Prestigious Amherst College navigated the 2008 economic crisis wisely, preserving both its academic standards and its financial health in particular. At the same time, it gained national recognition for the dramatic economic and racial diversity it pursues in its student body of roughly 1,800 undergraduates. When the college sought a new president, it asked Isaacson, Miller to find a leader capable of reinforcing its vibrant community while championing the value of a liberal arts education-increasingly under fire on the national stage.
At almost 200 years old, Amherst College approached the search for its 19th president from a position of great strength. It routinely ranks 1st or 2nd among liberal arts colleges and in the top 15 of all U.S. colleges and universities. The college's finances, excellent and independent faculty, passionate community, and core mission of educating promising young people without regard to ability to pay remain vital after nearly two centuries of academic excellence.
Search is a Strategic Act
"Amherst had done brilliantly in mission terms. It's a great teaching and research institution that now reflects the full character of America in its racial, economic, and gender diversity. But, in turn, it's a more complex community than in the past," says IM founder and chair, John Isaacson.
Isaacson and IM principal Ponneh Varho worked with a deeply invested Amherst search committee to thoroughly understand Amherst's institutional strategy and identify the role of the new president within that strategy.
"Amherst is an ideal place for anyone to work," says Varho, an attorney with a master's in higher education. "But part of the appeal of the place-the diverse backgrounds and opinions, the high level of faculty engagement and governance-added to the challenge of finding candidates who could readily appeal to all parts of the campus constituency."
In addition to having a leadership style that could be warmly embraced by the faculty, Varho says the candidates needed to be distinguished academics who shared the reverence for the liberal arts that binds Amherst's constituencies together. Proven managerial expertise was crucial as well, she says, given global economic stress and the intricacies of Amherst governance and administration. "It wasn't going to be easy."
Looking Beyond Traditional Boundaries
The firm searched for candidates in the conventional territories: small liberal arts colleges, deans of arts and sciences, modest-sized universities with strong liberal arts traditions. But it also explored candidates not usually considered in such a search, including the ultimate choice - a former provost of Cornell (14,000 students), who was then the sitting chancellor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison (41,000 students): Dr. Carolyn "Biddy" Martin.
The Right Fit
Dr. Martin not only had the desired academic and managerial experience, but also an unusual blend of bold, collaborative leadership and genuine warmth-all of which helped win the trust of the Amherst community early on. Her work both at Cornell and in Wisconsin to help increase affordability for students also matched Amherst's ethos of broadening access to academic excellence.
Dr. Martin's warmth may stem from her southern, rural roots. She studied at William and Mary aided by scholarships , and is the first in her immediate family to have graduated from college. At Cornell, she rose swiftly, both academically and administratively. Dr. Martin's personal story demonstrates how the liberal arts can open a world of inquiry, ideas, and possibilities to students. Her advocacy for the inherent value of a liberal arts education made headlines soon after she became president.
Building the New Team
Once in place, Dr. Martin asked for IM's help as she built her team. "It was compelling to new candidates as the subsequent searches unfolded that we had strong bonds to the president-that we knew the client's culture so well," says Varho.
Since then, IM has successfully completed searches for Amherst's provost, chief financial and administration officer, dean of students, and chief communications officer.