Exit the President: How Marx Put Amherst on the Map
By June Pan ’13 & Brianda Reyes ’14, Managing News Editors
On June 30, 2011, President Tony Marx will conclude his time at the College in order to serve as the President of the New York Public Library. Marx has had a profound impact on the College during his eight years here. In this three-part series, The Student examines the highlights of Marx’s presidential legacy.

When he arrived at Amherst, President Tony Marx found a college with a well-established intellectual life, as well as a great potential for growth. Faculty and students enjoyed a thriving academic culture at the College, an environment that produced graduates well-prepared to engage with the vagaries of life as individuals of integrity and intelligence. But the “real” world into which Jeffs entered was one of shifting demographics and increasing diversity. These changes called for an education that understood and embraced as much; the College was not exempt from the demands of a changing world.

Marx had a clear vision of this world — and from it he developed a clear vision of the forward steps that the College needed to keep pace, as an institution that aspired to the highest standards of a quality liberal arts education. Upon his arrival here, Marx remembers thinking that the diversity of the student body was not “representative of the diversity of talent in the world in the way that,” in his opinion, “could be and should be.”

“The institution can only be as good as the array of students it brings in,” Marx believes. “If we foreclosed portions of the population, we were foreclosing possibilities of talent, and therefore, by definition, constraining how much talent we could bring here.”

“America is shifting its demography. The world is shifting its demography. If we don’t get ahead of that, we will find ourselves much less inclusionary than we aim to be or that will allow us to be a good a place as we could be.”

Marx did not simply impose his beliefs onto the institution, however. Rather, he reached out to members of the community, listening and working together with the College’s administrators to further the goals of the campus community. Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Tom Parker, who has worked closely with Marx in the past eight years, describes the College’s president as a man who, “in a certain sense, is not a departure from the way Amherst used to be.”

“I spent a lot of time in that first year … just listening and learning and trying to meet everybody and understand what the issues were,” Marx remembers. Eight years later, taking the time to take in everyone’s concerns remains a significant part of the president’s work at the College.

Various members of the faculty and administration speak of having enjoyed a respectful and productive working relationship with Marx. Dean of Faculty Gregory Call remembers the last decade as presenting “a number of challenges” but also “a number of real opportunities to work on some long-term goals of the College.”

“Among those goals would be increasing the attractiveness and recruitment efforts of our students, diversifying our student body,” said Call. “Amherst continues to draw more and more applications, and the credentials of our students are really amazing, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

Call and Parker both credit these improvements to the hard work of the Admissions Office — and to Marx’s efforts in raising the College’s profile, nationally and internationally. In his advocacy for increased diversity at the College, Marx went above and beyond the working strategies of peer institutions; it would take more than just economic theory to create the inclusive, heterogeneous College that he envisioned. In order to bring in a more diverse applicant pool, the College needed to cast its net as broadly as possible and search out the corners where they had not previously ventured.

“Rather than just changing our financial aid policies, which lots of places did, we said that’s not going to do it,” explained Marx. “We have to go out and find students. We have to send alumni or staff into high schools we hadn’t visited before. We had to get the message out that Amherst is an inclusive place, even more than it had been.”

In addition to adjusting financial aid to meet the needs of all students, the College implemented a tele-mentoring program, partnered with QuestBridge and created programs for veterans and transfer students to tap the deep pool of talent available there.

“We did everything we could think of,” said Marx.

The strategy proved a success. The number of students hailing from low-income backgrounds rose from eight percent of the study body to, currently, nearly a quarter of each incoming class. Students of color now outnumber white Americans, and the percentage of international students has nearly doubled during Marx’s tenure.

“That’s pretty remarkable, compared to the Amherst I knew when I was in college,” said Marx.

“[Marx has] become the face of accessibility in the change in demographics of the student body,” said Dean of Students Allen Hart. Many consider this to be Marx’s most critical achievement during his tenure as president of the College: increasing the campus’ ethnic and socioeconomic diversity without compromising the high standards of excellence that distinguish the College.

But Marx’s influence has been felt not only here, according to Parker; he has also been instrumental at “other institutions that have heard him speak.” Through such appearances, Marx’s message of access and opportunity has drawn national attention, reaching out to prospective students, generating buzz and effectively putting the College (back) on the map. Furthermore, Marx has inspired peer institutions to look toward the College as a model of success.

“His being out there so forcefully and articulately and so unequivocally has really raised our profile as a college to be emulated,” said Parker.

“There were people who were concerned that we would have to lower our standards to [achieve what we did],” said Marx. “We proved that wrong. The standards, the selectivity at every cohort we track, are up significantly. We are a more selective place and a more diverse place, and therefore a better place. It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been cheap. But I think it’s been important, and it accords with the values of Amherst and its history.”

Next week: A commitment to socioeconomic diversity, financial aid and the challenge of the recession.

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 04:21:55