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.