Lessons for the Next President

The Editorial Board reflects on the legacy of outgoing President Biddy Martin and establishes expectations for the presidential search process. The Board calls on the college to include students, faculty and staff in the presidential search committee.

On Sept. 13, President Biddy Martin announced that she will be concluding her 11-year presidency next summer. “The end of this academic year will be the right time for me to begin my next chapter,” Martin said in an email, expressing her gratitude for the Amherst College community. In her message, she listed the college’s current projects and voiced her expectations for the next president to “benefit from the vibrancy and promise that come with the mutual reinforcement of talent and diversity in students, faculty and staff.”

This change of the college’s leadership has inspired the Editorial Board to reflect upon Martin’s legacy, what we want to see in the next president and most importantly, how to ensure that the process of selecting our next leader is inclusive and reflective of the entire Amherst community.

During Martin’s term at Amherst, we’ve seen a great deal of physical change around campus that has helped to address the disparity between the student body and infrastructure we so often note — the opening of the new science center, the Greenway residence halls and shortly, the new student center. She built a talented leadership circle (many of whom are so skilled they’re being poached left and right), supported new opportunities for faculty and student research, and as the college often reminds us, utilized Amherst’s sizable endowment to deliver a racial and socioeconomic diversification push quantitatively unmatched by any of our peer institutions. However, alongside these visible successes, there have been a handful of clear failures.

Her term has seen several notable protest campaigns — such as the calls for divestment from the fossil fuel industry and the prison-industrial complex, the Amherst Uprising movements and the #ReclaimAmherst campaign — many of which have been met with policy responses students agreed did not go far enough. Relations between the administration and the rest of the college community are at an all-time low, as students, faculty and staff chafe under opaque, authoritarian administrative policies. Students have struggled with the feeling that the college has prioritized media attention and public relations over real action and student-supported change, and staff have been left questioning why the college views oat milk a better target of endowment spending than hazard pay. And the school’s much-lauded diversification push, while impressive on paper, has never gone so far as to provide the institutional support and resources to help students of color and first generation, low-income students succeed once they reach campus.

Martin’s administration has thus been one of great success and great failure. And so, when we questioned what the biggest takeaways were for the next administration, we settled upon two major make-or-break traits that can help avoid the mistakes of the Martin administration while replicating some of its successes.

First, we need a president with a vision. There is no question that the goals Martin brought when she took up the position in 2011 played a significant role in guiding the administration’s priorities and helped address many issues that had been untouched under her predecessors. However, in recent years, much of the disconnect between the student body and administration can be attributed to the fact that those initial visions were in the rear view. Without a renewed vision, the administration took no clear stance on priorities and often resorted to surface-level responses to the host of demands presented by students.

And second, we need a president who will do more than just listen. Clash after clash between students and administrators came about in the past few years after the administration repeatedly unveiled policies with no student input but major impacts on student life. Each time, Martin held discussions to hear out student concerns, but came up short of allowing students to influence school policy. Faculty and staff have similarly reported difficulties working under an administration that often seems to believe it can work better alone. The next president should be mindful of these problems and work to incorporate students, faculty and staff into policy-making as it happens, rather than choosing to deal with the backlash that comes when policies are unveiled.

However, these concerns are not just something for a future administration to deal with. They matter right now, as we select our next president and determine where the college is heading, especially as the self-perpetuating Board of Trustees continues to dominate policy to the chagrin of the rest of the community. We want to be represented in decisions that impact our school and education, and the presidential search committee seems like a great place to start. We call on the college to substantially increase the representation of students, faculty and staff on the selection committee, giving the community as a whole a say in where we end up 10 years down the line.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 8; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 6).