Amherst College Bicentennial 1821 2021

The 200th anniversary of the College also marks the 10th of Biddy Martin’s presidency at Amherst, and, in fact, she was envisioning the Bicentennial when she got here. Her 2011 inaugural speech offered a series of hopeful visions for the College in 2021. Such as this: “I imagine an Amherst that is even more diverse in people, in points of view, than it is today.” Or this: “I imagine a faculty that has been rebuilt in the intervening 10 years and that still includes the best scholar-teachers, the most capacious thinkers and the most entertaining characters in higher education.”

She also hoped Amherst football would beat Williams for all 10 years. Amherst went 7-2 (with no game last year), so she wasn’t far off.

In September, Martin announced she would conclude her presidency at the end of the 2021–22 academic year. After a sabbatical year, she’ll return to Amherst as a faculty member to teach. The College’s first woman president and its 19th leader, Martin was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison before coming to Amherst. Earlier, she was provost at Cornell University and a professor of German studies and women’s studies there.

At Amherst, she has overseen the building of the Science Center and presided over a dramatic leap in faculty hiring. This fall, for the first time in Amherst history, more than half of U.S. students in the new class identify as people of color. The College has also committed to carbon neutrality in its operations by 2030 and to being free of direct investments in fossil fuels by that time. Meanwhile, the endowment has grown to approximately $3.7 billion.

Martin has continued to speak passionately about the importance of the liberal arts, “the form of education best-suited to a rapidly changing world,” as she puts it. And she has focused on enhancing student life and residential life at Amherst, believing that friendship is essential to the college experience. To that end, she is excited that design work has begun on a new student center slated to open in the next few years.

We spoke via Zoom about everything from her favorite past presidents to her favorite TV shows to her proudest and most challenging experiences at Amherst. This interview is edited and condensed.

Biddy Martin standing in front of the Amherst College war memorial with Mount Holyoke in the background
Martin on the sunny afternoon of Sept. 10. (Photo by Maria Stenzel)

In this Bicentennial year, we’re especially looking back on Amherst history. What do you see as some of the brightest and darkest moments in Amherst’s past?

I think the brightest moments start with the founding: a group of townspeople and farmers in the region combined resources so the town could offer higher education to indigent young men suited to the ministry. For 200 years Amherst has adapted to larger changes in the world by enhancing its academic offerings and expanding
access; its capacity to preserve its core mission while taking advantage of new developments has created many bright moments for the College. 

The darkest times were typically dark for the country or the world as a whole. I often walk to the War Memorial, and I think about the loss of lives and the forms of service it commemorates. The challenges over the past several years to democratic principles, to the rights of minorities, to science and to truth itself have cast ominous shadows. I feel fortunate to be part of a serious liberal arts college, a form of education that has its historical origins and its lasting purpose in freedom from ignorance and prejudice.

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. 

So many moments have traces of both the dark and the bright. For me personally, the hardest moments as president have been student deaths. Other things pale in comparison. But there are other distressing experiences—for example, the increase in mental health challenges among youth, and occasions when students, faculty or staff experience bias, exclusion, invisibility, harassment or mockery for who they are. Fortunately, this is a community that must grapple with its problems in order to live up to its mission. That’s how the light comes in, to cite Leonard Cohen.

What did your learning curve look like in your first year at Amherst?

On my first full day, a hurricane hit, downing branches and delaying the arrival of our DeMott lecturer, now-Sen. Christopher Coons ’85. I tried distracting the 400-plus new students for nearly an hour and got a painful lesson in failure as an entertainer. 

I had quite a lot of experience in administration at Cornell and the University of Wisconsin; I had also been a faculty member myself since 1984. But the cultures of institutions are specific to their histories, their geographies, the people who have helped shape them. I knew about Amherst’s great academic reputation. I knew that, under a couple of prior presidents, including my immediate predecessor, Tony Marx, the student body’s socioeconomic composition had begun to change significantly. I wanted to extend the demographic changes so the College drew on all the talent that exists, and I also knew that the hard part lay ahead—the ways the College would need and benefit from cultural changes. I wanted to be part of that work. I knew about the Happy Valley—what a good place it could be for me to live. 

Before I agreed to get seriously involved in the search, I got help digging into the kinds of work the Amherst faculty do, in the classroom and in their scholarship. I wanted to be in a place that was intellectually lively and stimulating. The information left me eager to meet them. Once I got here it didn’t take long to see the dedication of the faculty to students’ education and to helping them grow intellectually. It astonishes me to this day, the level of engagement between Amherst faculty and students. I don’t take it for granted, because I know it is too rare. For undergraduates in the process of discovering who they are, what they think and how to live, having the time, attention and focus of so many faculty is a beautiful thing. 

Part of my learning curve was finding that some of the key functions of the College needed to be modernized and upgraded. And that has been a significant part of what I’ve spent time doing. 

Fortunately, this is a community that must grapple with its problems in order to live up to its mission.”

What are you most proud of achieving here?

I haven’t achieved anything on my own. I’m not saying that out of some obligatory sense of humility. It is simply true. I’m proud of having brought people together, some from outside, many already at Amherst, to be part of teams that could help modernize the functions that needed to be modernized, and who were also able to work across domains. I’m proud of having listened carefully to the faculty and administrators who argued that the Science Center project already underway should be halted and we should change gears, despite the delays and the sunk costs. I’m excited about the quality of the faculty hired by our departments and deans of the faculty.

I’m proud of how well the Science Center serves our scientists, how popular it is with students; I’m glad to have been a champion of the Greenway landscaping project that has added to the beauty of the campus. I’m proud of the Climate Action Plan and progress on DEI and anti-racist goals, all the result of teamwork and the talent of the people who work here. I’m pleased about how well we did last year during the pandemic. All these things are possible because of the hard work of the faculty, staff and administration, the support and oversight of the board, and the generosity of our alumni with time and resources. 

What have been your most challenging experiences at Amherst?

Writing a new Commencement speech every year! 

Being aware of students’ struggles with prejudice and inequity in the various forms that are embedded in institutions; I’m appreciative of the students who inspire us to do more. 

It is challenging to have members of the community and different constituencies of the College at odds with one another and to experience the moments when members of the community become hesitant to express and test their views in genuine dialogue. I’m thinking about the tensions that arise between freedom of speech and the freedom from prejudice and harassment, and the sometimes acrimonious exchanges about the role of athletics.
I find binary thinking lamentable in an academic setting. Institutions of higher learning face a range of tensions and seeming contradictions; the ability to think through the complexity of the issues on their merits is a critical responsibility at a College. I welcome the shift over the past year or two toward restorative rather than punitive approaches to conflict and harm, where they make sense.

How did the Amherst Uprising protest in 2015 change both your thinking and the direction of the College? 

We give a lot of credit to the Uprising, and rightfully so. The students mobilized the campus and focused our attention on the barriers to their success and their flourishing. Their testimonies had a profound impact on everyone who listened to them, and certainly on me. Some of the things the students demanded were already in the works—plans to establish a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force and a search for the College’s first chief equity and inclusion officer. The Uprising accentuated the urgency of working on those fronts, and on many more, and doing so more quickly, more concertedly and more transparently. The experience brought home the importance of involving students, giving them opportunities and platforms of the kind they had in Johnson Chapel in 2015, when they spoke to the faculty about specific academic policies that created barriers to their academic development. 

This summer Inside Higher Ed reported that, for the first time at Amherst, the newly admitted class was majority nonwhite, with 50.2 percent self-identifying as students of color. Can you speak about that milestone and what it took to get there? 

I came here because Amherst was committed to diversifying the student body so it more nearly reflects the talent in every social and economic group and benefits every student at the College. I’m proud that we’ve been able to expand that diversity to the degree we have. The demographic changes put the College in a position to change in more fundamental ways. 

What did it take to get here? It took the vision and commitment of prior presidents, especially the more recent. It took the cooperation of the entire campus community and the support of the board of trustees to invest in financial aid to a degree that would make a significant difference. It has taken the generosity of the alumni over the past 200 years to build an endowment that allowed that investment. And then it takes an outstanding admission office filled with people who are keen not only to make decisions about those who apply but to identify and recruit prospective students in places where Amherst was not well-known and had not actively recruited. It takes principles, shared commitment and follow-through. And what follows are the rewards of seeing the institution become more vibrant as it challenges itself to change.

Biddy Martin handing out a diploma at an Amherst College commencement ceremony
Martin has celebrated with new Amherst graduates at eight ceremonies on the quad, one in the gym and one on a screen. (Photo by Maria Stenzel)

In your interview with Amherst magazine in 2011, when you were the incoming president, you said the Science Center “is going to be among the most important things that occur during my presidency—I’m certain of that.” Are you still certain? 

Yes, it is one of the most important things that will have occurred during my presidency. I remember when our Nobel Prize-winning alumnus Harold Varmus ’61 toured the Science Center and said that the lab setups could match those of virtually any university science building. The key to the building’s success was the involvement of science faculty in the planning. This building will be important for a very long time, because the monumental changes in science require facilities that allow Amherst to continue recruiting and retaining faculty who do cutting-edge research, and who then draw students. So I think the Science Center is very significant to preserving and enhancing Amherst’s academic excellence over time. That so many students have found it to be a wonderful study space, and also a social gathering spot, brings me and our Facilities team a lot of pleasure. 

You’ve given a lot of thought to the liberal arts and the threats to its model. What is your understanding of the liberal arts in this day and age? 

Many people seem to think that the liberal arts as a form of education is in trouble. I disagree. It has never been better-suited to these times of rapid change, because it produces versatile, rigorous and collaborative thinkers. People today need to be able to draw on knowledge from across a range of areas, to make surprising connections and to generate creative solutions to problems by virtue of those connections. We need to provide society with those kinds of thinkers and doers. This is a moment where many of the most pressing questions about what it means to be human and to preserve the livability of the planet require the humanities, the arts, the social sciences and the sciences, integrated in novel ways. 

Sometimes when people talk about threats to the liberal arts, they mean that the financial model for small liberal arts colleges that are almost exclusively tuition-dependent is in trouble. There’s legitimate concern about small liberal arts colleges without strong endowments, particularly in regions where the population is going down as the cost of providing an education goes up. 

About 40 percent of the current faculty has been hired during Martin’s presidency.

Can you reflect on the arc of faculty hiring since you’ve been at Amherst? 

Virtually from the moment I arrived, a great many retirements started to occur. Not because I arrived, but because of the hiring bulge at colleges and universities in the ’60s. Some 40 percent of the faculty has been hired since I arrived. We set a couple of priorities that I think are significant: We encouraged the faculty to hire some number of professors at the midcareer stage, in order to avoid a leadership gap that would exist over time if all the hiring were at the entry level. We were also determined to increase the diversity of the faculty by encouraging and assisting departments in actively seeking candidates of color to be part of their candidate pools. Finally, we knew there were areas that needed additional faculty, particularly in the sciences, and we focused our campaign priorities in part on new faculty positions. The departments and the provost’s office have made spectacular hires and, over the past several years, had success in increasing the diversity of the faculty significantly. I sit every week in the fall with the Committee of Six for deliberation on tenure dossiers; the faculty who have been hired and tenured during my time here are truly impressive. 

What moments of joy have you experienced on the job? Does anything jump to mind?

Too many things jump to mind! I experience joy in this job every day. I love so many of the events on campus and am especially attached to the fall, winter and spring festivals. It brings joy to witness people’s enjoyment of one another (and of food). I look forward every year to LitFest. I am moved by the traditions of Convocation, Senior
Assembly and Commencement. 

Student performances have brought me enormous pleasure, as have research poster sessions, the Three Minute Thesis competitions, my conversations with students in office hours, chatting with the students I run into on campus, and getting to know staff and faculty. 

I enjoy interacting with our alumni; I have met such accomplished, intellectually interesting and generous members of our alumni body. There are so many opportunities as Amherst’s president to interact with curious,
mind-bendingly intelligent and funny people. I place a high priority on humor. 

Athletics events bring me joy. I will never forget the women’s basketball championship game in Grand Rapids [Mich.] or the celebration afterward. I wish all our students were members of a team of some kind whose members depend on one another for their success and enjoyment. Academic work has become more team-based and collaborative at Amherst, and that is all to the good.

Biddy Martin speaking at LitFest
“I look forward every year to LitFest,” Martin says. (Photo by Jiayi Liu)

What is your assessment of Amherst’s strengths and weaknesses at this stage in time?

The greatest strengths are the people—the quality of the faculty, the staff, the administrators, the students, the board and the alumni. It takes all of them to ensure the quality of teaching and learning, of research and intellectual life, of the sense of community we have. What allows institutions to persist is a shared sense of purpose and mission, adaptation to change, discipline in the use of resources, commitment to future generations and hard work that is also deeply rewarding. Amherst has all these elements. The College has had strong financial leadership; we are getting close to our campaign goal, and the outlook is excellent.

We are working to provide resources that will allow additions to the faculty in areas where enrollments have outstripped the faculty’s ability to teach “the Amherst way.” To reach inclusion and equity at the College requires a great deal more work as well. We have made significant progress over time, but barriers to full inclusion persist for students, staff and faculty from groups that have historically been underrepresented and subject to discrimination. The anti-racist work to which we are committed is vital and ongoing. 

We are also still working on the relationship between students’ intellectual growth and their social and emotional growth. How do we provide the scaffolding alongside their academic work that will allow students to explore for themselves who they are or want to be? What is the role of a college in helping them learn how to use their freedom in ways that bring them joy and satisfaction, while also taking their long-term well-being and the welfare of others into account? 

A lot of work has been done over the past 10 years to define the goals for students’ residential experience, and there’s more work currently underway that will help everyone deal with the challenges and uncertainties they face, build a strong sense of community and have fun while they’re here.

Here’s a curveball question: You wrote a book titled Woman and Modernity: The Life(Styles) of Lou Andreas-Salomé. She was a writer and lay analyst who traveled in some of the most vital intellectual circles in Europe, including Freud’s. How might she analyze your tenure here?

It’s actually a great question. It’s hard to answer. Salomé was (in)famous for following her own interests and passions, however scandalous they seemed to others. She might have appreciated the fact that being president of Amherst College is so improbable an outcome, given my start in life. She’d appreciate my interest in the Freud circle and in her, and might wonder how or why I got interested in administration. Still, she’d have respected the work. 

She was almost 50 years old when she joined Freud’s Wednesday seminars and was changed intellectually by her study and practice of psychoanalysis, without giving up the core of her earlier preoccupations. She was still seeing patients and writing psychoanalytic essays near the end of her life, interpreting Freud in ways he ultimately appreciated in her but did not endorse. 

I found her intellectual curiosity and her refusals to bow to convention to be compelling. Freud tempered her tendency toward unwarranted synthesis, and she resisted what she saw as his rationalism. I was impressed by her independence, her self-confidence and her determination to take part in key intellectual debates of her time. I found her fascinating, thought she was worth studying and am glad I went with the impulse.

The Student Center, which I hope will be a crossroads for students, faculty and staff, is well into design.”

With which Amherst president do you feel most connected and why?

I would say Alexander Meiklejohn. Meiklejohn was an intellectual; his views of what education could and should be had intellectual curiosity and societal needs at their core. I don’t agree with everything that he proposed, but he was a thinker and an activist of sorts. When I first came here, before my inauguration, I read the inaugural speeches of all the presidents made available to me. I thought that Meiklejohn’s speeches had more substance and bolder points of view than many others. After he was forced to resign as Amherst’s president, he ended up at the University of Wisconsin, where he created a liberal studies curriculum which has echoes still today.

How have you recharged over these years? When I see you walk from the President’s House to your office at Converse, I always wonder what music you’re listening to. 

It’s good that Gabi [Gabriele Strauch, Martin’s spouse, a professor emerita in Germanic studies and former associate dean in the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland] isn’t here, because she would jump in, if she were listening, and say, “She doesn’t do anything for herself!” But I do. I like to walk. I spend time outdoors. The outdoors for me is a refuge and always has been. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians of Virginia, and I love the mountains of Massachusetts. I listen to music; I read poetry; I hang out with friends. During COVID, I got hooked on walking to the jazz singer Eva Cassidy. And sometimes when I needed a lift, I listened either to The Beatles’ original or to James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun.”

What have you and Gabi watched on TV lately? 

Mare of Easttown—Kate Winslet’s acting was remarkable. We watched Line of Separation, a series about a fictional town that got divided down the middle between East Germany and West Germany after the war. And before that, we were hooked on A French Village, some episodes of which we skipped, set during the Nazi occupation of France. I watched the NBA finals. Gabi is part of a French film discussion group, and I have seen a number of strange French films over the past several months. I can recommend La Vache.

What was it like to be a college president last year?

Well, obviously, it was challenging, and, for someone given to worry, worrisome. Especially in the summer of 2020, before students returned in the fall, I lived with intense worry about the decisions we were making for so many people. I kept saying to myself, Biddy, you have got to make the right decisions about having students on campus and the measures that will help keep everyone safe, because the students need to be here, and you would not be able to bear it if anyone on this campus got seriously ill and died. A lot of pressure, but I had lots of help.

It was also rewarding, even before we knew that we had done as well as we did. It was rewarding to see the collaboration, to watch staff rise to the occasion, to watch faculty turn on a dime and do as good a job as they did, to know that students were overcoming incredible odds in order to get an education. 

What would you wish to accomplish at Amherst that you haven’t yet been able to do? 

I have mentioned the work that remains to be done on diversity, equity, inclusion and community building. The Student Center, which I have championed and which I hope will be a crossroads for students, staff and faculty, will not be completed during my presidency. It’s well into design, but design and construction will take another few years. I would have liked to do more for the arts at Amherst and hope that facilities worthy of our strengths in the arts will not be long in coming. I’d love to see an arts corridor at Amherst, beginning in place of the Converse parking lot so the transition from the town to the campus were more welcoming and indicative of the beauty and intellectual vibrancy of the College.

I’m not going to push you to offer a vision of what Amherst might be like in a century, as Meiklejohn did in his 1921 Centennial speech. But, in a broad way, what do you ardently hope for the future of Amherst?

What I hope is that Amherst will preserve its academic standards and intellectual depth—that it will always be known for joy in thinking, in creating new knowledge, and in fostering not only academic learning but the development of understanding, judgment, even wisdom in its graduates. I hope it does this while also contributing what a college can to the preservation of the conditions for life on this planet, to the advancement of racial and economic justice, to the appreciation of gender and sexual differences, and to the promotion of democratic
values and institutions. 

Whittemore is the magazine’s senior writer.