Amherst College President Biddy Martin (speaking extemporaneously)
Perhaps it was the home field advantage, speaking from the comfort of a newly refurbished historic inn, or the friendly audience of local business and civic leaders--the "usual suspects" at an Amherst Chamber of Commerce event--or maybe her lifelong background in higher education...but more likely all of the above, as this morning Amherst College President, going on seven months now, Carolyn "Biddy" Martin gave an engaging fireside chat to a receptive audience of 86 smartly dressed men and women at the Amherst College owned Lord Jeffery Inn.
First and foremost, President Martin wanted to dispel the outdated notion (from back in the day when Emily Dickinson was putting quill pen to paper) that Amherst College is an elitist, blue blood private school for the privileged. She cited the telling statistics that over half the current enrollment are a combination of international students and students of color and almost one-quarter are eligible for a PELL Grant .
She highlighted her background at Cornell and the University of Wisconsin-Madison which are both "land grant" institutions expected by charter to serve the local community. And so it will be with Amherst College, where the fortunes of the town and the college named after the town are so deeply intertwined.
Ms. Martin's short list of top priorities include hiring new faculty in the current competitive market. The education boom of the 1960s swelled the ranks of professors, who are now retiring in droves. While competition from demanding Asian colleges and universities for liberal arts professors only adds to supply problems.
She proudly pointed out the new $200 million life sciences building, which will require the next four or five years to complete and will be second to none on a national scale. One unusual component (at least for a liberal arts college) will be an "incubator" for the study of entrepreneurship. Not a space for business start ups, like at UMass or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but a center for students to learn about the social value of starting a business.
Coincidentally enough fellow Amherst resident Donna Kelley, associate professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, made national news last week for a major study she co-authored on women's entrepreneurship encompassing 59 economies, that found American women have greater fear of failure than American men when contemplating business creation.
Precisely the problem education can rectify--the earlier the better. Kelley also recently co-taught a Junior Achievement course at Amherst's Crocker Farm Elementary School, where her daughter is a student.
When the new Amherst College science center opens sometime in 2017, the four-story, 220,000-square-foot building will be the largest structure on campus, and an impressive trophy to attract new faculty and students.
But expensive new bricks and mortar buildings are not the only means for dispensing higher education--at least not in this digital age. Ms. Martin pointed out the importance of distance learning online as a cost effective adjunct for face-to-face communication, where maintaining an 8-1 student teacher ratio is costly. A lesson the Amherst public schools could stand learning.
If anyone in the audience harbored any uncertainty about the first female president in the 190 year history of the college, they left the Dickinson Room with those doubts dispelled.
Amherst College is in confident, able hands.