Peter Pouncey, Amherst’s 16th president, was a president of firsts: the first to be born in China, where his father served as the British commissioner of maritime customs; the first in 50 years to come to the College with no previous connection to it; and, later, the first to publish a critically acclaimed novel begun during his term. Serving from 1984 to 1994, Pouncey gave the College “a decade of extraordinary service,” said an Amherst magazine headline. He arrived in a time of unrest and transition and left the College a more diverse and stable place. Pouncey died on May 30, 2023, at the age of 85. Amherst College mourns his loss.
“Peter Pouncey was my president when I was an Amherst student, and I think of him every time that I walk into Converse Hall,” says President Michael A. Elliott, a member of the class of 1992. “I had the chance to speak with him several times during my undergraduate career, and he was always gracious and kind. He was a true scholar who led with hope and ambition.”
Pouncey, a specialist in ancient Greece, was previously a professor of classics at Columbia University, where he’d also served as dean of Columbia College from 1972 to 1976 and as chair of the Contemporary Civilization program. He became Amherst’s leader during a period of upheaval following the sudden death of President Julian Gibbs in 1983 and the decision to abolish the fraternity system the following spring. Pouncey now led a campus whose main form of social life had just been eliminated without anything lined up to replace it. He remained sanguine about the challenge, urging unhappy students to “throw yourselves into forming a positive future.”
From the beginning, Pouncey had a strong sense of the issues he wanted to tackle during his term. In addition to creating a robust post-fraternity social life, he was particularly concerned with attracting a more diverse student and faculty population. To that end, under his leadership, the College undertook a yearlong study of how the school’s image affected students’ decisions when choosing a college. Pouncey thought the College needed to make a more concerted effort to recruit students from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, first-generation college students and others who might not see themselves as a natural fit at Amherst. His goal was for the College to represent “a full sample of the nation’s talent.” He was also the driving force behind the first expansion of the faculty since coeducation.
He strongly encouraged interdisciplinary programs and advocated for breaking down barriers between departments. Both the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies (now Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies) and the Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Program were established during his presidency.
Pouncey oversaw the College primarily during a period of expansion—the endowment grew from $132 million in 1983 to more than $320 million in 1994. During Pouncey’s tenure, the Keefe Campus Center was built, along with Cohan Dormitory and LeFrak Gymnasium. The College also acquired the former U.S. Strategic Command Bunker in South Amherst.
Pouncey was popular among Amherst students, acquiring the unlikely nickname “Pounce Dog.” A gently mocking article in The Amherst Student in 1993 poked fun at his unwillingness to use his new VAX account, reporting that Pouncey had no wish to become bogged down in the new diversion of email and had announced that “he would not answer more than three pieces of email a week.” Pouncey’s feelings about technology didn’t seem to change later in his life; in a 2005 profile in The New York Times, he is described as approaching “his computer warily. ‘They really do smell fear,’ he said.”
After Pouncey stepped down as president in 1994, he remained at Amherst as the Burnell-Forbes Professor of Greek until 1998, when he returned to Columbia to finish his teaching career, becoming a member of the Society of Senior Scholars in 1999.
Pouncey’s first book, The Necessities of War: A Study of Thucydides’ Pessimism, was published in 1980 and won the 1981 Lionel Trilling Award for Columbia’s best scholarly publication. His next book, the widely acclaimed novel Rules for Old Men Waiting, was published 25 years later, in 2005. Pouncey began to write it during his Amherst presidency, accumulating thousands of pages of notes. Returning to them in 2003, he eventually produced a slim, finely wrought volume that received the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which called the book an “extraordinary debut novel.”
Pouncey is survived by his children, Christian Pouncey (of Charlottesville, Va.), Maggie Pouncey (of Rhinebeck, N.Y.) and stepdaughter Emily Liebert (of Cleveland, Ohio); their spouses, Victoria Pouncey, Matt Miller and Vlad Kobzar; and five grandchildren, Eliza Pouncey, Felix Miller, Dominic Miller, Henry Kobzar and Louise Kobzar.
In his final Amherst commencement speech, Pouncey ended with these words:
I must say, as we head out, I find myself not grim but optimistic. … I believe at root, however far we travel, whatever our differences, we are all members of one tribe. And that means that, however far you go … you need never be lost, because there will always be someone to understand you, and tell you where you are.
So let us go, pleased and proud and grateful for what has happened to us here, and good luck—good luck, you might say, to all of us.