Biddy Martin

June 14, 2011

AMHERST, Mass. — Carolyn Arthur “Biddy” Martin, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin’s renowned flagship university in Madison and a former longtime professor and  provost at Cornell University, has been selected to be Amherst College’s 19th president, the school’s Board of Trustees announced today.

Martin will begin her tenure at the college this August and be introduced to the Amherst community on Thursday.

The Board of Trustees, advised by a search committee that included all segments of the Amherst College community, appointed Martin at the conclusion of an international search that began in October, when Anthony W. Marx announced he would assume the presidency of the New York Public Library after serving as Amherst’s president for eight years.

Jide Zeitlin, the chair of the college’s Board of Trustees as well as of the Presidential Search Committee, said that Martin’s formidable intellect and leadership experience made her the top choice in an extremely rich pool of candidates.

He added: “Martin is a seasoned leader with a deep understanding of issues ranging from attracting and retaining an extraordinary faculty, supporting and investing in a diverse student body, institutional governance, and some of the evolving ways that knowledge is delivered.”

“Amherst represents everything I value in higher education,” Martin said, “including the best possible education by a faculty known for outstanding research, a serious and lively intellectual community, and a commitment to opportunity and service. Amherst’s leadership has worked hard to increase the socioeconomic, racial and ethnic diversity of the campus to an extent rarely seen elsewhere—something I personally hold dear. What amazes me is that Amherst has maintained this commitment to diversity in the face of extraordinarily difficult circumstances economically. I know that we can take even greater advantage of the diversity that the college has now succeeded in establishing.”

Chancellor of UW-Madison since 2008, Martin led initiatives to increase need-based financial aid, improve undergraduate education and enhance research. She created the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates to promote student advising, innovations in undergraduate programs and faculty diversity. She also spearheaded an effort to gain greater operating flexibility and increased autonomy for Wisconsin’s flagship campus. In addition, Martin has served on numerous high-profile committees, including the National Academies Commission on the Future of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and on the board of the American Council of Education, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the Wisconsin Hospital Authority.

“Talk with Biddy and you will quickly discover a person of exceptional intellectual vitality,” commented search committee member John Servos, the Anson D. Morse Professor of History and chair of the Department of History at Amherst. “Biddy knows budgets and educational policy, but she also knows teaching and scholarship, and she knows them from the inside. She is an award-winning teacher and a distinguished scholar whose books and articles range widely over the terrain where German literature and psychoanalysis intersect. She made key contributions to gender studies as that field emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and remains an eloquent advocate of the humanities. But as Biddy’s responsibilities have grown, so has the scope of her curiosity. She speaks of the prospects in the sciences with a passion at least as intense as the one she brought to her work on literature. Biddy’s career exemplifies the power of a liberal arts education to prepare us for life’s unexpected challenges and opportunities.”

Martin was raised outside of Lynchburg, Va., in rural Campbell County, and graduated as valedictorian from Brookville High School. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the College of William & Mary with a degree in English, in 1973, 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 returned to the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in German literature from UW-Madison, in 1985. That same year, she joined Cornell University’s faculty. A distinguished scholar of German studies and the author of numerous articles and two books—one on a literary and cultural figure in the Freud circle, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and a second on gender theory—Martin served on the faculty of Cornell University for more than two decades and was the recipient of one of Cornell’s most distinguished teaching awards. She began as an assistant professor of German studies and women’s studies, eventually serving as chair of the German studies department, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and provost from 2000 to 2008. In the latter position, Martin was the president’s first deputy officer and reported to the president as Cornell’s chief educational officer and chief operating officer.

Martin was Cornell’s longest-serving provost, and accomplishments during her term included overseeing the construction of a $150 million life sciences building, increasing the stature of humanities research and education, implementing a sweeping financial aid initiative that replaced need-based loans with grants for all undergraduate students from families with incomes under $75,000 and developing the university’s fundraising priorities for the $4 billion capital campaign.

Don Randel, Martin’s immediate predecessor as provost of Cornell, former president of the University of Chicago and current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, called Martin a gifted scholar who leads with “extraordinary courage and determination.”

“Biddy has a disarming smile, a ready laugh, and a sense of humor that she does not exercise at the expense of others,” Randel said. “But there is no mistaking that she is tough-minded when the occasion demands it. Most important is that she has the values that are essential to an academic community in which faculty and students care about the life of the mind. Students will be happy to have her as their teacher. Students, faculty and staff alike will be grateful to have her as their president.”

“In Biddy Martin, Amherst College has selected as its 19th president an outstanding educator and wonderful human being,” said Harold Tanner, who chaired Cornell’s Board of Trustees during part of Martin’s tenure as provost. At the university, Tanner said, Martin “dealt with difficult issues that affected the many constituencies of any university and excelled in every assignment. She provided leadership in financial as well as academic matters, and, in the process, earned the respect of the board, faculty, students, staff and alumni.”

“Her leadership in university-wide issues at Cornell and at Wisconsin will prove most valuable in her new role as president of Amherst,” he added. “Biddy is a passionate believer in the role that liberal arts education plays in the future of American society and is a good spokesperson for that message.” 

Trustee and search committee member William E. Ford ’83, who is CEO of General Atlantic, echoed Tanner’s sentiments about Martin’s ability to guide an institution. “Biddy is a proven and mature leader who has a broad set of skills,” he said. “Her experience in financial management, fundraising and managing several major building projects as well as tenure decisions and curricular innovations will be extremely valuable to Amherst.  Biddy’s deep academic and administrative capability convinced me that she will be an excellent 19th president of Amherst.”

And while not yet fully steeped in the famous rivalry between Amherst and Williams College—one of the oldest in American higher education—Martin, a former high school basketball star who held her school’s scoring record for many years, is a quick learner, said search committee member Suzanne Coffey, director of athletics at Amherst.

“We’ve heard stories from Wisconsin about Biddy taking free-throw shots at time outs and stepping out on the football field to the roar of crowds,” she said. “What this says to me is that she is interested in students and learning in so many different contexts.” Coffey added: “She can speak very articulately to the breadth and depth of learning that occurs during a student’s undergraduate years,  whether it’s on playing fields or in the classroom or around the dinner table. She gives a sense that she’s someone who knows students well and whom students get to know easily. And from everything we’ve learned about her, she’s someone whom students at both Cornell and UW-Madison have adored.”

Charles Longsworth ’51, chairman emeritus of the Amherst College Board of Trustees, former president of Hampshire College and chair of a previous Amherst presidential search committee, spoke about Martin and the search process that yielded her.

“This was the most thorough search in which I have ever been involved,” Longsworth said. “I have high praise for the members of the search committee, who were discreet, diligent and wise, and for the excellent result of this intensive effort: the selection of Biddy Martin as the next president of Amherst College.”

Martin pointed to her own life as evidence of the transformative power of a liberal arts education and said she looks forward to becoming part of the Amherst College community.

“I’m delighted to be joining this wonderful liberal arts college,” she said. “What attracts me to Amherst are attributes such as intelligence, thoughtfulness, creativity, fun, natural beauty, and the opportunity to provide talented young people with opportunities to flourish. Amherst has all of these qualities in abundance, and these qualities are the continuity in my career. As a humanist who majored in English and then decided to move to German cultural studies and literature, I have taught and conducted research in the humanities my entire career. I welcome the opportunity to lead a liberal arts college with Amherst’s reputation, its long history of excellence, its extraordinary students, and its great faculty.”

Founded in 1821, Amherst is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with 1,750 students from most of the 50 states and more than 30 other countries. Considered one of the nation’s best educational institutions, Amherst awards the B.A. degree in 36 fields of study.

Watch a video interview with Biddy Martin and read more about her background.