Inauguration of Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, 19th President of Amherst College
President Martin’s address begins at 53.04; the text of her speech is below.
You may also download audio files: Inaugural Address MP3, 12.8MB
; Richard Wilbur, Altitudes MP3, 1.5MB
October 16, 2011
Good morning. I’m honored and moved by the greetings, by your presence, the presence of our trustees, faculty, staff, students. And by the way, students, after the dancing last night, it’s good that I received a cane.
I’m delighted to have my nephew, my closest friends, my colleagues from all over the country with me on this occasion.
I want also to acknowledge the three former chairs of the board of Amherst’s trustees – Amos Hostetter, Spike Beitzel and Chuck Longsworth.. Thank you for honoring me with your presence.
I consider myself so fortunate to be able to build on the foundation that was laid by these board chairs and the two former presidents who are with us today, the 16th and 18th presidents of Amherst College, Peter Pouncey and Tony Marx. Thank you.
My move to Amherst College has felt like a homecoming. That may seem odd, even to me. I haven’t been here very long, and my journey from Campbell County, Va., to Amherst, Mass., is an improbable one. It breaks a number of ancient rules in the community where I grew up: Stay below the Mason-Dixon line; aspire only to what will keep you at home; and trust only your own kind. Part of me as a child must have longed for a place like Amherst, without having had any way to imagine it or even any inkling that it existed. What I want to say to you, once again, is this: I am glad to be one of you and glad to be one of many kinds. Thank you.
I fooled you into thinking I was done.
I suppose my presidency here could be seen as improbable on Amherst’s side as well. It was founded, as you know, by orthodox Calvinists, and in its childhood and adolescence, it was meant to prepare talented, pious young men for the ministry. Not just any men, but men without means. The college has changed significantly from its religious mission and has been serving secular ends for a very long time. But if we travel back down the corridor to Amherst’s childhood, we see much that endures—access to education regardless of means, the highest of educational standards, and a desire to illuminate the world. I was drawn to Amherst because of these very values.
Today, I want to focus on a quality that’s not easy to summarize, in a word I’m going to call it a sensibility, and will use a novel, rather than historical or scientific means, to trace it back to Amherst’s origins. Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead is written as a letter from a failing, elderly Calvinist minister to his young son about his life in the ministry. I’m going to read you a somewhat lengthy excerpt from that fictional letter from father to son. Here’s the quote.
“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. Not that I thought of these conversations as if they were a contest, I don’t mean that. But as you might look at a game more abstractly—where is the strength, what is the strategy? As if you had no interest in it except seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. ... When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the “I” whose predicate can be “love” or “fear” or “want,” and whose object can be “someone” or “nothing” and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, 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.”
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. To interact with them is to experience directly the incandescence to which our Calvinist minister alludes.
I ask you to bear in mind our fictional minister’s emphasis on “how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other,” as I turn to the writings of one of Amherst’s legendary teachers and scholars of English—Benjamin Demott. In an essay entitled “English and the Promise of Happiness,” Demott tells us that the English class, “is the place … wherein the chief matters of concern are the particulars of humanness: individual human feeling, human response and human time, as these can be animated with the help of writing … and discovered by student writers seeking through words to name and compose and grasp their own experience.”
Demott tells us that, “there are few [such spaces] in most colleges and universities.” And I fear that he was right.
At Amherst, 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, and it will take focus and determination to preserve those spaces, even here.
At the heart of Amherst is conversation. Benjamin Demott says that “the function of conversation—the searching for terms, the pretending to exactitude, criticizing and celebrating each other’s offerings—is to resituate a deeply private enterprise on a public stage.” How I wish our more public stages were models of this kind of conversation. I think it is our responsibility to help make it so by whatever means we can.
Demott says that a class allows us to bring “our variousness into play,” “to explore our range, discover our delicacy,” with other people. To do those things takes time. It takes attention. It takes practice. It takes low student-to-teacher ratios. It is costly. It is life-giving. I know from experience.
Demott illuminates its rewards by taking us into a class on Shakespeare’s “Lear.” And he talks about the offerings of one young woman. He says that she “[tells] us what’s going on within Cordelia as the King her father bears down on her.”
Here is the offering of the young woman, in the words of Demott: “She, Cordelia, says the student, is in rebellion, yes, but that’s not her idea of herself. She won’t flatter her father—but think how much harder on him she could be than she’s being. Actually, she’s not saying one half of what she could. Not telling him what everybody can see, that he’s vain and fatuous. Oh, she’s rebelling, but she has herself under wraps as she’s speaking. She is pressing down. In spite of everything—being stony and brusque—she knows she’s being good. She feels forbearing.”
The student’s offering comes to a close, and Demott tells us that, “A sound of assent comes into the stillness.”
Benjamin Demott values the offering of this one young woman, and he spends his time in his office after class thinking about her. “I jot a word or two in the crowded margins of ‘Lear’: C-forbearing, with the young woman’s initials, and look through the window at the Octagon and down the hill. I realize not simply that this is a good student who will have more and more to give but that it will be better not to think of ‘teaching her.’ The point is to stay with her, being equal to what comes.”
Thinking about how he can facilitate the flourishing of one young woman, asking, as our Calvinist minister did, where is the strength? What is the strategy? How can we bring one another along?
Lest you think that Benjamin Demott is the only one, I visited Richard Wilbur’s and David Sofield’s class on John Donne. And on the morning of the class, I slipped into the one seat left in the room. It was relatively small and unadorned, a classroom in Converse Hall. I could not have been more excited. I could not have taken more pleasure in hearing Richard Wilbur and David Sofield read John Donne aloud. I felt privileged by the students’ offerings. I made one of my own, which I later regretted.
Lest you think that these classes are only in the English department, I can also disabuse you of that. This kind of poetry extends throughout Amherst College.
In a visit to the chemistry department, I was treated to a discussion of the difference between teaching 15 students in a lab and 30 students in a lab; the difference between bringing students along so that they’re able to think and learn about how to do the problem and conceive of its importance rather than merely figuring out how to get to an answer.
When meeting with alumni of Amherst College, I realize it’s very much like being on campus, as you might expect. And I was told more than once that when alumni gather, they talk about specific classes and particular professors with a passion which alumni of other institutions typically reserve for reminiscences about great football seasons. And I witnessed, on more than one occasion, that this is true.
A great college takes not only great teachers, though it does indicatively take that. It takes teachers who are genuine intellectuals; students who are quick and avid and resourceful; outstanding and dedicated staff, which Amherst has in spades; and alumni who give back with their ideas and their resources.
A great college also takes a relationship to time that is different from the time of the news or the business cycles, but is nonetheless curious and informed about those cycles. The investment of time and the quality of our attention in relation to young people matter as much as the content of what we profess. And that is why Amherst matters.
In 10 years we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Amherst College. On the occasion of its 100th anniversary, as you have already heard today, then President Alexander Miekeljohn gave an anniversary speech in which he decided to offer three prophecies about the future of the college. Actually, he hedged a bit, and said the future of the college would depend on the future of the nation. He made three predications about its future. In 1921, he suggested that the United States would develop a culture that was genuinely independent of Anglo-Saxon Britain, and that it would, as a result, distinguish itself from Britain’s aristocratic approach to other peoples and races and creeds, creating a level playing field rather than domination over others. And that faith would be restored to American culture. Amherst’s next hundred years, he said, would follow those trends. As for faith, the nation remains deeply divided about its centrality and place. I’m not going to comment on it here.
Amherst has not returned to its Calvinist origins, except in the ways we never left them, but it 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.
As for the equal playing field across races and creeds and nations, the country has made progress since 1921 but has a long way to go. And today, economic disparities plague not only the United States; they threaten stability around the world.
In his remarks on September 14, 2001, three days after 9/11, Walter Lafeber, historian of American foreign policy, asked his audience at Cornell to “remember from a study of a long history that these disparities will inevitably change. If we are fortunate, wise, and remember, we will help guide that change, rather than having changes imposed on us. This insight means,” he said, “that we cannot be both ignorant of other peoples and remain free; that we cannot be intolerant of great cultures and races with which we share a shrinking planet and remain free; we cannot surrender centuries-old constitutional principles, especially in checks on each branch of government, and remain free.”
What role does the college play in our determination to remain free? It must do what it does best. What Miekeljohn himself tirelessly promoted, not only at Amherst College but at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas. It must educate. It must discover. It must realize that the many peoples of the world are now more than ever our neighbors. And remember, in the words of Walt Lafeber, that “innocence and ignorance of others in this new world have no place.”
Thanks to the determination and leadership of the three board chairs in front of me and the two presidents who preceded me, Amherst’s student body has come much closer to reflecting the realities of the racial, religious, and cultural differences that make up our world. Miekeljohn would have been pleased, but neither he nor we are satisfied with our demographic changes. What we want is to take responsibility and use the privilege to ensure that 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.
Amherst has certainly not ended up as an aristocratic culture. It believes passionately in checks and balances. Despite its relative wealth and its prestige, I have found that Amherst is a frugal place, administratively thin, perhaps even too thin, and a place that has invested its resources in what ultimately matters--aid for students, support for faculty and staff and the facilities to enable your best work. Amherst believes in fairness, prudence and good governance. And it believes, above all, in the intimate arts of teaching.
I look forward to 2021. If I’m lucky enough to be here on the 200th anniversary, I will not make predictions about the future of the nation. Here is what I will say right now: I imagine an Amherst that is even more diverse in people, in points of view than it is today, an even headier mix of different cultural, intellectual, religious and political traditions.
I imagine a faculty that has been rebuilt in the intervening 10 years and that still includes the best scholar-teachers, the most capacious thinkers and the most entertaining characters in higher education.
I imagine an Amherst that makes greater use of our five-college consortium to attract those faculty and support your scholarly collaborations.
I imagine we will be making more use of technology in our teaching, without having removed person-to-person contact from the center of our enterprise.
I imagine an Amherst that will have beaten Williams in football in each of the intervening 10 years. I imagine in 2021 that our men’s and women’s soccer teams and our women’s basketball team will have brought home more national championships and that men’s tennis will have as well.
I imagine walking across the stunningly beautiful freshman quad on a beautiful fall morning on my way to have coffee with students in a new center for science and discovery and campus gathering. And there I’m being caught up on innovations in interdisciplinary basic science and scientific education.
I am sitting in an architecturally ambitious, modern building that celebrates our contemplative landscape and highlights our traditional dwellings, rather than detracting from them.
I imagine listening to faculty, staff and students talk about recent breakthroughs in medical research and, with great urgency, about what can be done to preserve our environment in the face of global climate change.
I imagine visiting upper-class students in your new social dorms. I can’t wait to see how they accommodate what our students need for both work and play. I imagine in those residence halls seeing the students interacting in teams on using the up-do-date technologies students would like or need to have.
I imagine a new facility that accommodates Amherst’s reinvention of work in the humanities.
I imagine facilities with new classrooms, students interacting in real time with their counterparts in other parts of the world.
I imagine students having greater opportunities to be entrepreneurial in ways that are socially beneficial and economically smart.
I imagine an Amherst that has found ways to extend its reach and export more of what we do, and is more explicit about we can contribute to a public sphere in need of Amherst’s values.
What I imagine is of little relevance. I will work to facilitate your vision and your aspirations for Amherst College. If they match some of mine, I will 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 by 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.
I say to you today as I close, let’s make Amherst, to an even greater extent, the incubator of the world that we know we need to embrace. A world that celebrates access and the differences among us, among races, religions, cultures and points of view. A world that is enlivened by these differences, that honors them, and also allows them to become something else entirely by virtue of their in-mixing.
In 2021 and into its third century, Amherst will be a heavily sought-after and compelling destination, because it is at one and 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.
Thank you for your confidence in my leadership.