A story about Amherst, the brand new very much with-it and get-with-the-program Amherst, with a practically brand-new president, one Biddy Martin, described -- by whom? -- at her wikipedia entry as an "American intellectual and author," and author she is -- of
- Woman and Modernity: The (Life)Styles of Lou Andreas-Salomé, Cornell University Press, 1991.
- Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian, Routledge Press, 1996.
- "Sexualities without Genders and Other Queer Utopias", Diacritics, vol. 24, no. 2/3, Critical Crossings (Summer - Autumn, 1994), pp. 104–121.
and as an "American intellectual and author" was selected a year or two ago by Amherst's Board of Trustees, headed by one Jide Zeitlin, to be the new president of Amherst. That new president is, as far as I can tell, as distant from distinction and fitness for the task (if we agree with Jacques Barzun's house blend of cultivation and common-sense) as affirmative-action choice Sonia Sotomayor or Elena Kagan (known, and remembered, at Harvard Law School not for scholarly articles, not for displays of Holmesian melancholic and acerbic wit, nor for thoughtful Brandeisian briefs, but for one thing only: showing her deep concern for students by providing free coffee on campus, the kind of thing that wins favor just the way a bad teacher can garnder good reviews if he -- or she -- distributes to the class brownies or cookies, preferably home-baked, a week or two before those Student Evaluations are to be filled out) is for the task of being of a Supreme Court Justice.
What would Reuben Brower think? Or Henry Steele Commager? Or that master teacher of English literature, beloved Theodore Baird? Autres temps, autres coeurs.
Here's the story, from today's New York Times, about the latest undignified wretched case of the Varsity Drag:
Sexual Assaults Roil Amherst, and College President Welcomes the Controversy
It began with a first-person account of an elite college’s callous treatment of a rape victim, written by a woman from the rural South who said she never felt fully accepted on campus. The resulting storm has engulfed Amherst College, leading to debates about not only rape, but also group identity, tradition and how directly or publicly a school should confront its problems.
It may be that no college leader in the country was as well prepared to face this controversy than Biddy Martin, president of Amherst since September 2011. As an academic, she has written extensively on gender and sexuality, and as an administrator, she has a history of tackling — though not always successfully — thorny disputes. Months before sexual misconduct became the dominant issue on campus, she started overhauling the way that Amherst handled sexual assaults.
And she is, herself, a woman from the rural South, who attended an elite college where she did not feel fully accepted.
The last few weeks have drawn the kind of harsh scrutiny to Amherst that leaders of such institutions usually hope will fade, but that is not Dr. Martin’s style. In an interview, she said she regretted that her school had been dragged into the spotlight for negative reasons, but she welcomed the underlying topics that were being brought to light, too.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to have a conversation about this issue,” she said. “These are the kinds of things I think we’re alive to think about.”
Dr. Martin, 61, has her detractors — particularly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she led a failed attempt to secede from the state’s university system — but over her career she seems to have collected an even larger group of friends and admirers. Among advocates for campus crime victims, her response to the current crisis has earned glowing praise.
“I think we’re very lucky to have her,” said Dana Bolger, a student activist who had criticized Dr. Martin for not moving fast enough to address sexual assault in her first year at Amherst. “I think she wants to create real change.”
That may require all of Dr. Martin’s political skills. A faction of Amherst students and faculty members say that fraternities and some sports teams have an insular, hard-drinking, all-male culture that is a large part of the problem, while others on campus and among the college’s affluent, mostly male alumni and donors (it was a men’s college until the 1970s) dispute that. On one side there are people who question Dr. Martin’s commitment to change, and on the other are some who say she was too quick to accept that sexual assault is a problem.
Last spring, in response to student complaints, Dr. Martin’s administration made a series of changes, requiring that a professional investigator look into every complaint of sexual misconduct and hiring an outside expert, Gina M. Smith, to review the school’s handling of both accusers and the accused.
But the issue took on a life of its own on Oct. 17, with the publication of the article by a former Amherst student about being raped and then treated dismissively by administrators. It dominated campus conversations, drew worldwide attention and led several others to step forward and say that they, too, had been sexually assaulted at Amherst.
The topic flared anew on Nov. 5 with publication of a note by a former student who committed suicide, saying that he had been sexually assaulted at the school. He recounted an insensitive comment from Dr. Martin after he filed a complaint; she said she remembers the encounter differently.
After the first article appeared, Dr. Martin asked Ms. Smith to investigate the case, acknowledged publicly that the college had handled such episodes poorly, gave news media interviews and held a series of forums for students to express their concerns. She voiced support for ideas like creating a recurring program to remind students about appropriate sexual conduct, victims’ rights and the responsibility of witnesses.
“Biddy Martin’s response is not the norm,” said Colby Bruno, managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, who has handled rape cases on several campuses. “Usually we see denial, delay and secrecy.”
Dr. Martin has a confidence and an easy, direct manner that have helped her go far in the clubby world of higher education, but she also knows what it is like to not fit in. She said that understanding the views of both the insider and outsider is essential to her way of doing business.
She grew up in southern Virginia, where she was a standout student and, at a shade under 5-foot-5, a high school basketball star. She shared a first name with other women in the family, each of whom went by a nickname.
Her parents, a school secretary and a salesman, “thought girls didn’t need to go to college, and they worried that I would be turned into a liberal lunatic,” she said. “Their greatest fear was that, as they put it, those eggheads would think they were better than we were, and when I went to William and Mary, I did encounter some prejudice.”
As a scholar of German literature, and a lesbian, she did not always fit in back home, either — where, she said, “what mattered was high school football.”
She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and then taught German studies and women’s studies at Cornell. There, she developed a lasting habit of spending time with students: on campus walkways, in dining halls and at arts shows and sports events.
Dr. Martin moved into Cornell’s administration, becoming provost, the second-ranking position. She reorganized the life sciences departments, whose fields spread across multiple colleges, winning praise for resolving turf disputes.
In 2008, she became the chancellor at the University of Wisconsin and quickly developed a following, particularly among students who saw her as unusually approachable. She even made a cameo appearance in a popular rap video about a school dance. She campaigned for and won a tuition increase, with the additional money plowed into undergraduate education and financial aid for low-income students.
But Dr. Martin’s instincts failed her in 2011, when she struck a deal with the state’s new governor, Scott Walker. They agreed that the Madison campus would break away from the university system, but they did so without involving the system’s president or the Board of Regents. Dr. Martin has said that the governor’s office demanded secrecy.
The plan failed in the face of fierce opposition from the system and the Legislature. With her position at Wisconsin uncertain, Dr. Martin left for Amherst a few months later.
She may have been in a no-win position at Wisconsin, said Judith N. Burstyn, who led the executive committee of the Faculty Senate during that fight. “But being insubordinate to your superiors is a difficult position to put yourself in.”
Don M. Randel, a former Cornell provost who worked with Dr. Martin there, sees a theme in her career.
“There’s a real boldness and toughness to her, a willingness to take on disagreements, though without being abrasive,” said Mr. Randel, who is president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation. “I think that’s what you saw at Wisconsin, and what you’re seeing at Amherst.”