2017 Convocation Address by Biddy Martin

September 4, 2017

“We have to dedicate ourselves as strongly as ever, perhaps more strongly than ever, to truth-seeking.” Watch President Martin’s full Convocation address.

Video Transcript

2017 Convocation Address

This is the written version of the address that President Biddy Martin delivered to students, faculty and staff in Johnson Chapel on Sept. 24, 2017.

Almost a week ago today, I spoke to you, our new students right after you had arrived. I spoke to you and your families about some of what Amherst values. And I emphasized the value we have placed on educational opportunity, excellence, diversity, and on creating a diverse intellectual community in which all three terms in that phrase—diverse, intellectual, community—have as much meaning as the middle one has always had. And I also spoke about the value we place on friendship, understood not only as a private good, but a civic necessity.

You were then asked to take part in a poll, which yielded the word cloud many of you have on your seats. The word cloud is the result of a poll that ask you to list the three words from my orientation remarks that you found most compelling. We can all see from the word cloud—which is displayed on the stage--what you emphasized, what compelled you. Clearly friendship, understood not only as a private good, but as a civic necessity, struck you as essential. As did support, diversity, intellectual, community.

Having never participated in such a poll or created a word cloud, I was very interested in the process and the result. Tonight, I’m going to speak again about what Amherst values, and I want to start with what you experienced yesterday afternoon.

The faculty was not here, and so I will summarize.

Yesterday our new students heard a stirring speech given by Rev. Phillip A. Jackson ’85. Rev. Jackson offered our new students three figures worthy of reflection, admiration, perhaps emulation. The first was a great Chinese poet, Tao Yuanming, who is remembered not only for his poetry, but also for his understanding of the importance of idleness—the kind of idleness that is not laziness, but the art of doing nothing when nothing is what is needed. In that space of idleness, Reverend Jackson suggested, we might encounter or glimpse a longer or wider horizon. We might encounter something he called the divine, or the transcendent.

The second figure he offered for consideration was the American architect Samuel Mockbee, who gave up a successful architecture practice to start a program at the Auburn University called the Rural Studio. Mockbee involved architecture students in the design and the building of beautiful dwellings for people in the poorest county in the United States: Hale County, Alabama.

And the third figure he offered you for admiration, consideration, and reflection was this man, whose portrait hangs above me, Charles Hamilton Houston, a 1915 graduate of Amherst, who developed the strategy and laid the groundwork for the eventual Brown v. Board of Education decision in the Supreme Court, which ended legal segregation.

In an inspiring account of Houston’s contributions, Rev. Jackson called him the best that Amherst has had. The best of us, the best of Amherst. And he ended by saying of Houston and his cousin and friend William Hastie, class of 1925, that they are you and you are they in promise and opportunity. He asked new students, and the rest of us, whether we have the courage to use our gifts to make a mark on the world for good.

The courage that he invoked was not just the courage it took to achieve what these men achieved, but also the courage to heed a calling. In the midst of doing other things, each of them heeded a calling to follow a different path and a different goal. For the poet, the encounter with what Rev. Jackson called “a larger and wider horizon,” or even “the divine,” was a death in his family that called him home and made him realize that the economic security of a civil service job was not worth giving up what he loved and could contribute to the world--poetry. In the case of the architect, it was seeing the grave of James Cheney, one of three civil rights workers murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. And Charles Hamilton Houston formulated his commitment to changing legal segregation when he experienced the virulent racism during World War I in the United States and France, where he served as a military officer.

Reverend Jackson asked each of us to consider whether we would have the courage to choose a different path, were we called, and the courage to use our gifts to make a difference in the world for good.

The response from our new students and the questions that you asked interested me as much as this wonderful talk. Your questions were a beautiful response. Let me give our faculty and other members of the audience a sense of what questions you posed. One of our students from Hong Kong volunteered and read one of T’ao Ch’ien’s poems in Chinese. One of you asked whether what Reverend Jackson called “the divine” is something that’s intrinsic to every one of us, or something acquired. Another asked how figures like Charles Hamilton Houston or Ruth Bader Ginsburg could be made better known and more greatly appreciated for the work they have done on behalf of civil rights. You asked how we could bring civility back to our national discussions, and whether there are times when civility needs to take a back seat in service to a cause. You asked whether the focus on particular forms of oppression or discrimination tended to obscure the intersections among them. You asked Reverend Jackson how you would know what your gift is, and how we know whether we are using that gift for good, whether our efforts will turn out to have been on the right side of history.

He did not try to answer all of those questions for you, but gave responses that opened up ways of thinking about them. The questions showed your lively minds, your sense of hope, your engagement—and also your optimism about what can be done. To the question about how we will know whether we’re using our gifts for good, Reverend Jackson did suggest that you let freedom be your guide. If what you’re doing has the goal and the outcome of greater freedom for the greatest number of people, you will have been using your gift for good.

We’re beginning this semester at a very troubled time. This is the hardest speech I’ve attempted to prepare, and it will not be adequate to the moment. Given that Amherst’s values are at odds with some of what is being done and said at the national level, we must use the possibility and the opportunity of the learning that is about to begin tomorrow morning. Hope lies in our interactions with each other and in our efforts to respect and to trust one another and avow the values in this community.

There are historical figures, texts, poems—Reverend Jackson suggested spiritual practices—that we turn to for inspiration, for solace in troubled times, for guidance. When it comes to Amherst presidents, I have always found myself turning to Alexander Meiklejohn. His portrait is in the back of the chapel. Why is Alexander Meiklejohn a president to whose writings I turn? I find him the most intellectually interesting, a president who thought about education deeply and in relation to larger issues and philosophical principles. I also have three institutions in common with Alexander Meiklejohn. He got a Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University in 1897. I did not teach and do research in 1897 at Cornell, but I did spend most of my academic career there.

He was president of Amherst College from 1913 to 1923 and then went to the University of Wisconsin to create an experimental college called Integrated Liberal Studies. He was adamant that a college curriculum in the liberal arts setting should provide integrated studies that informed students about what he called “permanent and recurrent problems in the society.”

Today he is known as one of the foremost defenders of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which is one of the reasons I turn to him. He was a member of the then-national committee of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was one of the most articulate proponents of the necessary link between freedom of speech and democracy itself. But he did not see the question of freedom of speech as an easy one. He is also known as a thinker who asked us to raise other ideals and a commitment to the common good to the highest level as well. If you want an example, look at Justice Stephen Breyer’s decision in a campaign finance case from 2000, Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC. There, Breyer cited Meiklejohn’s interpretation of the First Amendment, emphasizing that public need, rather than individual prerogative, was the way to think about campaign finance.

Meiklejohn objected to any interpretation of freedom of speech that was focused only on freedom from constraint. He wanted us to think about freedom of speech and academic freedom in terms of what that freedom was for. What ends should it serve? What is our ultimate purpose? And he showed the many ways in which we regulate our speech all the time, in the service of community and essential norms. He then went on to suggest that “the major crime against freedom of speech” is actually economic necessity, people’s fear of bigotry, and the lack of education that prevents many people from having their voices heard at all. I quote from Meiklejohn’s 1935 book What Does America Mean: “In church, in home, in the office, in mill, in newspaper, in theater, these human spirits are hemmed in by custom, terrified by bigotry and taboo, driven by economic necessity so that the honest and able thinking of which they are capable never comes into being at all.

“That,” he wrote, “is our major crime against freedom of speech.”

There are other principles that also matter. That is not to say there is an easy way of assessing how those principles should relate to one another in any particular case. It’s simply to complicate the question, in ways that are ethically and intellectually necessary.

One of the principles that mattered to Alexander Meiklejohn was truthfulness. He emphasized that without shared meaning, there is no structure to our relations and certainly no civic friendship. “There is, I am sure,” he writes, “no human virtue which goes so deeply into the making of a free society as the virtue of truth-telling. In its most essential aspect, human association is, depends upon, consists of communication. If men cannot trust the words which they speak or write to one another, the social structure collapses. If men lie, we have lost the only stuff of which human companionship can be made.”

We have a leader who lies as a matter of course. And in the face of that, we have to dedicate ourselves as strongly as ever, perhaps more strongly than ever, to truth-seeking, which is, after all, the purpose of academic freedom and academic pursuit. What we can do in the face of cynicism is commit to our values, avow the importance of the pursuit of truth (or its successive approximations), work together in that pursuit, respect one another’s efforts, be honest and respectful in our interactions as we pursue it. We have a sacred responsibility to pursue the truth, to call out lies and untruths when we hear them, and, in that way, to promote the common good.

Meiklejohn asks us to avoid thinking of freedom only as an individual right, to avoid thinking of it only in the terms of what you or I as an individual can get away with, and instead to think about how we can increase the possibility of having one’s voice heard for more people. Reverend Jackson’s guidance on how to know whether you’re working for good: the increase of freedom for the greatest number of people. This would be Meiklejohn’s guidance as well. What stands in the way of freedom of speech is not only prohibition, but also the failure to observe other principles.

At an academic institution, the freedom to pursue truth wherever it leads is our foundation. It is important for our new students to know that our teachers, our faculty, are entitled not only by this College, but by everything that matters in higher education in the United States, to full freedom in their research and in the publication of the results of that research. And they are entitled to full freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.

The American Association of University Professors, whose primary purpose is to defend academic freedom and to give guidance on its reach, notes that teachers also have a responsibility that goes with their freedom: to avoid controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. There are notes clarifying that guidance, which say: “The intent of the statement is not to discourage what is ‘controversial.’ Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is meant to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.”

College and university teachers are also citizens. As the AAUP reminds us, they are “members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” We follow this guidance. Our faculty members have the right to their opinions and to express those opinions outside of their field as citizens of the country under the provisions and limits set out by the AAUP.

This may not seem as pressing or even as intelligible to those of you who are new students as it is for the rest of us. For those of us who are faculty and administrators, these forms of guidance are central. What’s important for you is to know that we will protect the academic freedom of our faculty in their research and in the classroom. Furthermore, academic freedom in the classroom also protects you as students. You also have rights under academic freedom and its guidance by the AAUP to express your views and perspectives and to think for yourselves.

This brings me back to your emphasis on friendship. There is only one way for us to follow the guidance and principles that matter—by engaging with each other, informing each other, being truthful and responsible, and to weighing our principles and their implications as carefully, as clearly, as humanely as we possibly can. I wish tonight that I could tell you what might happen over the course of the semester that would require a response and a decision, how we will respond to the events on other campuses that have already occurred and could occur in the future, how we would apply the principles that guide us, what decisions we would make in a particular case. I wish that were feasible. But, in fact, it would be assuming (A) more authority and (B) more knowledge than I have or I should have to offer those kinds of answers. And that’s why I say that it is only our confidence and trust in one another, and our willingness to be forthright about our principles and our goals, that will allow us to come to good decisions when decisions are necessary.

It’s very appealing at times to come to an administration with the demand for a decision or a demand for an explanation or a demand even for apologies for the ways in which the College fails to live up to its own ideals. Tonight I am making a plea for forms of interaction and engagement with each other that put you in the position of helping make decisions and coming to terms with some of the things that will need to be determined. Friendship, as a civic necessity, will allow us to make wise judgments.

Tomorrow, it is highly likely that President Trump will announce that he is rescinding DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And as I think probably all of you know, this is a program that has allowed young people to pursue education and work and dreams after their families risked everything to come to the United States. It has given them the opportunity to live in the open as they pursue that education and work and make their contributions to this country, which they have every reason to consider their own. I consider it a travesty to put the promise of hundreds of thousands of people in jeopardy, to subject them to the threat of deportation and to limit their ability to make their mark. The decision that may be made that has been forecast would be deplorable, in my opinion, and using this moment I would urge everyone in our community—you come from everywhere in the country—to contact your elected representatives and appeal to them if this decision goes in the way the president has promised, to find a legislative remedy for the nearly 800,000 people who were brought to this country as children and are Americans in all but immigration status.

We continue to work with Massachusetts delegations who are leading the effort to find a legislative solution. I hope that you will join in this effort to put pressure on Congress to come up with a remedy. We will keep our commitments to our students—all of our students—regardless of what resources they have, regardless of their immigration status. We will meet every student’s full financial need, whether that student is an American citizen, a permanent resident, an international student or an undocumented immigrant. We will find ways to do that should federal funds be rescinded. And we will be there in other ways for our students—all of our students—offering counsel, legal advice and support.

Barring a lawfully issued subpoena or judicial order, the College will not share students’ records with anyone, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is College policy, but it is also federal law. Federal privacy law prevents any one of us from providing to anyone information about a student—their whereabouts, or anything else about them. Our campus police will not inquire about anyone’s legal status. They will not take part in actions with immigration enforcement officers should they ever come to our campus. I urge you to consult our website that gives more information about DACA—the program itself, and the resources available at the College.

In the face of the kind of adversity that we may see and many are already facing, we have to remember what we stand for, and first and foremost, we stand for the education and the welfare of our students. Every student on this campus belongs here. Every student on this campus deserves our support, and deserves the support of their fellow students and their faculty—and you will get that support.

This is a difficult time. It’s a difficult time to be a president. I will be the best president I know how to be with your help, your engagement, and your trust—not blind trust, but enough trust to know that the College’s values are values worth protecting and that we will fight to protect them. We stand against bigotry in all of its forms, against hatred, and discrimination. I grew up in what was then a  rural south of Virginia, in an environment that was racist, misogynist, homophobic, and, had it been 2017 in that environment instead of the 1950s and ’60s, transphobic.

I feel strongly about the stakes in what led up to Charlottesville and what has followed from it, the importance in ensuring that we hold to our values, that we fight the forms of bigotry on display in Charlottesville. We recognize that the leader of our country has given license to forms of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia. This is a list like that has evoked derision on the part of some as just another politically correct liberal list of grievances. But it is not just a list of politically correct views. It’s a recognition of what we must fight, what we stand for. We stand for the rights and the freedom for everyone, everyone who comes to this college.

I will not travel back down to the corridor to what I saw and experienced as a child in that part of the South. We have to work together in the pursuit of those truths and principles that allow us to oppose these forms of hatred, discrimination, bigotry. We’re not always going to approach things the same way. We’re not always going to agree about the means or what’s entailed in the ongoing pursuit of freedom. But I can tell you that it is a fight we have to enter in whatever way we consider right, appropriate, and in accord with our principles. The College will do everything possible to make sure that we stand with those who fight against the encroachment of bigotry in the United States.


word cloud - find full text of words on the page at the following link

Seeking Out Hope

Read our news story about Convocation 2017, and see photos and the “word cloud” taken from a student poll.