Peter Pouncey, who led Amherst College from 1984 to 1994, dies at 85

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-15-2023 10:58 AM

AMHERST — Peter Pouncey, Amherst College’s 16th president, who led the college from 1984 to 1994, died on May 30 at 85, according to the college.

Pouncey’s tenure began at a time of unrest and transition, following the unexpected death of President Julian Gibbs in 1983 and then an uproar over the decision to abolish the fraternity system the following spring. That was coupled with wariness from faculty, staff and alumni because Pouncey was the first president in 50 years to come to Amherst without a connection to the school.

But Pouncey, who departed as the college was about to launch a capital campaign, is credited with leaving it a more diverse and stable campus for his successor, Tom Gerety.

Along with being the first president in half a century with no previous ties to Amherst, other firsts the college cited include Pouncey being the first born in China, where his father served as the British commissioner of maritime customs, and the first to publish a critically acclaimed novel, “Rules for Old Men Waiting,” that was begun during his term.

President Michael A. Elliott, a member of the class of 1992, remembers Pouncey as his first president and thinks of him when walking into Converse Hall, where the president’s office is located.

“I had the chance to speak with him several times during my undergraduate career, and he was always gracious and kind,” Elliott said in a statement. “He was a true scholar who led with hope and ambition.”

Pouncey, a specialist in ancient Greece, was previously a professor of classics at Columbia University, where he had also served as dean of Columbia College from 1972 to 1976 and as chair of the Contemporary Civilization program.

With the loss of the fraternities, Pouncey urged unhappy students to “throw yourselves into forming a positive future.”

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Attracting a more diverse student and faculty population was an immediate goal, starting with a yearlong study of how the school’s image affected students’ decisions when choosing a college. This led to a concerted effort to recruit students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, first-generation college students, and others who might not see themselves as a natural fit at Amherst, to represent “a full sample of the nation’s talent.”

He was also the driving force behind the first expansion of the faculty since coeducation a decade earlier.

Pouncey oversaw the college as the endowment grew from $132 million in 1983 to more than $320 million in 1994, and projects included the Keefe Campus Center, Cohan Dormitory and LeFrak Gymnasium, along with the acquisition of the former U.S. Strategic Command Bunker in South Amherst.

After Pouncey stepped down as president, he remained at Amherst as the Burnell-Forbes Professor of Greek until 1998, when he returned to Columbia to finish his teaching career.

Pouncey’s first book, “The Necessities of War: A Study of Thucydides’ Pessimism,” was published in 1980 and won the 1981 Lionel Trilling Award for Columbia’s best scholarly publication. His next book, “Rules for Old Men Waiting,” was published 25 years later.

Pouncey is survived by his children, Christian Pouncey of Charlottesville, Virginia; Maggie Pouncey of Rhinebeck, New York; and stepdaughter Emily Liebert of Cleveland, Ohio; their spouses, Victoria Pouncey, Matt Miller and Vlad Kobzar; and five grandchildren, Eliza Pouncey, Felix Miller, Dominic Miller, Henry Kobzar and Louise Kobzar.

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