Commencement Address 2023
“Advancing a free and just society lies with us all,” said President Michael Elliott in his speech at Commencement 2023.
“Advancing a free and just society lies with us all,” said President Michael Elliott in his speech at Commencement 2023.
Inaugural Address by Michael A. Elliott ’92, 20th President of Amherst College delivered on October 28, 2022. A video of the entire celebration is also available.
Amherst College President Michael A. Elliott reflects on initiatives and activities on campus.
- Hi, I'm Michael Elliott, class of 1992 and Amherst's 20th President. This fall has been a time of special joy on this campus. I've been so impressed by, and full of appreciation for, the people of Amherst, the students, faculty and staff and the incredible work that they're doing. It was a special pleasure for me to welcome my classmates, the class of 2026, who are starting their Amherst experience with me this fall.
People have been asking me what it's like to return to a campus where you were once a student over 30 years ago. The first thing I tell them is just what a pleasure it's been to get to know the Amherst students of today. They are smart and thoughtful and experienced. They're interesting, kind and creative, and I've enjoyed talking to them so much as I walk across campus, have lunch in Valentine or meet up with them at games, concerts, and events. They have quickly become my best teachers, telling me every day something I need to know about what it's like to be a student now.
I've also been impressed by what's constant in the Amherst experience. The fact that our students and faculty forged close bonds, they grow together, they learn together, and they advance scholarship together. The experiences that our students have today with their faculty are different in terms of the intellectual subjects or the personalities of our professors but they're still the same close relationships that many generations of Amherst alumni have enjoyed.
The campus is as beautiful as ever, but it's also changed, we have a new science center that is filled with energy and excitement, an innovative space where students and faculty can learn together and push the boundaries of knowledge together as well as a whole eastern campus. And whenever I have a break in my day I walk over there just to watch how students are inhabiting and enjoying the space. Now the campus continues to evolve.
We're in the midst of constructing the Aliki Perroti & Seth Frank Lyceum right next to the President's house. The Lyceum as the name suggests will be a gathering place, a hub for the humanities, where faculty students and staff can come together, exchange ideas and forge the kind of intellectual community that is so important to the Amherst experience.
This spring, we'll also be digging the new geothermal wells they're the cornerstone of our plan to become a carbon-neutral campus by the year 2030. I've been truly impressed by Amherst's commitment to sustainability which is both about the physical campus and about giving students educational experiential learnings to think about how they can become leaders in attacking the issues of climate change and the environmental crisis that we face across this country and across this world.
As a campus, we are asking what it means to be a healthy community. In fact, when I gave my convocation address to the entering students this fall, I challenged them with that question and I think this is a dialogue that we're going to be in for a number of years here at Amherst. Healthy dialogue, in fact, is part of what it means to be an Amherst community. To be able to engage in debate and disagreement with one another in a civil way that leads to new answers in which we learn to respect each other's differences.
We also need to support our students' well-being in every sense of the word by making sure that we're valuing diversity and inclusion, and by making sure that we have adequate resources. We've added staff and programming to our center for mental health and counseling but that's just a piece of what we're trying to do.
Over the last 10 years, Amherst has rebuilt its faculty and the new generation of professors that we have on this campus understand and believe in Amherst's mission and they are changing the way that we teach students and engage in scholarship in ways that delight and astound me. I'm so pleased that this year we'll be hiring ten new tenure track professors including a very important cluster hire of faculty and psychology, economics and English who will all work in the field of Asian American studies adding to Amherst's tradition of developing innovative interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching.
At Amherst, we aim to prepare our students to make a difference in the world. And I'm passionate about the work of ensuring that all of our students feel empowered to live lives of meaning and consequence after they graduate. That goal infuses everything we do, including the programming at the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Development. We're thrilled that this year two popular programs that were suspended due to COVID are back and better than ever. First, during the January Interterm and Spring break, we'll once again be offering immersive career treks which give students the opportunity to travel in small groups across the United States at no cost to themselves, to explore careers in sustainability, government, nonprofit work, entertainment, finance, tech, and education. For all of these trips, I'm grateful to the alumni who take the time to meet with our students and share their career stories and advice, and to the Lobe Center staff who so thoughtfully design these experiences. The second program that we're resuming also relies on the generosity of our alumni. Our alumni in residence program in which we welcome Amherst graduates back to campus to connect with current students, share reflections on their career pathways and offer mentorship and networking advice.
This is truly a special time at Amherst and for those of you who are not on campus, I hope you can find a way to connect with the campus make a trip back if you, can enjoy being here and if you meet the students and faculty and staff who walk across this campus, I assure you that you will be as inspired and excited as I am. I personally was a beneficiary of Amherst's strong commitment to need-based financial aid and I'm so pleased at all the ways that we have kept and enhanced that commitment, including the expansion of funding for financial aid that we announced last year. I'm also proud of our Meiklejohn Fellows program that helps to ensure that our first-generation and low-income students are able to access all that Amherst has to offer.
I want to thank you, all of you, whose financial support has made this possible. At Amherst, we invest in people because we know that our students are the future. Thank you for being part of the Amherst community and know that you are always welcome here. I hope that as many of you will come back for homecoming as possible and if you can come a day early for my inauguration, I would love to see you on the quad. At Amherst, we are always better together and you will always have a home on this campus.
During Convocation, President Elliott and the faculty welcome the students to Amherst College, and recently promoted professors are awarded honorary Amherst College degrees.
- Welcome everyone. Welcome everyone to the 202nd convening of the academic year at Amherst College.
- I would like to begin by acknowledging that we gather today in the Nonotuck homeland in the Connecticut Valley which has always been and still is today a crossroads of multiple native nations and a place of cultural exchange. Home to the Nipmuck and the Wampanoag to the east, to the Mohegan and the Pequot to the south, to the Mohegan, to the west and to the Abenaki in the north. It's important that these are not merely historical relationships. They are enduring connections between contemporary indigenous peoples and the place where Amherst sits. Convocation celebrates the start of the academic year and the launch of the college career of our new students.
- We come together today to formally mark the start of our time together as a community dedicated to intellectual growth and fellowship. As we entered this space just now, the class of 2026 and our other incoming students stood while our faculty members persisted through them in regalia. Students, you stood as a sign of respect for these people who will be your teachers. At your graduation, we will reverse this. Our faculty will stand to honor you as you persist through them in your commencement robes, in symbolic recognition of the journey you have been on together and your readiness to launch into the world as Amherst graduates. It has been our custom at Amherst to award an honorary masters of arts degree to faculty members who have reached the rank of full professor who are not themselves graduates of the college, the custom derives in part, from a desire to pay tribute to their distinction as teachers and scholars, more important still, the tradition shows Amherst pride in them, and we hope in this way to bring them even more closely into the long life of Amherst College.
- Will the degree recipients please approach the stage.
- Professor Stephan M. Bradley, black studies and history. Professor Sheila Suzanne Jazzwell, chemistry. Professor Edward Dalamalito, for history and environmental studies. Professor Lee Specter, computer science. And Professor Amy Wagman, mathematics and statistics. By virtue of the authority vested in me by the board of trustees of Amherst College. I confer upon you the degree of master of arts or honoris causa with all the rights and privileges pertaining there to. Please join me again in applauding these fine recipients.
- I am now pleased to introduce the Amherst Glee Club, which will be performing "Three Gifts" with words and music by Lisa Smith-Vanderlinden, a member of the class of 1989.
- Convocation is always a special occasion. And of course this one is especially meaningful for me. For all of you who are starting at Amherst College this fall, whether you're first year students, transfer students, new staff, new faculty, we are all in a moment of firsts. About a week ago, I was talking with one of you, a student just arriving on campus from abroad and you did something remarkably brave. The student had admitted to me that she was nervous. And at the end of the conversation, I told her the truth, which is that I'm nervous too. In fact, I am nervous about some of the same things that all of you who are entering as students are nervous about. I'm wondering some of the same things that I wondered 34 years ago when I first came to this campus, am I ready for this change? Will I make friends? Will they like me? Will it turn out to be all that I expect?
- Whether you're starting your first day of college or your first day as college president, those are hard questions and we're going to work through them together. This convocation has another special significance because it is the first time in three years that we have been able to hold it here in Johnson Chapel. Johnson Chapel is a ceremonial heart of Amherst College. It is one of the oldest, although not the oldest space on our campus. And it's a reminder to me that a college like Amherst never stays still, never stays the same. Until 1968 students came to this space to attend daily chapel exercises, something you'll be relieved to hear I have no plans to reinstitute.
- When I came here over 30 years ago, I remember coming to meetings to hear discussions about whether the college would remain committed to need-blind admissions and to financial aid. We have. At that time, there were no portraits of black Americans or women hanging in the chapel. And I'm going to point out just two portraits. One that is virtually right above me. That's Charles Hamilton Houston, a 1915 graduate of Amherst College who was architect of the legal strategy that brought down segregation in American schools. This portrait was actually painted in the 1970s, but it was not moved here until 2006. And I remember my classmate, Willie Ups, and a contemporary of ours Shaka Patterson campaigning to have it moved here to Johnson Chapel. Thank you, Willie, thank you, Shaka, wherever you are.
- And then this portrait here to my immediate right and your left, Rose Over, was the first woman hired to a tenure track position at Amherst College. She started in 1962 and continued on the faculty for 50 years. Her portrait hangs here because of the work of my predecessor Biddy Martin. Thank you Biddy.
- Before you graduate I hope that you will all come back here for lectures, arguments, debate, and discussion. At its best this is a place where we talk with each other and bring out the best in each other. I also hope you come back sometime to this place by yourself. "I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching," says the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had clearly listened to too many college presidents. I hope you come back here for a quiet moment to yourself because this place Johnson Chapel, this place Amherst College, it belongs to you now. It belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. You do not need to wait to become an alum of 30 years to take ownership of this college. You do not even need to wait to graduate. You are here because you are smart and as talented, and also as fallible and imperfect as any student who has come before and you are here because of your extraordinary potential to grow and to make an impact on the world after you leave. That growth, it is not easy. There will be moments on this campus when you experience doubt and insecurity, you may even experience pain and loss. There's I think a moment when all of you will wonder if this is really the right place for you, when it seems that everyone else on this campus has it all figured out, except for you. Maybe the most important thing that I have to say to you tonight is that that struggle, that challenge.
- That's not an obstacle or diversion from the purpose of being in college. We come to Amherst to ask hard questions of ourselves and our world. And with those questions come so many wonderful things. The thrill of discovery, the joy of collaboration, the pleasure of ideas and the elation that we all feel when we have mastered something new in the world. But you do not get there without doubt, difficulty, challenge. Even when you feel lonely and you will all feel a little lonely at times, I certainly did as a student, you are not alone. We are all here in fellowship today because we are reminded that we engage in this work together. You are surrounded on all sides and for some of you below you as well by your teachers and your fellow learners.
- Over the summer, as I was thinking about this fall, I asked the office of admission to do me a favor to take each of your admission essays and to put them together in a single file, Microsoft Word so that I could read them like an epic poem. And so now I know just a little bit about what an extraordinary class you are. You're interested in astrophysics and novels and the Rubik's Cube. You play instruments and sports and board games, and you can quote the Latin of Seneca, the Spanish of Borges and Dante Cortes, the indigenous language of Patawomeck and dozens of other languages that you've grown up with. Some of you have lost parents and close friends. One of you collects pens. Another one of you has a pet gecko named Milo, and another one still has taken up the sport of free diving, free diving, and I learned this from the essay is exactly what it sounds like, diving as far as possible into the ocean, without the use of any breathing device. For the record in front of you all, I find the idea of free diving terrifying, and I will not be taking it up anytime soon. However, what you collectively wrote about more than anything is food. You wrote about baking chocolate chip cookies, about brewing kombucha, about arranging iced cut fruit for dessert. Several of you wrote about how cooking brings you peace or has forged memorable experiences with your family.
- One of the most remarkable essays I read describes feeding gummy bears to a goat. Find its author. If I were to take your essays and make a collective menu, it would include fresh pan dolce, empanadas, steak, cherry smoothies, peach snapple, popcorn, donuts, chicken salad, pierogis, kimbap, ice cream cones, chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, tortillas from scratch, Oreos, orange chicken, Dairy Queen blizzards, lentil soup, Borscht, rugelach, gnocchi, chocolate Milanos, carne asada and the list would go on and on. It would be a wonderful feast, but it would be something more as one of you wrote in your essay quote, "In my household, food is not just food. Food is a form of currency, not in the sense of capitalism, but rather in the form of compassion, love, generosity, and honesty. Eating is not simply meant to fill our bodies with the necessary nutrients. It is a cherished form of social interaction between kid and kin and a bonding mechanism for strangers. Food is not just food, what we eat matters, but how we eat matters as well."
- Those of you who are new to Amherst have already realized something important, which is that the entire student body comes together to eat in a single place. Valentine hall, Val, yes, there are other places to eat, but Val is our dining commons, a space that we share. And that brings us all together. In fact, most of you know that some students will sit for hours at their table, Val sitting, which is exactly what it sounds like. It says something about Amherst that you all enter the same building together. Eating is a moment of sharing. And it's also a moment of vulnerability. I'm sure that some of you have already experienced a moment of hesitancy or even anxiety about entering the dining hall alone, looking for someone with whom to eat or wondering if you can simply get down something quickly unnoticed. Some of you might already be missing the familiar foods of home or have started wondering if you're eating too much or too little, the space of the dining hall with all its emotion is one of the ways that this campus brings us together, invites us into new conversations and new relationships. And is as much a part of your Amherst education as is this chapel. Valentine has also been a place that has served as a reminder, sadly, of what we have lost in the course of a pandemic that still is not over.
- In March 2020, Valentine became a silent place. As students returned after the pandemic, there were periods when they were only able to take meals to go. There were periods when Val had reduced seating or no seating at all. Measures like these and you probably all experienced similar things, wherever you were reminders to Amherst of the ways that the pandemic threatened, not only our physical bodies, but the pandemic has also threatened our sense of wellbeing, our sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. The pandemic continues and each of us has had a different pandemic experience. Some of you may have been in New York City or another city where people came to their balconies in 2020 at an appointed hour to bang pots and cheer on the healthcare workers. Others of you may have lost loved ones or friends, or know people who have suffered or who are still suffering through long illness. Some of you may have been in regions that never adopted mask mandates, or maybe even places that burn masks in protest of them, regardless of whatever part of the world you've been living in, you are a generation that will forever be marked and affected by this history. And it is history with a capital H. Across the globe the pandemic has forced us to grapple with not only scientific and epidemiological questions, but social ones with the structural inequalities that have made the worst effects uneven. Here in the United States, affecting communities of color at much higher rates than those that are not. And across the world affecting poorer countries more dramatically than wealthier ones.
- For me, the pandemic a time when illness has threatened so much that I hold dear, I have been forced back to a very basic and beguiling question. What does it mean to be a healthy community? A healthy community, not just one free of physical illness, but a community that prizes its collective health and wellness, a community that empowers everyone to be well and not just as individuals, but out of a sense of a common good. It's a simple question. But if you take a step back from the coronavirus, you'll quickly realize that what it means to be a healthy community does not have easy answers. It would be a community that prizes mental health, as well as physical health, that would empower every member as equally as the others. In my mind, it would cultivate both the intellect and the soul. It would be a community for me that allows for independence. It also values collaboration. It would be a community that would make room for change, for growth that would be capable of taking on the most difficult problems and talking about them based on fact and evidence rather than simply rumor and speculation. I believe strongly that a healthy community must have room for disagreement, places where we can come together to dispute with one another while still maintaining some respect and recognition of one another. In fact, in my mind, a healthy community would be one that could be self-reflexive and questioning about even what wellness means and how best to achieve it. And it would understand that having those questions open and resolved is a sign of its strength. A healthy community, a community that is dedicated to its wellbeing would talk about its past, including the ways that it's fallen short of its own ideals. And it would do so as a way of understanding its present and charting its future. I don't think a healthy community would ever be a perfect one. And in fact, one of the most important features of a healthy community would be that it would be a place where people could make mistakes. It would be a community that is more interested in education than in punishment or castigation. You will all have your visions and versions of a healthy community.
- That's why you're at Amherst. At Amherst, we are a special community devoted to intellectual rigor in the service of humanity. And we believe strongly that our academic mission requires that we think about what it means to live and learn together. The fact that we bring you here from all over the world to live on this campus. And for first year students, even around the same quadrangle, that's an essential feature of your education. The perspectives and experiences that you bring with you. And I here wanna call out the exceptionally talented transfer students and veterans we have joining us this fall, the experiences that you all bring is now part of what it means to receive an Amherst education.
- Some of you may know that this summer Amherst College filed a brief with the US Supreme Court, in which we argued that our current admissions practices, particularly our consideration of race as part of a holistic review is fundamental to our work to offer the best liberal arts education possible. Importantly, our argument did not just say that we think an Amherst education benefits you as individuals. We made the case that an Amherst education will benefit the world beyond our campus, through the lives that you lead after you graduate, lives of meaning and consequence, lives of leadership, no matter what field or profession you choose. As part of that legal brief, we quoted someone who is in my mind, one of the most significant and insightful champions of a liberal arts education in the history of the United States, WEB Dubois.
- Some of you probably know a little bit about Dubois. In fact, one of you quoted him in your admission essay. Well done. Dubois in fact, was from Western Massachusetts, not far from here, and then did much of his work in Atlanta where I have been living for over 20 years. So he has a small piece of intellectual history that connects two places of great meaning for me, Dubois was a fearless and tireless advocate for the rights of black Americans in the early 20th century.
- And he was someone who believed that intellectual leadership would be essential for racial equality. Dubois believed fiercely that a liberal arts education of the kind offered by Amherst then and now is critical to the future of both black Americans and the future of democracy in the United States. Here's the quotation that we included in our brief with the Supreme Court. The function of the university is not simply to teach bread winning or to furnish teachers for the public schools, but is above all to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment, which forms the secret of civilization. The secret of civilization.
- Dubois understood that when it comes to the big problems that we face, whether racial injustice, pandemics, climate change, scientific and technological progress is not sufficient. We need a civil society that can reach consensus on solutions, a moral vocabulary that gives us the capacity to adopt them. And institutions that are capable of delivering them. Right now in different ways, democracy is under attack in both the United States and across the world.
- There are people from across the globe from a variety of political persuasions who believe that diversity and pluralism are incompatible with democracy, that a diverse democracy is an unattainable ideal. I'm more optimistic than that. I think we need optimism. And I believe that a diverse democracy requires leadership in every community. Leaders who can think critically, who understand how complex problems are shaped by culture and history, who understand the value of science and how to evaluate scientific evidence for society and who can reach ethical judgements while working with unclear inconclusive information. Or to put it another way, a diverse democracy needs leaders who have received an education in the liberal arts. Amherst College was founded in 1821, 1821.
- And about 10 years later, a French intellectual named Alexis de Tocqueville, a kind of political theorist and sociologist came to the United States from France and spent two years traveling through the country to understand how a democratic society works. He wrote an enormous book published in two volumes called "Democracy In America", a book that is still read, quoted and argued about to this day. De Tocqueville unfortunately never made it to Amherst, but he said something that I've been thinking about all summer as I've been considering the role of this college in creating leaders for a healthy democratic society. Tocqueville was struck by the way that Americans joined together in groups to form what he called associations. Groups, clubs, orders that joined together for a special purpose through the volition of their members. This is a quote from "Democracy In America", translated from the French. "Americans of all ages, conditions and all dispositions constantly unite together to hold vets, parties, to found seminaries, to build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the anti codes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method.
- Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association." For Tocqueville the value of these associations was not simply in what they created, parties, schools, hospitals, but the way that they created bonds between people that were necessary, that are necessary for a democratic society. At Amherst, of course, students also form associations, clubs, groups, teams. They do so to pursue social justice, to make an impact through community engagement, they form associations to sing, to dance, to perform improv, to invest in cryptocurrency, to play video games, to celebrate their common experiences in culture and spirituality. There is an effective altruism club, a fly fishing club, a random acts of kindness club, a bullet journal club, a morning after football club devoted to the discussion of football in the morning after, and perhaps my favorite named club. And please let it continue to prosper the Chronicles of Yarnia, devoted to knitting and crochet.
- All together at current count, there are some 239 registered student organizations, associations, everything from anime and archery in the A's to the Zumba, Amherst's oldest acapella group, and the only student organization that as far as I know, starts with the letter Z, there's a photo of them right over there. This kind of wild proliferation of clubs and groups. And there are surely many, many more that are not yet registered. They are changing and growing all the time. And this is something that Tocqueville would recognize as a feature of American democracy. In fact, it's telling that even the student government of Amherst is called the Association of Amherst Students. It would make Tocqueville smile. For Tocqueville, associations are where we practice democracy with a lowercase D, where we are drawn out of our private worlds and where we learn to interact with one another. To understand how we are both like, and unlike one another, where we listen and where we learn. So as you are coming together, as students in all of these ways, you are actually engaging in preparation to advance a democratic society. It is not easy to forge these connections, but they matter.
- As a final salvo here's another line from what Tocqueville thinks that associations achieve. "Sentiments and ideas renew themselves. The heart is enlarged and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of people upon one another." Sentiments and ideas renew themselves. The heart is enlarged and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of people upon one another. This is why we bring you here together. This is why we have a place where you can learn with one another inside the classroom and out. This is why you're here with these remarkable stellar faculty to work through the challenges ahead. Let us all try to develop our minds by enlarging our hearts and by engaging reciprocity and generosity with one another. Thank you and have a wonderful academic year. Thank you.
To conclude this evening's program the glee club will lead us in singing the "Hymn to Amherst". You'll find the words on your program, the printed program. I ask it as you please rise if you are able to sing, we will all sing. After the hymn if I could have one more moment after the hymn students please remain in place while faculty members recess out of the chapel. And after you leave the chapel, we invite you all to stop by and to join a moment of fellowship and refreshment and conversation out on the especially illuminated quad. Thank you and have a great evening.
Liz Agosto, chief student affairs officer and dean of students, and Matt McGann, dean of admission and financial aid, join President Michael Elliott in welcoming the Class of '26 during Orientation.
Amherst College hosted a Meet and Greet session with incoming president, Michael A. Elliott ’92.
A conversation between Biddy Martin, the 19th president of Amherst College, and Michael A. Elliott '92, whose tenure as the 20th president of the College will commence on August 1.