Intellect and morality-the College's other endowments

We talk a great deal about the endowment, about protecting the endowment, about “growing” the endowment. The student/faculty ratio to the endowment’s wealth is a major factor in determining our standing among our fellow institutions. We plan our budget according to a concept called “financial equilibrium,” whose standards were set out in the last long-range planning document of the College, the much touted Report of Priorities Planning Committee of 1995, which I co-chaired with the then-Treasurer, and whose central tenet was how best to protect the endowment. We based our recently completed and successful comprehensive campaign on enhancing and thus strengthening the endowment. And, always, the primary reason for sustaining that endowment was to maintain the quality of this institution.

Who can disagree with this prudent fiscal policy? Certainly not I, nor should the Faculty or staff. We definitely want the financial endowment to be as strong as possible, for us and for our successors. Without careful financial management, much of what we do here would be in jeopardy. However, in the process of focusing intensively on protecting this great boon, do we not, more often than is healthy, find ourselves in danger of taking for granted another endowment, one not easily translated into dollars and so-called “real” assets?

I refer to what must be called our intellectual and moral endowment, an intangible but visible legacy that has been left to us by our predecessors in this place, by former students, staff members, and friends of the College. These are gifts of goodwill are also from those who have expanded our possibilities, who do more than they are paid-or expected-to do. This endowment is being generously “grown” by those of us who have committed our careers, minds, and hearts to Amherst.

This legacy is informed by the belief that teaching and learning are not only activities, but values. If we patronize those who make-and have made-Amherst a different sort of college, we will deaden initiative, loosen bonds of loyalty and dedication, and thereby diminish this “other” endowment, a parlous result of a narrowly focused strategy.

Our recent comprehensive campaign succeeded

because our alumni believed in that other endowment, which they helped to create; they contributed generously to an idea and an ideal, sustained certainly by a memory of place and warm associations, but also by a lasting commitment to a tolerant and liberal-in the best sense of the term-curriculum, inscribed by the inspired, unpredictable, and, yes, “unmanageable” talents of professors and librarians, of coaches and students, and of our often selfless staff. Our alumni believe, as we should, that it is indeed the other endowment that ensures and justifies the growth of the financial one.

A real price cannot be put on what we do here, just as we cannot put a price on the view from Memorial Hill. Past Boards of Trustees did indeed purchase large tracts of land so that our view would not be spoiled, but they did not, because they could not, buy the view. Similarly, we spend a good deal of money here for the sustenance of those who offer us their learning and experience, but we cannot, and should not, place a mundane price on the commitment and passion they necessarily must bring to our collective mission.

We have to nurture-and that is the word: nurture-and nudge a collective of wills and minds to challenge the envelope of possibility that our students offer us. This is delicate work; it has its own vocabulary, its own discourse, its own ethics, and its own time-lines, all different from those that generally pertain to fiscal planning. Not better, just different.

It is to that difference that all of us, especially Trustees and future administrators, must persistently attend.

I have had the opportunity to know other colleges like ours. I have discovered that their faculty work just as hard as the faculty do here, that their first rate students are just as deserving of a fine education, and that the view from some hill is just as beautiful. But, these schools are, for the most part, not blessed with the same financial resources as is Amherst. Consequently, that other endowment, the one that sustains these fundamentally American institutions, was never, could never be, taken for granted. To the contrary, in the absence of a financial endowment, those schools had early to recognize that their success depended upon the richness of these intangible gifts. All great schools know this.

Amherst is an idea in motion, one that takes its true measure from the intellectual sense of adventure enjoyed by a first-class faculty and a first-class student body. We have been fortunate in having been able to build impressive financial wealth; we have a wonderful physical plant, and sit in a beautiful place, but we have been far more blessed in having created- through adroit planning and through serendipity-a world of intellectual and moral excellence that is not easily translated into dollars or bricks or networks or topography. Our students come to Amherst not for our financial wealth nor for the view from Memorial Hill, certainly not the climate. They come for the treasure they know is embedded in the curriculum and in those who deliver it.

So, a plea to all those who lead us, and to us, the “employed” as well: please protect and strengthen this other endowment. It may not be as easily and quickly depleted as the treasury, but it is much harder to replace once it is weakened. Through narrowly focused charges to cut or contain costs, we may well forget that dollars are not all equal. We may make changes that would weaken the invaluable intellectual and moral fabric that constitutes our other endowment, when we could have made changes that would have had only minimal effect on it.

We must never be allowed to wander to a place that will be less beneficial, less decent, and less wise than the one where we are.

Ronald Rosbottom is a professor of French and european studies at the College.