Guest columnist Andrew Delaney: Peter Pouncey’s journey from China to Oxford to Amherst

  • Peter R. Pouncey CONTRIBUTED

  • Peter R. Pouncey was Amherst College’s 16th president, leading the college from 1984 to 1994. He died on May 30 at 85.

Published: 9/13/2023 9:57:53 PM

The year 1983 was a crossroads for Amherst College following the sudden and tragic death of president Julian H. Gibbs (Class of 1947). Professor G. Armour Craig, also an Amherst graduate, was named acting president. The transition of power between two presidents so clearly connected to Amherst College, both as graduates and long-time faculty members, was seamless.

That year also brought all constituencies — six trustees, four faculty, three alumni, and three students including myself — together to form a search committee tasked with finding a new president. Two of the alumni members (James Jordan and John Williams) and one of the students (Sarah Bloom Raskin) went on to become Amherst trustees. (One of the trustee members, Professor Walter Gellhorn, later told me he was originally against having student members of the committee but changed his mind.)

On Aug. 1, 1983, The New York Times reported “Amherst President Is Named.” The Times wrote: “Peter R. Pouncey, a professor of classics at Columbia College and a former Columbia dean, has been elected the 16th president of Amherst College, the school’s board of trustees has announced.” Pouncey served as president of the college from 1984 to 1994.

The selection of Professor Pouncey reflected his unique qualifications to lead Amherst in an increasingly global and borderless world. The college had just voted to end fraternities, a vote that had been opposed by many alumni, and had traditionally drawn its leadership from within. Pouncey was born in China, was a citizen of the U.K., and was a graduate of Oxford. Although he became an American citizen, Professor Pouncey was, in my opinion, very English and in many ways like an Oxford don.

The search committee did not have any particular agenda but was looking for the most qualified candidate. However, the selection of Pouncey has to be seen in the context of the college’s effort to be less inward-looking, to look beyond itself, and to position Amherst to compete on the global stage. As one member of the committee opined after the vote: “Amherst has always admired English ways.”

There is a limited universe of candidates qualified to be a college president even if a wide net is cast as was done in this case. Professor Pouncey’s name was considered rather late into the process after no front-runner stood out.

I was one of two members of the subcommittee who first interviewed Pouncey at trustee George Shinn’s office on Park Avenue. Pouncey was wearing a tweed jacket and spoke eloquently about educational issues. Whatever issue was presented, Pouncey insisted on high standards. I wrote the interview report on Pouncey based on his answers and our impressions of him and he was interviewed by the full committee.

After weeks of reviewing candidates, for the first time, there was genuine excitement about a candidate. The committee, which represented a wide range of points of view and disagreed as to candidates, voted unanimously in favor of Professor Pouncey.

Unlike some candidates who may need to be talked into the job, it was clear that . Pouncey had great admiration for and wanted to be president of Amherst College. The same New York Times article captured this sentiment when it quoted Pouncey: “‘I’m very happy,’ Professor Pouncey said yesterday in a telephone interview. ‘It’s a thriving, high-quality place. I’ve been very eager to call my bluff, try my hand, at running a place, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to get a place of such high quality.’”

This was a bit of a surprise to me at the time because Pouncey had studied and taught at much bigger schools — Oxford and Columbia.

Pouncey believed that first-class people associate with other first-class people. In a Friends of the Amherst College Library oral history interview (June 10, 2009) with Professor William Pritchard, who was on the search committee and close to Pouncey, he warned against “self-absorption” and quoted the Coriolanus line that “there is a world elsewhere.”

After graduating in 1984, I did not meet Pouncey again but did receive a handwritten letter from him about Professor Frederick Griffiths’ study on liberal education at Amherst, to which I contributed a student chapter about the merits of the Introduction to Liberal Studies program. However, I was influenced by his philosophy that “the field cannot be seen from within the field” (Emerson).

As Pouncey told Professor Pritchard: “‘Open to the world’ is a ‘hooray’ word. It’s not that we have to do more multiculti things necessarily. It’s not that at all. It’s that there are sort of human challenges thrown at one of great seriousness in the world. And we need to make gains against. So it’s not a sort of idle topic, I think.”

Dhanin Chearavanont, the largest investor in China, has stated: “The best university is society.” But Pouncey believed society needs universities.

Andrew Delaney graduated from Amherst College and served on the Pouncey Presidential Search Committee in 1983. He is a Fulbright Faculty member.


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