Article by Katherine Duke ’05; photos by Rob Mattson

It’s difficult to envision an Amherst English department that doesn’t include Bill Pritchard and his critical essays, or Allen Guttmann and his books on sports history, or Barry O’Connell and his courses on public education and Native American literature. Each professor has been at the college for more than four decades, and each has become practically synonymous with the department, as integral to English at Amherst as Robert Frost and Johnson Chapel. But they’re nearing the ends of their careers, along with many of their colleagues.

“Ten years ago, it seemed like something we could hardly imagine,” says Rhonda Cobham-Sander, professor of English and black studies. “And then the dominoes just began to fall, and people who had been here for 40, 50 years suddenly were no longer present at our department meetings.”

Nine out of the department’s 10 most senior faculty members—who have 421 combined years
of teaching—have retired or entered phased retirement (cutting down on the number of courses they teach) since the beginning of 2008. Four of those—namely Pritchard, O’Connell, Howell “Chick” Chickering and Jack Cameron—are fully retiring in 2013. During the same period, seven new tenured or tenure-track professors have come on. Altogether, more than half of the department will have turned over between the end of 2007 and the end of 2013.

This means Amherst English is negotiating a crucial and formidable hiring challenge, necessarily reinventing itself as a younger, more diverse group with expertise in a broader variety of fields. Fifty years ago, the department’s faculty was entirely white and male—as was almost every author whose work they taught—and its section of the college’s course catalog was a mere four pages long. Today, the department offers 30 pages of courses ranging from “Emily Dickinson” to “Childhood in African and Caribbean Literature” to “Animating Cinema and New Media.” The latter is cross-listed in the Film and Media Studies Program, one of four new majors inaugurated since 2007, the others being environmental studies, architectural studies and biochemistry and biophysics.

Indeed, the college as a whole is in the midst of a curricular growth spurt and a major demographic shift in its faculty, with at least 28 professors (more than 15 percent of the tenure-line faculty) fully retiring or expected to retire between 2008 and the end of 2013. Among others, these include such big names as Pulitzer Prize winner William Taubman from political science; physicist Arthur Zajonc, a leading voice in the call to incorporate contemplative practices into higher education; and psychologist Rose Olver—the very first woman hired to a tenure-track position at Amherst. Other professors have entered phased retirement, and still more are nearing retirement age.

But this is not simply a story of a new guard replacing the old, number for number. It’s about an unusual effort at Amherst to increase the quantity of tenured and tenure-track faculty at a time when, for reasons of economics, the national trend has been to do exactly the opposite.

Amherst’s effort was codified in 2006, when the Committee on Academic Priorities (CAP) issued a report recommending a 5 percent increase in student enrollment over several years and an even greater proportional increase in the size of the faculty, to provide more resources for students and to keep the prized student-faculty ratio down near eight-to-one. The board of trustees—which places an upper limit on the number of “tenure-line” professors (assistant, associate and full professors, not counting visiting professors, language lecturers and fellows) that Amherst can have at any given time—agreed to allow the faculty to grow by 18 tenure-line positions, or about 11 percent.

Though this growth was put on hold when the college’s endowment took a hit in 2008, it’s now under way. The limit had been set at 165 for more than two decades; this year it’s 171, and by 2017 it will be 183.

This planned growth, plus the many positions opening up through retirements, adds up to a hiring boom that Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call says is unprecedented in the history of the college, at least in terms of sheer numbers. (The only other boom that rivals this one in terms of proportional growth occurred in the 1980s. Call himself came in as part of a large new cohort in 1988.) Amherst hired eight tenure-line professors in 2011, and 13 more began teaching in 2012.

As of mid-January 2013, six additional people had accepted offers of assistant professorships, and this spring, the college will fill another six tenure-line positions, in mathematics, biology, Latino studies, history and economics.

Alexandra Purdy
Assistant Professor of Biology

By 2018, more than a third of the tenure-line faculty will have arrived since 2010. This extraordinary hiring opportunity is unlikely to be repeated for at least a generation, and the administration and faculty have spent years strategizing about how Amherst can best take advantage of the chance. As a result, Amherst has become, as Call describes it, “more flexible and nimble” in its hiring. It’s re-examined its offerings of salaries, studio and lab space, sabbaticals, mentorship, housing and child care—not only to recruit the best young professors but also to retain them. To compete with larger colleges and universities, it’s also collaborated more extensively with other members of the Five College consortium.

The challenges are these: Can Amherst attract—and keep—the best new professors to provide students
with a robust and up-to-date curriculum? And while making it larger and younger, can Amherst also make its faculty more diverse?


Vanessa Fong ’96
Associate Professor of Anthropology

Vanessa Fong ’96 exemplifies the kind of new faculty member that Amherst hopes to attract. A professor for nine years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she has been conducting longitudinal research on 2,273 children born in China between 1979 and 1986. Her book based on this research, Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy, won the 2005 Francis Hsu Book Prize from the Society for East Asian Anthropology—an award for the English-language book judged the most significant contribution to the field in the past year.

Fong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to California, developed her academic interest in the subject at Amherst, where her anthropology thesis on gender in China led into her Harvard doctoral dissertation.

Fong emerged as an excellent contender in a recent search in the anthropology and sociology department at Amherst. Among the factors spurring the search was the 2006 CAP report, which emphasized, among other things, the importance of fostering students’ comprehension of international issues. As the report noted, “There are large areas of the world that are underrepresented in the curriculum.” One of these was Asia.

For Fong and Amherst, the attraction was mutual. One of the main reasons that Fong had put herself on the job market was that she didn’t want to go through the Harvard tenure process—an ordeal “likely to be stressful, time-consuming and have a low chance of success,” she says, “because anthropology and China studies were no longer in demand at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.”

In an example of its increased flexibility, Amherst offered to put Fong through an expedited review process and, ultimately, to hire her with tenure—an arrangement that was once rare at the college but has become more common as it competes for top candidates. “I had other great offers,” she says, “but what I wanted most was to come ‘home’ to Amherst, to work with the professors who inspired me to become a professor.” She returned to Amherst in 2012 as an associate professor of anthropology.

This past year also saw the hiring of two other Asia experts into tenure-track positions: historian Dwaipayan Sen, who offers courses on medieval and modern South Asia, and anthropologist Nusrat Chowdhury, whose research focuses on a mass movement to protest open-pit coal mining in the Phulbari subdistrict of her homeland of Bangladesh.

Dwaipayan Sen
Assistant Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and History

Chowdhury taught at Northwestern before arriving at Amherst. “I had my concerns about teaching at a small liberal arts college, because I did not have much experience with this kind of an institution,” she says. But once she applied and visited campus, “whatever I gathered about the scholarship of my colleagues, the interest of the students and the overall academic vibe of the place” cemented her desire to work at Amherst. “Because of the open curriculum, I am also teaching courses on topics that I am interested in and want to learn more about, which is always a pleasure to do collectively in a classroom.”

Nusrat Chowdhury
Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Paola Zamperini, who chairs the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations and participated in the searches that brought Fong and Sen to Amherst, hopes that, in the coming years, Amherst will open tenure-line searches in Chinese linguistics, Hindi and Urdu languages, Korean studies and East and South Asian religions. She says the college also needs more economists and sociologists who focus on East Asia. The political science department has just completed a search for a scholar of Chinese politics and international relations.

While several departments are putting an increased focus on Asia, the mathematics department is experiencing a similarly significant shift. Historically, that department had always focused on pure, rather than applied, math, but new professors including Katherine Tranbarger (at Amherst from 2005 to 2008) and Tanya Leise, Amy Wagaman and Shu-Min Liao (hired in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively) have drawn record numbers of students to the department through courses in such topics as applied statistics, applied linear algebra and mathematical modeling. Total math enrollments have doubled over the past six years.

(Unfortunately, the department lost Tranbarger for a reason that is now common nationwide but was almost unheard of 50 years ago: the “two-body” or “trailing spouse” issue—she left in 2008 when her husband, also an academic, found work at another institution.)

The department is now carrying out a search for yet another tenure-track applied mathematician, as well as its first-ever senior search, for an experienced statistician (to be hired with tenure) who can take the lead in shaping the stats curriculum and can guide younger professors.

The majority of the recently hired math professors are women. Last year, Leise became not only the first applied mathematician ever to receive tenure at Amherst but also the first female mathematician to do so. Gender is just another way in which the math department is shifting and growing more diverse.

Diversity of personal identity and background is, by now, a familiar priority at the college, at least in regard to the student body. Amherst has had notable success over the past decade in increasing its enrollment of students of color, international students, community college transfers, military veterans and students from low-income families.

The diversity of the faculty, however, has lagged behind that of the students and even, in a few respects, fallen from where it was a generation ago. Rhonda Cobham-Sander, who served from 2004 to 2008 as special assistant to the president for diversity, noted in a speech last November that Amherst today has about three times as many students of color as it did 25 years ago, but less than half the number of African-American faculty that it had in the late 1980s.

The most obvious reasons for this lag are that the faculty is smaller than the student body and that it has a much slower turnover rate. Associate Dean of the Faculty Frederick Griffiths points out another reason: Despite fruitful efforts to foster diversity among undergraduates, the segment of the population that goes for graduate degrees is still markedly less diverse, in some ways, than U.S. society at large. (A study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation showed, for example, that only 7 percent of Americans who earned doctorates in 2003 were black or Latino, even though those racial categories accounted for nearly a third of all Americans in the same age group.)

Amherst is seizing this moment of generational transition to tackle the imbalance. There are different ways of framing the issue’s importance. Cobham-Sander says it’s not a mission to check off boxes to satisfy some quota, nor a matter of believing, for instance, “that only African-Americans should be teaching African-American literature.” Rather, she says, “we need to ensure that, as we teach students from a wide array of backgrounds, every department can be informed about and responsive to all aspects of diversity.” To that end, the college has offered faculty workshops on such topics as advising first-generation college students. Also, questions about candidates’ experiences with matters of diversity have become a regular part of the faculty hiring process.

In addition, Cobham-Sander says, faculty diversity ensures that when students look to their professors, they not only see reflections of their own identities and experiences but also encounter strikingly different perspectives and, as a result, synthesize new ideas about their own possible futures. An ideally diverse faculty, in her view, is one through which, as a matter of course, “all students are exposed to fresh ways of imagining themselves.”

Consider Alicia Christoff, a Latina who grew up in Michigan, graduated from New York University and Princeton and now teaches Victorian literature and culture at Amherst. When they enter Christoff’s classroom, “students interested in Victorian literature can see that they don’t have to be descended from the Victorians in order to teach about them,” Cobham-Sander says. “And Latino students who might be feeling that mainstream literature doesn’t bear any relationship to them can have someone with a background like theirs as a role model.”  

Alicia Christoff
Robert E. Keiter ’57 Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of English

Christoff is a veteran of two fellowship programs through which Amherst aims not only to support diverse young people in their academic work but also, in some cases, to bring them into the faculty. In the final year of her Princeton Ph.D. program, Christoff received a Five College Fellowship to come to Amherst and complete her dissertation on the representation of feeling in the novels of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot. From there, she won a Mellon-Keiter Postdoctoral Fellowship—funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a gift from Robert E. Keiter ’57—to spend two years furthering her scholarship while teaching one Amherst course per semester. Her performance in the classroom prompted the English department to offer her a tenure-track position, which she will begin next year.

To Christoff, a major advantage of Amherst is the support and guidance she’s received from colleagues. Also, she says, Amherst encourages “a work-life balance that would not be possible at a large research university,” and this balance makes “makes me a more engaged, well-rounded, intellectually satisfied person, and therefore a better teacher and scholar.”

So far, Christoff is a success story in Amherst’s quest for a diverse and thriving faculty—as are Chowdhury, Fong and others. As the college recently outlined in a report to its reaccreditation organization, today “the proportion of entering colleagues from under­represented groups is approximately double that of the existing faculty.” Of the 13 tenure-track and tenured professors hired in 2012, eight are women. Seven are white (54 percent), three are Asian (23 percent), two are Native American (15 percent) and one is Latina (8 percent).  Of the six hired so far in 2013, four are women, three are African American and one is originally from Iran.

Cobham-Sander is among those who have called for Amherst to do more to find and attract black and Latino faculty in particular. The college’s overall goal, she says, should be “not just the visibility of a diverse student body but a curriculum in which diversity is an intellectual value.”  

President Biddy Martin took office in the summer of 2011 with the goal of greater faculty diversity already in mind. “Excellence requires it,” she asserted in an Amherst magazine interview. Last year, she announced a plan to create a provost position at Amherst—Peter Uvin from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy will step into the role this summer—and though the provost’s specific duties are still being defined, his broad responsibilities will include leading efforts to enhance and make the best use of the college’s diversity.  

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, professor of American studies and English, chaired last year’s English department search committee and remembers how the college made a concerted effort to hire more female professors in the 1970s and ’80s. She cautions that, even after the current hiring boom, Amherst’s work on issues of faculty diversity should not be considered “done.” As she sees it, faculty diversity is part of Amherst’s responsibility to society at large: “If you’re not actively and avidly part of the solution to the problems of inequality and racialization in this country, then, for an institution like this, you actually are the problem.”

But will the college ever find as much success in diversifying its teachers as it has in diversifying its students? “The reason that Amherst has such a diverse student body now,” says Cobham-Sander, “is because, at some point, somebody decided to throw a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of expertise at that problem. Students change every four years; faculty change every 20 years. So it’s never going to move as fast. You have to take chances. Act quickly—take opportunities when you get them.”

Sánchez-Eppler found such an opportunity in the fall of 2011, when Lisa Brooks, who had helped to build up the Native American studies program at Harvard, visited Amherst as part of an external review process, to advise Amherst’s English department on the future of its American literature curriculum. English had just launched a double search to hire two specialists in American literature, to replace the expertise that the department will be losing with the retirement of Pritchard, Guttmann, O’Connell, Dale Peterson and others.

Sánchez-Eppler set out to personally convince Brooks to apply. Identifying and reaching out to specific potential applicants is a strategy that Sánchez-Eppler favors. It doesn’t mean that those scholars get preferential consideration once they’ve applied, she says, “but I think you can help to ensure that you have fabulous people in your pool if you figure out who’s fabulous and then say, ‘You may not have noticed Amherst College, but really, you would like it here!’”

Brooks was not the only promising candidate. The search had also attracted Geoffrey Sanborn, who had taught at Williams, among other places. And then there was Kiara Vigil, another impressive scholar of Native American studies, but because she was completing her Ph.D. in American studies and had previously taught high school history and social studies, she seemed a better fit for the American studies department.

Geoffrey Sanborn
Professor of English

Ultimately, the English department hired Sanborn with tenure as a specialist in American literature. At the same time, American studies sought and received special permission to create an assistant professorship for Vigil, whose course offerings now include “Rethinking Pocahontas: An Introduction to Native American Studies” and “Red/Black Literature: At the Crossroads of Native American and African American Literary Histories.” In addition, the college offered Brooks a joint position in English and American studies. She teaches “Indigenous American Epics,” “The Spiral of Time in Native American Novels” and a section of the local-history-focused “Global Valley.” She makes a point of introducing her students to Native traditions of deliberation and consensus-building, and these traditions influence the style of classroom discussion.

Brooks originally had no plans to leave Harvard, but Amherst’s willingness to hire her with tenure—which she, like Fong, did not yet have at Harvard—helped to persuade her. So did Sánchez-Eppler’s gracious treatment. “She would make comments like, ‘Let us show you that Amherst could be a good place for you and your family,’” Brooks says. “That made a big difference to me.” Another convincing factor was the news that Amherst would also hire Vigil; this demonstrated to Brooks “a very clear institutional commitment” to expanding the Native American studies curriculum.  

Vigil says the same about Brooks: “Knowing Lisa would be here was a big draw for me.” The two women are both of Native heritage themselves, and their scholarship is complementary in many ways. They plan to design and teach a course together next fall.

Both are also excited to be at the same institution as O’Connell, who was the first to offer Native American literature courses at Amherst and whom Brooks calls “an extraordinary leader here at the college but also in my field in general.” (Vigil and O’Connell also share the distinction of being the only two current Amherst professors with experience teaching in public schools.) Brooks recalls, “I met with him years ago, when I was writing a chapter for my first book, and felt so nervous about meeting with him, because I was young and didn’t realize how generous a senior scholar could be.”

One of the three Native studies colloquia that Brooks organized on campus last fall marked the 20th anniversary of On Our Own Ground: The Collected Works of William Apess, a Pequot, which O’Connell edited (and which Vigil first read when she was an undergrad). Speaking at the colloquium, O’Connell remarked of Brooks, “I watch her, and I think, ‘How did they ever hire me? Oh, she wasn’t born yet.’” Actually, when Amherst hired O’Connell in 1972, Brooks was 2 years old.

“I watch her and think, ‘How did they ever hire me?’”
says Barry O’Connell (in blue shirt) of Lisa Brooks (center).
They are teaching a course together this semester.

Now the end of his career has spurred the next stage in hers. This semester, the two professors are teaching a course together on “American Literature in the Making.” And perhaps in a generation or two, Brooks will be another O’Connell, or another Pritchard or another Guttmann—a member of a large, beloved and admired old guard.

Katherine Duke is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.