September 12, 2016
Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, Parents, and Friends,
The education Amherst offers is grounded in the values of the liberal arts: breadth and depth of knowledge, rigorous analytical ability, and the capacity for creative problem solving. It is the form of education best suited for the demands of an uncertain and changing world. It works because of a faculty of distinguished scholar-teachers with high expectations and a strong commitment to student success. It inspires because of a student body filled with avid learners who teach one another what it means to make friendship a defining feature of community and democracy. Every initiative we undertake is aimed at renewing these critical features of an outstanding educational experience.
This academic year has started with a bang. The new residence halls that we began planning two years ago are complete — on time and under budget. They were designed to replace the social dorms, which had long outlived their usefulness and needed to give way to the construction of a new interdisciplinary Science Center. Nearly 300 students just moved into the four interconnected buildings, which are organized around a shared courtyard. Students from all over the campus have also found the indoor and outdoor spaces intended to bring people together — kitchens, game rooms, outdoor volleyball and basketball courts, and study nooks and crannies of all kinds. Everywhere there is a commitment to environmental sustainability in a comfortable, fun space created with students (and cost) in mind.
The residence halls are the beginning of the most significant transformation of the physical campus since the College’s founding. The eastern half of the campus is being remade. Construction of the Science Center is now under way, and when it opens in 2018, it will be a round-the-clock hub that serves the entire campus, with a Commons at its center where conversations and collaborations across all disciplines can unfold. What holds the dorms and Science Center together and integrates the eastern part of the campus with its core is a Greenway — a set of beautifully landscaped paths leading from the Beneski Earth Sciences Building and Museum of Natural History all the way to the new dorms, which overlook the playing fields and look out onto the mountains. The Greenway will provide a range of options for spontaneous gatherings in outdoor spaces and create ease of access to all parts of the campus. It will complement the iconic first-year quad, which will remain the center of our campus.
The transformation of the physical campus is the most visible of a range of initiatives that will renew the values associated with residential liberal arts education. The Mead Art Museum’s extensive renovations highlight the College’s distinctive art collection and encourage a different experience for visitors. Art that hasn’t been shown for more than a decade now joins recently acquired contemporary works. “In the spirit of the liberal arts, we want to create a museum that sparks the imagination and inspires debate,” said David E. Little, the Mead’s director and chief curator, when he hosted the reopening of the museum this past week. Amherst’s strategic plan calls for greater emphasis on the arts, and the Mead’s reopening is a part of that project.
Orientation launches our students’ transition to college, embedding them in a community that is dedicated to their growth and success and is also outward-facing and mindful of its commitment to the world. New students were treated to the annual DeMott Lecture, named for legendary Amherst faculty member Benjamin DeMott and featuring one of DeMott’s own students: Amherst trustee Paul Smith ’76. Smith, a lawyer who clerked with a Supreme Court justice and has argued 19 cases before the Court, urged students to “do more than tolerate diversity,” encouraging them to “celebrate and embrace it in all its forms.” He cited the relationship between Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia as an example of what it means to disagree intensely while remaining capable of close friendship. And, citing the experience of Amherst students throughout the years, he said, “Yours is a particularly rich group of peers if you'll only let them teach you as much as you teach them.”
National Book Award and MacArthur Fellowship winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, will address an audience of 1,400 people on Tuesday evening in LeFrak Gymnasium, reminding us of the critical importance of the struggle to understand, acknowledge, and address the history and the continuing realities of racism. In November, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat will speak to the community about meanings of conservatism in the United States. These are but two of the many events planned for this particularly important year in the life of the nation and of Amherst.
All that is happening on campus — the transformations and the connections — has the purpose of ensuring that Amherst remains true to its core mission: preserving and building on a history of academic excellence and promoting educational opportunity for students from every background. At the same time, we embrace the changes that will continue to make Amherst a leader in liberal arts education, and a school whose graduates go on to make an enormous difference in the world.
This is a very special place, and we are its stewards. It has stood out for its values and its standards for close to 200 years, evolving over time to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that present themselves to the world our students inherit. It takes each and every one of us to ensure the success of this community, for today’s students and for generations to come.
P.S. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a piece I highly recommend by Scott Newstok entitled “How to Think Like Shakespeare.” The piece speaks eloquently of the value of the liberal arts. It challenges the false opposition frequently found in debates among educators about whether the acquisition of knowledge or the development of intellectual skills should be our focus. Newstok taught at Amherst in 2002-03.