Tony Marx Talks About the Past, Present and Future
By Brianda Reyes '14, Contributing Writer
What were your goals when you came to Amherst and were you able to accomplish them all while you were here?

My primary goal was to ensure the continued quality of the education that we provide here, which is second to none, and [ensue] access to it to the best students regardless of ability to pay and to attract great faculty and to work with the dedicated staff of the College. I think we’ve accomplished a lot in these eight years together as a community. There’s always more work to be done. This is not an institution where you can say, “It’s finished,” or “It’s perfect;” in fact, that would be unhealthy. So there’s always more to be done. There’s been great process and I know the institution will continue to make great progress.

What do you hope to accomplish in your last year here?

I hope we continue to consolidate some of the things we’ve been working on. There’s still discussion afoot in academic matters, everything from class scheduling to plans for the science center. We have to continue to attract great faculty and students. We have tenure decisions that we’re in the middle of, as well as doing faculty recruiting and student recruiting. So all of that will continue, but I don’t have an agenda of things that need to be done. The College continues to work through its processes of bringing issues forward and we continue to look for resolutions of those that keep the process going.

What will you miss the most about Amherst?

It’s bittersweet; this has been my home, my children have grown up here, it’s a place that I love and an institution I’m proud of. So transitions are always hard for everyone. I think what I will miss most is the contact with the students. The library doesn’t have students. As President I haven’t had as much contact with students as I would have, say, if I continued as faculty member in terms of day-to-day classroom, etc. I’ve enjoyed teaching as well. But, it’s been a great and inspiring part of my time here to get to know the students as well as I could — not as well as I would have liked to, though. I will miss that, just the energy that comes with an amazing group of 18 to 22-year-olds and with the passions and vision and ideas and idealism that you all bring to the table. It’s refreshing to me and to this institution.

How do you think the Amherst community will adapt to having a new president?

Evidence suggests after 18 transitions that the institution manages transitions very well, that it has found and will continue to find great talent in the presidency and throughout the community. I think what’s most important is that Amherst values are clear and widely shared across all constituencies, those values of quality, intense and intimate education, together with access to that education, combined with great scholarship. Those values are bred in the bone and they have been here for almost 200 years; they will continue to be here and they will carry the place forward as they have through 18 presidents and certainly into the 19th.

When did the New York Public Library first approach you to be their new president?

They came and asked me whether I’d be interested in May, although during the summer things went more slowly; everything always does. Then it heated up in September as their process moved to a selection. I was surprised to be approached by the Library. But the more I thought about it, the more I talked with them, the more I realized that their values were my values in terms of access to ideas and information, globally as well as locally, for those who can afford it and for those who can’t. I see it as an institution that is vital and necessary and in a transformative moment that puts it at some risk. The more I thought about the difference I could make in seeing that transformation happen effectively, the more intrigued I got by the challenge of it. I like challenges, and I like challenges that accord with my values and Amherst values, and this is certainly one of those challenges.

When did you decide that you were going to take the job?

I don’t think there was a moment when I decided I was going to take the job. It’s just a process [that] happens: you build interest, other people build interest in you. There’s a formal moment when the job is offered and you say yes, but by then it’s already become obvious where it’s headed. It’s hard to pinpoint a moment, but certainly, some time earlier this fall as those conversations heated up and as I thought about it more and talked with my family more, the more I realized that this might actually be a powerful fit. So much about it is about fit. I’ve been asked about other jobs over the years. They either didn’t seem like the right fit or the timing wasn’t right. I didn’t think it would be responsible to leave Amherst in its years of budget difficulties; I just didn’t think that would be appropriate. I think we’re on a much sounder footing now and the fit here seemed right. So the timing seemed about right and the fit seemed about right. But there was no single moment of light bulb going off.

What do you hope to accomplish in the Library while you’re there?

I hope that we can ensure at least as much access to ideas and information to the world as the library has provided over the last century, that the technology transformation will increase access rather than diminish it, that we can help people navigate the millions and millions of volumes that are coming online and that we can maintain the library’s almost 90 branches throughout the city as the civic center of life that they are and need to continue to be. The diversity of folks who use those branches in New York is truly amazing and there aren’t other institutions like that, free and public institutions in New York that work that way. It’s at risk, because of finances, because of technology change. There’s a high tech challenge and a high touch challenge and I like that combination.

Many students were upset about finding out about you leaving through articles in the newspapers. How do you feel about that?

I was upset, too. Once it was clear that this was going to happen, we had a fairly well worked-out plan that included the first step that I would send an email to the Amherst community, and I thought that was important for me to do. It turns out that journalism is alive and well. The story was scooped first by The Wall Street Journal and then by The New York Times. That put me in something of an awkward position where I had to make sure that whatever I said did not offend my new prospective employer, but at the same time, I insisted that there was a priority to get a message out to the community as quickly as possible. It took us a few more hours than I would have liked because we had to get that statement right and had to figure out how to get it out. But once the story was scooped, all I could do was find the best way to communicate with this community and to demonstrate my priority and my values in doing so. I could have waited until the next day, until the board at the Library had voted but I did not think that was an appropriate way to treat a community that I have been a part of and that I feel strongly about and loyal to. It was certainly a lesson about the challenges of entering the media market of New York City.

We understand that you’re from New York and your wife is a professor at Columbia. How do feel about being back to the place where you grew up and being with your family?

New York has always been my home even when I have lived in Connecticut or New Jersey or South Africa or Massachusetts. My mom is still there as is my mother-in-law; it’s where my best friends still live. So it certainly feels, in that sense, like going home. It’ll be exciting. Certainly one of the challenges of being at Amherst has been making this work for everyone in my family. This will be a new chapter for us. I think it’s safe to say that the fact that this job was in New York was certainly an additional attraction.

Is there anything else you would like for the students, or other readers to know?

I’m not gone yet, as the Monty Python line says, “Not dead yet.” I look forward to our next eight months together. I hope I’ll be able to spend more time, if possible, on campus, cherishing that time together. Then I hope I get invited back to Amherst from time to time so I can come visit. I look forward to the 19th president of Amherst continuing to work with the students and the faculty and the staff and the alums, to continue to ensure that this place is the national leader of undergraduate education, and of access to [education] and of the great scholarship that it has proudly been for so long before I got here and that it will be even more strongly after I’m gone. I won’t ever be gone. My life has been invested in this place and it will continue to be and that will continue to inspire me, as well.

Issue 06, Submitted 2010-10-20 02:47:01