Amherst Magazine

The Students' President

By Emily Gold Boutilier, with contributions from Adam Gerchick ’13

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For the first time in memory, the Holyoke Range was the inauguration backdrop.

Presidential inaugurations at Amherst usually take place in front of Johnson Chapel or Frost Library. Biddy Martin’s looked over Memorial Hill, with the Holyoke Range, in its early fall splendor, as backdrop. The location—at once unusual and obvious—was fitting: Martin seems to see Amherst at its best. She articulates its poetry, its tangible and intangible beauty.

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Martin delivers her address

Amherst, she said in her inauguration address, “glows with the light of the most important article of faith in higher education, which is faith in youth and faith in our capacity to learn from the beginning to the end of our lives.”

Some 1,200 people—including 200 who marched in the procession—attended Martin’s inauguration on Oct. 16, 2011, a crisp, windy Sunday morning. The ceremony included remarks from, among others, Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call, who described the college’s “faith in and commitment to” Martin; Faculty Marshal Wako Tawa, who said that, like the foliage in the background, “we make one entity in a unique way”; and Jide Zeitlin ’85, chairman of the Board of Trustees, who said that Martin “will shape this college far into this century.” Richard Wilbur ’42 read his poem “Altitudes.”

But the stage belonged to the new president, who, early in her half-hour address, quoted from Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, a novel written as a letter from an ailing Calvinist minister to his young son:

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Faculty Marshal Wako Tawa and Sheriff Robert Garvey lead the procession

A great part of my work has been listening to people in that particular intense privacy of confession or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me. … When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the “I” whose predicate could be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it doesn’t really matter because the loveliness is just in that present, shaped around “I” like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick and avid and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.

In Martin’s words: “To see this aspect of life is a privilege of education, which is too little valued, even in the world of higher education, but it is still the heart and soul of Amherst College.” Amherst students are “nothing if not quick and avid and resourceful,” she said, and “to interact with them is to experience directly the incandescence to which our Calvinist minister alludes.”

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The Choral Society sings for the crowd

The late Benjamin DeMott, a longtime Amherst professor, wrote that English class is “the place ... wherein the chief matters of concern are the particulars of humanness.” To Martin, “these spaces of human time and human interaction are still central to what the college is: a research college that preserves what is oddly so easily lost in education, even in English classes.” She cautioned, “It will take focus and determination to preserve those spaces”—even at Amherst, a college that “believes, above all, in the intimate arts of teaching.”

Martin praised efforts to increase diversity at Amherst, saying “the student body has come much closer to reflecting the realities of the racial, religious and cultural differences that make up our world.” She said that the college must “ensure the benefits of that diversity are realized, that the education we offer is infused with those benefits and that any challenges that arise from them are addressed in a serious way.”

Martin went on to imagine Amherst at its 200th anniversary in 2021, envisioning athletic championships and a community even more diverse in people and points of view. She imagined Amherst making better use of the Five College consortium to attract and support faculty. She imagined having coffee with students in an “architecturally ambitious, modern” new science center/gathering place that “celebrates our contemplative landscape and highlights our traditional dwellings.” She imagined a new facility that accommodates “Amherst’s reinvention of work in the humanities.”

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The keys to the college, which were presented to Martin at the ceremony

“I imagine an Amherst that has found ways to extend its reach and export more of what we do and is more explicit about what we can contribute to a public sphere in need of Amherst’s values,” Martin said, adding that her vision matters little: “I will work to facilitate your vision and your aspirations for Amherst College. If they match some of mine, I’ll be pleased. I fear a world without its Amhersts. I fear a world in which the political and economic crowd out the poetic, in which politics and business are no longer inflected with the poetic, in which the race to the top and a winner-take-all mentality eliminate the space for reflection, where kindness and collaboration across party lines are considered weak, where utility is defined by the immediacy of results and where the lure of spectacle relegates the simple pleasures of human relationships and day-to-day contact obsolete.”

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The faculty cheer the president

In 2021 and beyond, she said, Amherst will be heavily sought out, “because it is at one and at the same time open, intellectually vibrant, engaged, intimate and tranquil. A condensation of apparently incompatible qualities, it is full of quick and avid and resourceful people who are devoted to the well-being of the world and to the planet that hosts us.”


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Inauguration weekend featured many performances by student groups, as well as a panel discussion about the future of the liberal arts.

Martin’s speech capped a weekend of events, including a panel on the future of the liberal arts and many performances by student music groups. But perhaps most remarkable was the Student Inaugural Fête on inauguration eve—and the random act of kindness that preceded it.

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The party, occupying the entry and second floors of Keefe Campus Center and spilling out onto the patio in front of it, included a DJ, a buffet and commemorative coffee mugs featuring the likenesses of Johnson Chapel and the new president. Hundreds of students attended.

Martin danced with students, even joining, to much delight, an impromptu 1980s-style dance-off. She concluded her appearance with brief remarks from the DJ’s platform, joking that she expected this to be a weekly tradition and wryly noting that she looked forward to seeing all of the students bright and early the next morning. Three times, students interrupted Martin with declarations of support and, in one case, love.

More support came from the student group Random Acts of Kindness, whose executive board had met two weeks earlier to dream up a “random act” for Martin. “With a big event like this,” says Reilly Horan ’13, who is on the board, “we can mobilize 300 people.” Knowing that Martin would be leaving a dinner in Valentine to walk to the student party in Keefe, the group formulated a plan to surprise her outside the dining hall. “From there,” says Horan, “we just started contacting everyone we knew.”

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The student group Random Acts of Kindness mobilized some 350 students, who, on the night before the official ceremony, surprised Martin on Valentine Quad as she left a dinner. The students (shown here with Martin, illuminated by a photographer’s flash) held signs, cheered and blasted music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Martin left Valentine at 9:10 p.m., she found some 350 students lining her path to Keefe, holding signs, offering high fives and cheering, “Biddy! Biddy!” Horan stood behind Martin with a boom box, blasting a medley of “girl power songs,” including Beyoncé’s “Run the World.” The idea, says Horan, was to send a powerful message to the new president: “We’re all in this together.”

Photos by Samuel Masinter ’04, Kate Berry ’12, Sebastian Herrara ’14, Rob Mattson, Mark Idleman ’15, Megan Robertson ’15