Last week, the president of Amherst College, Anthony Marx, announced he will leave his post to become president of the New York Public Library next year. As the leader of a relatively small (if very prestigious) institution for eight years, Marx had an out-sized impact on the national conversation about diversity in higher education.
For many years, diversity on selective campuses meant assembling a class that included rich kids of all colors. Research found that eighty-six percent of blacks at selective institutions were middle or upper-middle class; and whites were even wealthier. In 2004, Marx – along with Lawrence Summers, then president Harvard University, and William Bowen, then president of the Mellon Foundation – said higher education needed to pay equal attention to socioeconomic diversity, and took important steps to do so.
In a May 2004 address at Amherst, Marx declared as unacceptable the fact that selective campus had 25 times as many wealthy students are poor ones. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “the passive approach to letting talent rise is not working. Just as blindness to race in itself could not alone redress the injustice of that discrimination, our blindness to need has not provided the opportunities for those most in need.”
He went on: “Race as a proxy for class does not suffice, for injustices of race and of class must both be addressed with open eyes.”
Marx set the goal of increasing the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Amherst – and raising the money to provide the financial aid necessary. With shrewd political instincts, he increased socioeconomic diversity while at the same time expanding the size of the Amherst class, thereby accomplishing his goal while cushioning the impact on other groups.
In the five years between 2003-04 and 2008-09, Amherst saw the percentage of students receiving Pell grant rise from 13.8 to 17.1 – a 24 percent increase. During the same period, many institutions saw their Pell numbers decline.
This renewed attention to socioeconomic status probably helped the proverbial son or daughter of white West Virginia coal miners (which is a good thing) – but it’s important to note that the beneficiaries of Marx’s class-based affirmative action also included poor and working-class blacks, who tend not to benefit from a sole focus on racial diversity. In 2007, Sara Rimer profiled in a front page New York Times story a working-class African American student, Anthony Jack, whose 1200 SAT score would not have been enough to admit him had he not been low-income as well as black. Jack was admitted largely as a matter of fairness. As Tom Parker, the Amherst dean of admissions noted, “Tony Jack with his pure intelligence – had he been raised in Greenwich, he would have been a 1500 kid.” But he was also admitted because he strengthened the experience for all students, explaining in a seminar on poverty, for example, what it’s like to be on food stamps.
I know from speaking to Tony Marx’s class at Amherst that he is very popular among students, who are roused by his inspiring exhortation that they use their talents to make society more equitable. But there are also many smart, hard-working students across the country who never met him but now have the door cracked open to them a little further in part because of the leadership of Tony Marx.