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Exclusive Interview with President Biddy Martin, Amherst College
Transcribed by Yehuda Bayme


President Biddy Martin, Amherst College
Photo Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New York Times

Education Update Reporter Danielle Bennett (DB): I know that you have led initiatives in recruiting for college. How would you do so today given these economic times?

Biddy Martin (BM): It is all the more important today, because of all the things we know. That is, the shrinking of the middle class and the stagnation or even drop in real incomes. People can only afford what they can afford. I think need based aid is absolutely essential. It’s not enough. There has to be aggressive recruiting of students from socioeconomic backgrounds who would otherwise not think to apply to some of the schools like an Amherst, but there are many others as well. In addition, we have to find ways to control costs and that’s a difficult thing to do because colleges and universities are so labor intensive. One of the things that makes them successful is the faculty-student ratio that allows students, not only a lot of interaction with the faculty, but to do research and get involved in taking the initiative in their learning early on in their careers. This is a difficult thing but I think everyone has to work aggressively to ensure that we take care of it. Amherst is lucky to have a sizable endowment for a small college, but it also set the right priorities, in my opinion. I can claim no credit for it, so it is easy to talk about it. They really have put their money where their commitments are. This year, twenty-five percent of our entering class are Pell Grant recipients.

Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): And you probably have a small student-to-faculty ratio?

BM: Very small:  8-to-1. The other thing that is wonderful about Amherst, is that its financial aid policies have one of the lowest, maybe the lowest family contributions. So, for a student from a lower income background on a Pell Grant pays no more than about $600. The next closest up is in the thousands for the family or student contribution. So we really take into account all the ways in which students from socioeconomically less privileged backgrounds can be inhibited from attending college, even when it looks as though they are getting significant financial aid. You have to take into account the loss of money to a family for example by virtue of a young person attending college. You have to take into account what they need to be able to travel when they need to be at home. There are healthcare or dental needs that low-income students can’t afford to cover on their own. We try to take all these things into account so that we are not just saying that we offer a good financial aid package, we are ensuring that they can really come and stay.

PR: I have a question, partially based on today’s conference looking at things like EDX. What happens when a student comes into Amherst with a certificate and says “look I have taken X number of courses. I have a certificate. I want my degree from Amherst, but I don’t have to go for four years, I could go for two years because of everything I have already done.”

BM: I think that it is going to be a challenge going forward. Faculties and administrations are going to have to think hard whether the certification that students bring from online courses represents what they consider substantive and high-quality enough education that some of it should count. I don’t think there will be a fear of doing that because of income loss, because if students go through more quickly, we can also admit more students on the front end.

PR: Well that sounds very logical. However, if you have students coming and they are giving you half the amount of tuition because you are giving them credit for what they have done, who is getting that tuition money?

BM: For a place like Amherst, it is realistic because the applicant numbers are so high that we could fill an entire class with highly qualified students. It is more of an educational question. Will the faculty come to believe that what the students do online is high quality enough. I think these changes are probably are coming. I do not think that they are to be feared necessarily, but they do ask us to focus on the question of what a college degree provides, other than a set of courses and course credits. We are beginning strategic planning. We will take up all of these questions about the future of education—how to define the benefits of a residential experience.

I was just reading a speech that JFK gave at Amherst College a month before he was assassinated. One of the things he said that I loved is, “We have to ask ourselves what the source of our national strength is. And it is not always in the more obvious forms of strength or power.” In that particular speech he said, “It is, for example, in art.” I would say the same thing about the residential experience. I don’t think people are thinking hard enough about the less obvious benefits to society as a whole of this residential experience that not every young person in the United States has or ever will have, but a significant number of people do. It is a source of loyalties and attachments a sense of place and a sense of history that perhaps could be gotten in another way, but where? What is the system that replaces all of those benefits? When people talk just about comparisons between the quality of a particular course online or in a residential setting, that is an important measure of the differences, but it’s not the whole story, by any means. I think that as a country, we have to look at this with a much bigger frame.

PR: You say you are starting strategic planning. Are you hiring an outside company to help you with that?

BM: No, we are doing it internally. I created a new position at Amherst. We didn’t have a provost before. I created the position. We hired a new provost.  One significant part of his job is to lead what would be continual planning efforts, so that were are not doing a strategic plan every five to ten years and letting it lie. He will have, as one of his major responsibilities, leading this effort and ensuring that it is an ongoing process.

PR: What advice do you have to give to a young woman to be as successful as you are? How did you do it?
DB: What is the secret?

BM: I do not know what the secret is. This is the reason why I am so passionate about education: I grew up in what was then a rural part of southwest Virginia. My parents did not want me to go to college. They didn’t think girls should go to college. I got there by virtue of the support of high school teachers and guidance counselors who helped convince my parents.

PR: Which part of Virginia?

BM: Between Lynchburg and Roanoke, Campbell County, Virginia. Had it not been for the education I managed to get, I certainly would not be here. Had it been for the interest that these adults, who were my teachers took in me, again, the value of that human-to-human interaction, and the combination of a love of learning with a love of people that is the most powerful thing there is; that particular convergence. So I am absolutely excited about the potential of online education and I think that, if we let it supplant the value of human-to-human interaction and the sharing of human inwardness, we will have forgone one of the most precious aspects of education.

PR: I couldn’t agree with you more. I love your philosophy of education. Danielle, any other questions?
DB: What is the consensus among your student body about online education?

BM: It’s a great question, Danielle. We have not done an adequate job of enlisting them in the discussion. We started the discussion of whether to join EDX last year. And the faculty ultimately decided that they were not ready yet to make a decision about joining the consortium. In the context of strategic planning, we will have the students weigh in, not only on the question of online education, but on any and everything else of the future of education. Interestingly, we have students who have taken courses online, but Amherst is quite strict on accepting credits. We do not accept any AP credit toward the Amherst degree. So, at the moment, we are more conservative when it comes to what will count toward the degree. On the other hand, students transfer in. We have agreements with community colleges, which we are very proud of and want to amplify. Not every Amherst degree means students must have credits from Amherst. Students get credit for what they do abroad and other kinds of things. So when these online firms say this is going to be a new development in higher ed, it not strictly speaking true. It will be an acceleration of what is already the case in higher ed; which is there is a lot of degree holders who didn’t get all of their credits from any one institution.

PR: What occurs to me Biddy is that when someone comes to you and says: “look at these credits that I have taken (from online courses)” and they are all free courses, because we know they are free. It is appealing to certain people who can’t afford it. This person says “can you give me credits in these courses,” who evaluates what they have taken?

BM: The faculty in that discipline.

PR: Here is my last question: What does your library look like now, and what do you think it will look like five years from now?

BM: The Robert Frost Library at Amherst looks more like a traditional library that a lot of other college and university libraries. I think that over time it will become more of a mix of a repository to some degree—we like books at Amherst—but also it is increasingly becoming a social gathering space and an intellectual hub. It will eventually have more classroom space, more interactive space.

PR: More digital resources?

BM: Yes. There a lot more digital resources in the library now. I expect going forward that Amherst library will be more of a mix of the old and the new, than a lot of places. Amherst, in some wonderful ways, is a bit of a throwback.  And the challenge of Amherst is to figure out how to modernize in the right ways, while holding on to some of the things that are traditionally wonderful.

DB: Regarding the professors who teach the online courses, how will the evaluations that the students give them impact the course itself, if there would be an impact at all?

BM: Every course at Amherst, no matter what kind of course, has to be evaluated by students for tenure track faculty.  We just had a discussion yesterday about some of the experiments that we have got going in some of the classrooms. There is the global classroom project, where faculty is using technology tools to link their students in their classroom with students and scholars in other parts of the world. We just had a discussion whether those courses need to be evaluated differently or whether they, like every other course at Amherst, should be evaluated by the students on the same basis. And we decided: they need to be evaluated and students need to be allowed to evaluate them just like any other course. So that makes some of the innovations risky for junior faculty, but I think not too risky because we will provide enough support so that they succeed. One thing I wanted to mention—which is slightly off this subject—about financial aid at Amherst. We do not package loans at Amherst, because you asked a question about debt. In our financial aid packages, there are no loans. It’s all grants. Having said that, there are certainly young people and their families who take out private loans. So some students graduate with some debt, but the debt burden at graduation for Amherst students is very low.

PR: That’s wonderful. It is no wonder that you said that you are partly in the past and partly in the future, because you are in the land of Emily Dickenson and Robert Frost; two of my favorite writers and poets.

BM: That’s right. You know there is a second photograph of Emily Dickenson that a collector somewhere in the northeast believes he has found. It would be only the second photograph ever found of Emily Dickenson. We do not own it, but we have it on display in our library archives. Nobody knows if it is real or not.

BM: On the subject of learning foreign languages, we should require that Americans learn more about other cultures, and that they learn other languages as the absolute best way of finding their ways into other cultures. I was on this commission on the future of the humanities and social sciences which was an American Academy sponsored commission, there were academics of course, college and university leaders, faculty, but also CEOs of major corporations and members of the military and diplomatic core, (some governors). One of the things that virtually everybody said, and especially those men who had been in Afghanistan and Iraq, was that the key to so many things including diplomacy is in a much better education in languages and in the cultures of other peoples. There is also an argument to be made that what it does for the brain to learn another language is the right thing to do.

PR: And the earlier you start, the better.

BM: That is what they say. I didn’t start German until I went college. I would want every young person to know that it is simply not the case. That if you start when you are college-age, you can learn a language. Immersion is the key.

PR: Are you fluent in German?

BM: Yes, I have not been speaking it frequently for years, so my vocabulary is not very good at the moment, but was I fluent and am I fluent when I get into the midst of it? Yes.

PR: Did you attend Middlebury?

BM: I was a summer student. Then I got my master’s in Germany.#



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