October 5, 2010
I write to let you know that I will conclude my term as President of Amherst College and Professor of Political Science on June 30, 2011, and will subsequently become President of the New York Public Library.
I have been privileged to serve Amherst College and the decision to leave is not an easy one. My family and I are grateful for the roots and friendships we have established here and I am proud of what Amherst College stands for.
A place such as Amherst is never done. That is what makes this a living place. What we are today is the product of many hands, who have built upon the foundation of others, and whose work will be built on in turn. As a community, we not only take stock of ourselves against a consistent set of values but also with a critical passion that has led us to much for which we can take pride.
Amherst aims to be the most selective and the most diverse liberal arts college in the country. In recent years we have seen measures of student academic standards increase for every cohort we track. Our low-income enrollment—now about 25 percent—has more than doubled, significantly outpacing that of our peers and ensuring mobility based on talent. Amherst now better includes and represents the world we inhabit—with a student body that is more than 40 percent students of color and nearly 10 percent international students. All of our students also benefit from need-blind admission. We have seen further developments in our curriculum, with the first new majors in decades, the first new college-wide requirement for writing in more than a generation, and increased reliance on external reviews for tenure and for departments to ensure that we get the best advice on all fronts. We have sought to instill values and civic engagement through service opportunities connected to the curriculum. A new science center is being planned that will enhance our campus and our intellectual life. And in the last two years of economic difficulty, we have acted together to ensure the sound financial footing of the College, reducing projected per-student expenditures in unprecedented ways, while not cutting access for the best students, not laying off our valued staff colleagues, and with significant additions to the faculty—the lifeblood of our educational and scholarly mission. For all of this we have seen remarkable support from our alumni, including the two largest gifts in the history of the College, one being the largest unrestricted gift to any college, enabling us to be in reach of our five year campaign goal within the two worst economic years in my lifetime.
I have been honored to be a member of this faculty, this staff, and this board, and am grateful to all of you for making these achievements possible. I now consider myself an Amherst alum and will continue to be a student and to be inspired by the students I have met here. But after eight years it will be time to pursue in another setting the values that have so engaged me here—the values that I have grown into, that Amherst has long stood for, and that I hope will inform the world my children will live in.
The Public Library is New York’s City’s preeminent educational institution that is free and open to all. It is the largest circulating library in America, has an operating and capital budget that exceeds $500 million, and has 1,900 dedicated full-time staff members. More than 18 million visits are made annually to its collections, the third largest in the world, and 24 million visits occur on-line each year. Nearly 90 libraries serve the intellectual needs of an amazingly diverse citizenry. Scholars everywhere benefit from access to its books. The New York Public Library is one of a very few institutions that unite the world of advanced scholarship and the world of universal education. It is one of a very few that both conserve our cultural heritage and push ahead into new technological and intellectual frontiers. It is one of a very few that cherish both the tranquility of the reading room and the vocal debates of the public square. It is a local institution, but “local” in the sense that New York itself is local—a community with global implications. At the same time it is an institution that faces challenges, as books become virtual, as public and private funding becomes scarce, and as the values of knowledge, reasonableness, and reflection seem increasingly on the defensive.
My decision to join the Library, as with my earlier decision to come here to Amherst, is part of a progression that began in the 1980s in South Africa. There, I saw an officious state suppress the majority of its population, and I knew heroes who were willing to put their lives at risk, and lose them, to bring change. I discovered the transformational power of education for those students who, against overwhelming odds, were able to get one. My time as a scholar and teacher at Columbia focused on how change of this kind can happen. I was surprised in 2003 to be given the opportunity to lead Amherst, an institution that pursues a powerful model of intense education for individual and social transformation. I have been deeply proud to be a part of the further opening of that opportunity to students of varied backgrounds, who make this a unique place to learn together. I believe that the New York Public Library represents a great opportunity to extend the values that have brought me—and Amherst—to this transition.
The responsibilities faced by the Library, and the larger society, are immense. We have to ensure that the public retains free access to ideas, information, and books. We have to ensure a future for scholarship that further builds our understanding. And we have to ensure that our citizens have civic space and vibrant programs for learning and thinking, all the more so as the world seems to be turning away from enlightenment. The Library must do all of that, as a bulwark of an informed and inclusive civil society, much as Amherst is such a bulwark. Everything I have done and learned leads me in this direction—to pursue in a new way the ideals we have forged together. I am honored to take up my new position in the Library as an act of faith in those ideals, for I can think of no more important basis for me or any of us to decide about new challenges. As I do so I carry two words with me: “Terras irradient.” Those two words are the motto of Amherst College but they carry far beyond its borders.
I look forward to the remainder of the academic year at Amherst and for those of you on campus I invite you to join Board Chair, Jide Zeitlin and me, at an open campus gathering at 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, October 7th in Johnson Chapel.