By STEPHANIE REITZ
The chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been selected as the next president of Amherst College, a prestigious liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, school officials announced this week.
Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, one of the nation’s top openly gay university leaders, will become Amherst’s 19th president later this summer. She served as Cornell University’s provost before becoming UW-Madison’s chancellor in 2008.
She will be the first female president of Amherst, which was founded in 1821 and has about 1,750 students. Her starting date wasn’t immediately announced but is expected to be in late August.
The 60-year-old Martin takes over for outgoing Amherst President Anthony Marx, who has led the school since 2003. He is leaving to become president of the New York Public Library.
“I will remember fondly and miss so many in the University and Madison communities, more than I can possibly say,” Martin wrote, vowing to remain an “unconflicted, indeed, a rabid Badger fan forever” even as she roots for Amherst to defeat rival Williams College.
Martin is a native of Timberlake, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she received her nickname during infancy as the family’s “biddy baby” to differentiate her from her slightly older brother.
She received her undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary and advanced degrees from Middlebury College and UW-Madison. She was a professor of German studies and women’s studies at Cornell before becoming its provost.
She has been open about her sexuality as a gay woman and has written extensively on gender issues, but has said she prefers for the focus to be on the mission of the schools she has served.
She said in her letter Tuesday to UW-Madison students, employees and alumni that deciding to leave her alma mater for Amherst was one of the most difficult decisions of her life.
“The chance to combine my belief in the transformative power of the liberal arts with the presidency of the leading liberal arts college in the country is the best opportunity I can imagine,” she wrote. “I would have left UW-Madison at this point for no other school, and considered no other.”
Amherst, one of about 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. with endowments exceeding $1 billion, is consistently ranked among the nation’s top liberal arts schools.
Jide Zeitlin, Amherst’s board of trustees chairman and leader of the presidential search committee, said Martin emerged at the top of a “very robust pool” of applicants for the presidency, including some candidates from outside the U.S. He cited her administrative skills, passion for liberal arts, knowledge about life sciences and breadth of experience.
“She has formidable intellect and she’s somebody who’s very well respected,” Zeitlin said. “This is somebody who’s got an ability to range across the disciplines in a very formidable way. … She also has two decades of deep leadership at highly respected institutions, so we’re excited to benefit from that leadership experience.”
In 1999, Amherst became the nation’s first college to eliminate loans for low-income students and replace them with scholarship packages.
It extended the program for all students in 2008, saying it would help the school be more accessible to middle-class students with the talents- but not the financial ability- to attend Amherst without accumulating student loan debt.
Amherst costs about $41,000 annually in tuition and fees, though the average student receives more than $35,000 in scholarships.
Its famous alumni include U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, the famed Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Martin’s departure from UW-Madison comes after her failed New Badger Partnership proposal with Republican Gov. Scott Walker to split the Madison campus from the rest of the University of Wisconsin System. In exchange, Martin agreed to have the Madison campus shoulder half a $250 million budget cut that Walker proposed for the entire university system.
Martin’s position and close allegiance with Walker divided the campus community. The plan never gained traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature or with leaders of the other UW campuses.
Walker said Tuesday that he considers Martin an “innovator” and was grateful for her friendship.
“Beyond that, I respect the tremendous courage she exhibited by being a strong leader of our state’s flagship university and showing independence from the bureaucratic status quo,” Walker said.
Despite the controversy over the New Badger Partnership, Martin endeared herself to many Madison students during her tenure and inspired a student-written novelty song, “My Biddy,” in which the singer expresses his love for the chancellor. Martin even appeared in a video of the song.