among such a heterogeneous group of people.

In what ways are the liberal arts in danger?

I don’t think it’s just a matter of the liberal arts: the core of what an education has meant in this country is at risk. But more importantly, the quality of our thought, our interactions with one another and our ability to solve problems together are all at risk. People often talk about the liberal arts as providing the ability to think across domains and to integrate knowledge—and that is a good definition of what a liberal arts education aims to do: to give people a broad and a deep education, to teach us how to think well, and not to sacrifice breadth and integration to narrow specialization. But beyond that, I would highlight ways of thinking, modes of interaction and approaches to problem solving. We need in this country people who can think broadly, deeply, critically; people who are devoted to public service; people who understand and appreciate the importance of arguing things on their merits. Amherst has to lead in an effort to persuade the public that how people think, how they work together, is even more important than imagining that 18- to 22-year-olds should be trained for a particular job.

A third of Amherst’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members are 60 or older, and thus eligible for phased retirement. How will you tackle one of the main challenges facing Amherst over the next several years, the retirement of so many professors?

Attracting great faculty requires that there be great faculty in place. Amherst has great faculty. Faculty at the department and program levels will be the best and most important recruiters, but a president can play a role by setting a tone, by helping create the conditions under which people are likely to thrive and by showing how seriously the college takes education, research and intellectual community. There are a number of variables that have become increasingly important in the recruitment of young faculty everywhere. Those include spousal appointments, the availability of high-quality child care, the quality of the school systems in the region and the morale of the community. Given upcoming retirements, we have an opportunity to ensure a more diverse faculty. Excellence requires it and I look forward to success in building the faculty of the future.

Also on the horizon is the construction of a new science center. What will you bring to that process?

I was involved in the development of science buildings at Cornell, and in particular the major life sciences/technology building, which houses an interdisciplinary life sciences institute created while I was provost. I thoroughly enjoyed everything involved in the process, from imagining what kind of science would actually occur in the 21st century to what spaces and facilities would allow the institute to lead in those areas. At Amherst, I will obviously spend time informing myself about this exciting project and its programmatic and architectural design, and then helping make the necessary decisions: What is the relationship to be between our highest aspirations for such a building and possible constraints on what we believe we can do? This building is going to be among the most important things that occur during my presidency—I’m certain of that. I imagine that it will not only be a building that houses science departments and ensures that our faculty and students can do cutting-edge research, but it will be a signature building for the campus. It will be a building toward which people will gravitate, regardless of whether they’re in the sciences or not. On a campus this beautiful you want every building to be an enhancement.

Are there also specific changes you wish to see at Amherst?

I am eager to get to know the faculty, staff, students and alumni and want to learn more about their aspirations before I articulate specific ideas about change. The college’s commitment to access, affordability and diversity, combined with its extraordinary academic quality, drew me to Amherst. The opportunities and challenges that excite me include: how to sustain the commitment to diversity while taking the best possible advantage of it; how Amherst might serve, to an even greater extent, as a model of the forms of community that are enabled by greater diversity; how undergraduate education can continue to reflect advances in research and discovery and how Amherst can be a model of the integration of tradition with innovation in teaching and learning; how Amherst can recruit the best faculty over the next 10 years, given the competition for scientists and scholars; how the Five College Consortium can be made even more effective; and what financial model will ensure Amherst’s continued excellence over time.

Will you teach at Amherst?

I am eager to teach Amherst students. I expect to teach courses in German studies, English and/or gender studies.

How else will you get to know the Amherst community?

I hope to get to know people in a variety of ways: one-on-one, through department visits, through the shared pleasure of performances and events and in collaborative efforts to enhance the treasure that Amherst is. I look forward to meeting our students, staff, faculty and alumni and will spend a significant amount of time my first year ensuring that I create opportunities to do that. I have always found it easiest to get to know people well by working with them in pursuit of common goals, by having fun with them and by discovering over time what they think, what matters to them and what aspirations they have for themselves and for the institution.

Now properly outfitted, Number 19 is ready to start.

What do you see as the role of athletics at the college?

I am delighted that so many students take part in athletics at Amherst, first because athletics and competition are important in their own right, and also because they help create a sense of community. An intellectual community of Amherst’s quality that also has high-quality athletics’ programs is a beautiful thing. I will enjoy watching our teams and individual athletes, just as I will enjoy our students’ talents in theater, music, dance, creative writing and a thousand other things.

What objects will you bring into your new office?

The things that are most important to me are my books and my younger brother’s fireman’s helmet, which was given to me by his partner when he died in 1995 in the line of duty. Each time I have been in the president’s office at Amherst it has been full of light or a beautiful mix of light and shadow. I look forward to spending time in it.

This is a question from our student intern, Rebecca Ojserkis ’12: Amherst encourages public service, but with the current economic situation, some of the only jobs out there for those graduating with a B.A. are in finance and consulting. There are only so many people hired by (or cut out for) Teach for America and the Peace Corps. What advice do you have for graduates entering the job market?

My advice to those entering the job market is to have patience; to be willing to try things they may never have considered; to start more modestly than they had imagined; to make more out of small opportunities than seems possible initially; to realize that most people their ages will have a number of different jobs over the course of a lifetime; and to know that the ability to think, develop arguments, communicate, work with others and adapt will be increasingly important. Our students will not only be faced with a changing job market but will be called upon to create new businesses and entirely new sectors, new forms of public service and even new institutions. We need leaders and creative thinkers if our economy, political process and social well-being are to be enhanced. Existing forms of public service are great options, but younger generations will also need to rehabilitate and invent others.|

My advice to those of us who care about the future prospects of our students is that we be more aggressive about linking employers with our students; drawing on employers to be spokespeople for the importance of the liberal arts; ensuring connections between alumni and students, so they have networks on which they can rely; and providing creative forms of career counseling that emphasize and support students’ entrepreneurial spirit.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04 and Jessica Mestre '10