Amherst’s ‘Biddy’ Martin Puts the Focus on Inclusion
It’s called the ‘Committee of Six.’
That’s the name attached to an elected — and quite powerful — group of professors at Amherst College, who continue a tradition that is said to be as old (193 years) as the institution itself.
Tasked primarily with making recommendations on tenure and promotions, this group, an executive committee of the faculty whose influence is said to extend to all manner of administrative matters, meets with the president of the college and other administrators every Monday morning, often for three hours or more.
For Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, who took the helm at Amherst in late 2011, these sessions, which take place at a round table in the front of her spacious office in Converse Memorial Library, have constituted a learning experience on a number of levels, and comprise just one of many reasons why she summoned the word intense to describe both the college and the task of leading it.
“Those meetings are always interesting,” she said, noting that, while this panel is not entirely unique, it is unusual. “There are other places where there are tenure and promotion committees, but I don’t know of another place that has a committee of this sort that meets as regularly and at such length with the president, the provost, and the dean of the faculty of the institution. It was a godsend when I first came, because the extent of the contact, and the intensity of it, allows a new administrator to learn a lot about the college in a very short period of time.”
When asked what she’s learned, Martin — who came to Amherst after stints as provost at Cornell and then chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison — paused for a moment as if to indicate this would be a lengthy answer. And it was, one that focused primarily on the faculty and its commitment to teaching, research, service to the community, and, in general, meeting or exceeding very high standards.
“The students are extraordinary, and the faculty is stronger than I could have even imagined it to be,” she told BusinessWest, “because of the way they combine high expectations for research with the incredible amount of intellectual capital they invest in teaching.
“And after working at research universities for most of my career, that investment in the art of teaching is a boon,” she went on. “I love seeing it, I love supporting it; I believe it’s essential.”
Among her many current initiatives, Martin told BusinessWest, is the drafting of a new strategic plan for the institution. While she generally used broad terms to discuss what will likely go in that plan, she said the school will continue to accelerate current work to create greater diversity on campus by aggressively recruiting and then supporting lower-income individuals and those with what would be considered non-traditional backgrounds.
This strategic initiative, launched more than 15 years ago, saw Amherst become the first college in the nation to eliminate loans for low-income students and one of the first to replace all loans with scholarships in financial-aid packages and extend need-blind admission to international students.
“This is a place that has put its money where its values are,” said Martin, adding quickly that the next challenge, and it’s a sizable one, is achieving progress in what she called “the really hard work, and maybe the hardest work.”
By this, she meant efforts to not merely bring such individuals onto the campus, but create cultural changes to ensure what Martin called “genuine inclusion.”
“We want an environment where no students feel as though they’ve been added on to a culture that has its core, its center, somewhere else,” she explained. “I can’t think of a more worthy project, but it’s not an easy project to change culture. But I love doing it.
“I admired what was accomplished here, and wanted to work at a place where, on a daily basis, or even an hourly basis, it’s possible to see the enlivening difference it makes to have people from so many different backgrounds learning together,” she continued. “I thought it would be an extraordinary challenge to see how that can be made into the educational advantage that it ought to be.”
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Martin, the school’s first woman president and first openly gay president, about everything from these efforts to promote inclusion to the sometimes-difficult career transition from teaching to administration, and the different kinds of rewards in each realm.
Among the many items occupying space in a large bookshelf in one corner of Martin’s office is a white football helmet with a large red ‘W’ that instantly identifies it as being from the University of Wisconsin.
It was a gift from colleagues at the school where she served as chancellor for three years and became well-known for, among other things, her support of the sports teams (a pattern that has continued at Amherst) and her controversial and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to essentially separate the Madison campus from the rest of the University of Wisconsin system (more on that later).
It was in Madison where she earned a Ph.D. in German literature, with a dissertation titled The Death of God, the Crisis of Liberal Man, and the Meanings of Woman: A Study of the Works of Lou Andreas-Salome, and then an embark on a career that would take her from teaching into administration.
This was a path that would have seemed highly unlikely a decade earlier.
Indeed, Martin, who grew up in Northern Virginia, told BusinessWest that she can easily relate to many of those students at Amherst who fall into that non-traditional category, or who didn’t expect to ever be part of that school’s culture.
“My parents didn’t believe that girls should — or needed to — attend college,” she explained, adding that it was only because of the intervention of some teachers and advisors that she wound up attending the public school William & Mary in the early ’70s.
There, she earned a degree in English Literature and, during her junior year, studied abroad at Exeter University in England, where she met a number of German students and became fascinated by the divide between East and West Germany and how it had affected literature and culture.
When she returned to William & Mary for her senior year, she studied German extensively, and went to Germany to earn her master’s degree. One intriguing career stop while there came at a nursing home, where she served as a nurse’s aide.
“It was one of the most interesting — and hardest — jobs I ever had,” she explained, adding that she needed the work to support her studies, but also desired to learn German from people who were not academics. “It was a fascinating experience. This was a nursing home for women; most of them were in their 80s and 90s, so they had lived through both world wars. I learned a lot.”
Fast-forwarding a little, Martin said she began a career in teaching (both German and Women’s Studies) at Cornell, and eventually shifted into administration, a path she says she probably couldn’t have imagined even a few years earlier.
“But I’ve enjoyed it, and I find it conceptually and intellectually challenging,” she said, adding that she finds administration as rewarding as teaching, but obviously in different ways. “There’s almost nothing as rewarding as teaching, but administration also involves teaching — it’s just of a different sort and with different people. I think the biggest reward, obviously, comes from facilitating the success of students and faculty.”
At Madison, that process became more difficult due to budget cutbacks that forced reductions in faculty that brought about larger class sizes and other consequences, she told BusinessWest, adding that, eventually, she led an effort, which came to be known as the New Badger Partnership, to put in place a new business model for the school. Specifically, the plan would gain for the university status as a public authority reporting to its own board of trustees, a distinction already held by the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.
Martin eventually struck a deal with Gov. Scott Walker to separate UW-Madison from the rest of the system in this fashion, but the proposal met with staunch opposition from the University of Wisconsin regents and, later, from state legislators, many of whom feared the measure was the next step in making the school private. The Legislature would later pass a series of administrative and fiscal reforms that would apply to the entire system.
Course of Action
Choosing her words carefully, Martin said she didn’t necessarily feel compelled to leave the Madison campus, but understood it would be rather difficult to be impactful in that environment.
“I was worried, given the controversy about the initiative we’d tried, that I might be not be able to push as hard at Wisconsin as I needed,” she explained. “And I feel the reward from these jobs comes when you feel you can make a difference. And while I feel I made a difference while I was there, there would have been a limit to how much more I could have done, given the boldness of our initiative.”
She said she wasn’t necessarily looking for a job when she was approached about succeeding Anthony Marx as president of Amherst, but soon became intrigued by the prospect of leading one of the nation’s premier private schools — and again being in a position to make a difference.
In essence, she traded the financial woes and political turmoil at Madison for the scrutiny, internal politics, and, yes, the Committee of Six at Amherst. And she’s found it to be a good swap.
In a February 2012 piece about her transition to Amherst that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Martin referenced an unnamed former president of Dartmouth who had some thoughts on her new post. “Being president of Williams is fun,” he’s alleged to have said. “Being president of Dartmouth is a hard job. Being president of Amherst is an impossible job.”
Martin said it’s far from impossible, but it is challenging and — here’s that word again — intense.
And with that, she returned to her discussion about the faculty, and those high standards she mentioned.
“In ordered to get tenured here, you have to be doing cutting-edge work in your field, and you have to have been productive at the level of publication,” she explained. “But if your teaching isn’t also outstanding, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get tenure.
“Unfortunately, that’s not true at all research universities, where research has priority,” she went on, adding that she and others consider Amherst a ‘research college,’ a phrase that the faculty, and students, have readily adopted. “And this signals that the expectations for scholarship and scientific research at Amherst exceed those you might expect at a liberal-arts college both in terms of productivity and the visibility and impact of the work.
“It’s an intense place,” she continued. “It’s intellectually very intense, because people don’t let themselves off the hook in teaching or in their participation in the governance of place just because they’re expected to do research.”
And while Amherst is, indeed, intense, the word that is being used increasingly to define it is diverse, a development that brings, as Martin said, both great promise and extreme challenge as she endeavors to build on the progress achieved by her predecessors and others at the school.
“The past few presidents and the faculty have done an incredible job of assembling a very diverse student body,” she told BusinessWest. “Given my own background, the fact that Amherst has done what it’s done to attract low-income students and support them is remarkable and quite inspiring.
“Tony Marx made it his highest priority that Amherst was aggressively recruiting and supporting low-income students and students from what would be considered non-traditional backgrounds,” she went on, adding that initiatives have included everything from community-college transfers to the recruitment of students from high schools. “And while the amount of financial aid is a key, so too are the very innovative and aggressive strategies that our admissions office has used to attract students who might otherwise think that Amherst is unaffordable, inaccessible, or not a place where they could succeed.”
At a recent White House summit devoted to improving access and success for low-income students nationally, Martin today announced four new initiatives aimed at providing low-income students access to college and fostering their success in higher education at Amherst and beyond. She said they will:
• Boost the number of Native Americans who go to college;
• Help low-income and disadvantaged students in Western Mass. get into college;
• Increase the proportion of low-income Amherst students who major in science and math fields; and
• Close the college experience gap between low-income students and the student body as a whole.
The retention and graduation rates for low-income students are as high as they are for students overall, she continued, adding that the challenge moving forward is to be even more aggressive with this tack and, as she said, to move boldly on the bigger challenge — true inclusion.
“We have created a critical mass of diversity,” she went on. “But we have a lot of work to do before we get to a place where every student on this campus would say, ‘I feel as much at the center of the culture of the place as anyone else.’ We’re not there yet, at least in my opinion, but we’re going to work hard to get there.”
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com