Defining the Search for
“Let them enlighten the lands.”
The official seal of Amherst College, adopted soon after its founding, in 1821, contains this one imperative. The archives hold delicate copies of the original seal on gilded paper, attached to ribbons that once held diplomas. Over a period of nearly two centuries the seal has undergone periodic revision, but the words themselves have never changed, and neither has the mandate.
Amherst was established as a nonsectarian institution “for the education of indigent young men of piety and talents.” The contemporary version of that might be: “for the education of talented and committed young men and women, without regard to ability to pay.” The nouns and adjectives may have changed, but the essence remains. The College is inclusive, and it seeks to educate and to imbue its graduates with a heightened sense of personal mission. They still set out to “enlighten the lands.”
The Amherst community in all its parts—students, faculty, staff and alumni—is close-knit and well-informed. It is also passionate about the College. The feelings that Amherst elicits can be suggested by the widespread use of the simple phrase “this place” to refer to it. But Amherst is a small institution, and although its reputation is national and its ranking among liberal arts colleges is at the very top, the nature of the College, and of its values and ambitions, is not as widely known as the community may think.
Amherst College today is among the most diverse and selective liberal arts colleges in America. Its faculty matches that of the finest institutions of higher learning, and, in their dedication to teaching, exceeds most of them. The volume of applications to the College is robust and its quality superior, and Amherst’s admissions staff ventures into every corner of the country and many corners of the world to cast the net as widely as possible. The caliber of students who enroll in the College—drawn by the open curriculum, the diversity of the student body, the intimacy of instruction and the reputation for excellence—seems to become more impressive with each new class. The College’s staff and administrators are skilled and their ranks are stable. Financially, despite the stresses of recent years, Amherst is on a sound footing, with a sizeable endowment and capable oversight. The College’s leadership at the very top has been at once visionary, articulate, persuasive and diplomatic—demonstrating that management and moral imagination are not mutually exclusive.
Amherst College has long been a strong institution. It has become stronger in recent years. It is more inclusive of difference and has made vigorous efforts to adapt its curriculum and practices to its changing students. It attends more systematically to the central tasks of advising and teaching than it did a generation ago, and it continues to seek new and more effective ways to communicate not only specialized knowledge but also skills and modes of thought. It is a true “research college,” one whose faculty break important new ground in their fields without sacrificing their commitment to the bedrock endeavor: the teaching of students, mostly in small groups, often one-on-one and always with intense personal involvement. In its financial aid policies, in its emphasis on social engagement, in its aggressive outreach to international students, in its insistence that the privilege of an Amherst education comes with an obligation of service throughout one’s life, no matter one’s specific career path—on all these fronts, the College has become a national leader. It has also become a leader in the national conversation about the importance of liberal arts education, in the face of critics who question its value even as the need for it grows.
Amherst’s bicentennial is not far away. Perhaps the College will redesign the seal once again. But it will not change the words emblazoned on it. In looking to the future, Amherst will continue to build on enduring achievements. The College is wedded to its core values, confident in the faculty it has assembled and in the form of education that it provides, proud of its evolution in recent years and fully committed to the vector of educational and social engagement it has chosen to follow. There is a sense of mission. At the same time, the College does not take any of this for granted. It will require effort to sustain the institution as it is now, and greater effort still as we continue to raise our sights. The Amherst community understands that challenges loom in many areas of the College’s life, as they do for any institution that strives to remain vital and effective—and a national voice—in a turbulent and changing world. This is the task, and the opportunity, at hand as Amherst seeks its 19th president.