NYT: Biddy Martin to leave UW to head Amherst College

June 14, 2011
Tamar Lewin

Carolyn A. Martin, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a flagship public research university with 29,000 undergraduates, is resigning to become president of Amherst College, a prestigious liberal arts college with 1,750 students.


For most of this year, Dr. Martin, 60, and her campus have occupied center stage in the nation’s raging, politically charged battles over higher education. In February, Wisconsin was roiled by the fight over the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, including those at the university. In March, a state Republican Party official sought the release of the e-mails of a tenured professor in Madison who had criticized both Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, and the party’s position on collective bargaining. And Dr. Martin and Governor Walker spent months on an unsuccessful effort to split Madison from the rest of the state’s higher-education system, giving it greater flexibility in an era of reduced state financing.

“Does everything that’s occurred over the last year play a role?” Dr. Martin, who is known as Biddy, asked in an interview. “It would be foolhardy to say it played no role, but neither I nor anyone else could say exactly what role it played. It’s been incredibly interesting. I really love it here, I got my Ph.D. here, and I feel like I’m leaving this university in a position where it will continue to make great progress.”

Throughout the battles in Madison, Dr. Martin has been a passionate advocate for public research universities. Amherst, she said, offers a chance to fight for other educational values she holds dear: liberal arts and access to higher education.

“Amherst is an opportunity to try to preserve and enhance another form of education that’s also at risk: the liberal arts tradition in which I was educated,” said Dr. Martin, who grew up in Lynchburg, Va., and attended the College of William and Mary, before getting a doctorate in German literature in Madison. “Amherst is a model for institutions committed to diversity and opportunity. Its size seems less relevant to me than the way it has acted on those values, showing what can be done, even at a small place.”

The news about Dr. Martin was announced at noon Tuesday at a news conference in Madison and in a letter to the Amherst community.

Amherst’s president since 2003, Anthony Marx, who is leaving to head the New York Public Library, has gained national recognition for greatly increased increasing the college’s racial and economic diversity. About 22 percent of its students this year received Pell grants — federal assistance for low-income students — a substantially higher share than at most elite institutions. The college offers financial aid for low-income international students, and takes most of its transfer students from community colleges.

Don Randel, president of the Mellon Foundation and, like Dr. Martin, a former provost of Cornell University, said he was not surprised that she would leave Madison for Amherst.

“Biddy is a very talented academic who has always been closely involved with scholarly life and teaching students,” he said. “When you have a job like chancellor of Wisconsin, nothing can prevent you from losing touch with the things that set you out to become an academic in the first place, so this may be a return to those things.” At the same time, he did not discount the toll of Dr. Martin’s travails in Wisconsin.

“The situation in public higher education is extremely grim, bordering on absolutely disastrous, and in Wisconsin, it’s been especially, let’s say, dramatic,” Mr. Randel said. “Biddy took it on in a very bold way, more than anyone else I can think of in her position. While she has real stamina and is not a quitter, that has to have been difficult.”

Before being named chancellor in Wisconsin in 2008, Dr. Martin, who is openly gay and known for her informal style, spent 25 years at Cornell, as professor of German studies and women’s studies, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and provost for eight years.

Cullen Murphy, an Amherst trustee who served on the search committee, said he and his colleagues were impressed by Ms. Martin’s advocacy for the liberal arts, her belief in the importance of access, diversity and affordability, and her personal warmth and humor.

“Private institutions like Amherst serve a public purpose just as much as public institutions,” Mr. Murphy said. “The scale may be different, but Amherst has been a leader on issues that are national and not strictly speaking private, like diversity and financial aid, and instilling in students a commitment to give back to the community.”