President Michael A. Elliott
May 28, 2023
As I have been anticipating this day, this celebration of the Class of 2023, there’s an image that keeps coming to mind. It is a photo from the fall of 2020. In it, members of the Amherst Symphony Orchestra—including several of you who are graduating today—are performing outside, under a tent. The student-musicians are dressed in formal black, gripping their instruments, and they’re sitting six feet apart. They’re all masked, and all you can see of their faces is intense concentration. At the edge of the photo, the conductor, Mark Swanson—also masked—has raised his baton, and his arm is tense as he prepares to bring it down and launch the orchestra into the glory of their music, the magic of dozens of fingers and strings and reeds vibrating together in unison.
It’s an image that became even more powerful for me after I learned that it was captured by one of your classmates—Hantong Wu, a double major in Asian Languages and Political Science from Hangzhou, in eastern China. Hantong’s photographs, and the photographs of so many student-photographers, offered a window into the pandemic Amherst for all of us who were away from it. There is something about this photo, in particular, that has stayed with me. Maybe it is the fact that at any other time in Amherst’s history, and certainly when most of you arrived in the fall of 2019, seeing masked musicians sitting so far apart from one another would have seemed like a scene from a bad science fiction movie. Or perhaps it’s because there is something in this photo that profoundly captures your experience as students during the pandemic—the musicians are together, but apart—united, but still distant from one another, playing the same music but in a new way, in more challenging conditions than any of them had ever encountered before.
Today, as we gather on this quad, that image—like so many others from that time—already feels like it is receding into history.
Commencement Day is a day of looking backward and forward at the same time, remembering where we have been, as photos help us to do—appreciating this moment of celebration—and anticipating where we will go as we leave this quad. We all know that memory also requires some selective forgetting. I have been wondering all year, Class of 2023, what will you remember and what will you forget from your years of pandemic education? What will you keep and what will you discard from your time of being together and apart?
Through the challenges of the pandemic you were forced into independence—as your classmate Ernest Collins put it in his brilliant spoken-word remarks at Senior Assembly, you “went to different places and watched society spin on its faces,” and still, as Quentin just reminded us, you “pushed through.”
In spite of masks, the restrictions on gathering, the constant testing, you pushed through the most difficult campus environment in the last fifty years: you excelled in the library and the lab, on the stage and on the field—you studied, you sang, you protested.
You discovered that the pursuit of knowledge can be a lonely one—whether you’re zooming from bedrooms and kitchens around the world, staking out a controversial position around a seminar table, or as Quentin just described to us, toiling away on a thesis down in B level.
And then I have seen you in this last year experience the joy of being physically together again—of sitting across the tables in Val for long hours; of dancing, singing, running up and down the playing fields; of working through the boundaries of knowledge in the lab, and of waving your hands in the air at White-Out raves. I hope you will remember all of that as well.
Looking forward should not be the same as forgetting. Even as you think about the future, I urge you to hold on to what you learned through your experience of having your entire world disrupted, of having your time as a student shaped so profoundly by events out of your control. And as we celebrate your success—and appreciate all of the obstacles that you overcame—it is important that neither you nor Amherst College forget all that you have done in your time here. You deserve the honor of that memory.
The unpleasant past is too easily forgotten by institutions, and so it is important to note that this Commencement marks an important anniversary for Amherst College.
One hundred years ago, when the Class of 1923 was graduating, one of Amherst’s most influential and important presidents—Alexander Meiklejohn—presided. Meiklejohn was an ambitious, headstrong, sometimes difficult president who oversaw the transformation of Amherst College from a tradition-bound, intellectually dull institution rooted in the nineteenth century into a rigorous, nationally acclaimed college that prepared its students for the future. He was not always popular with the faculty, especially the older faculty, but he seems to have been embraced by the students—who called him “Prexy.” (You can call me “Prexy.”)
You can picture the scene—100 years ago, a lot of men in dark coats and women in long dresses are gathering in Converse Library for the 102nd commencement celebrating the graduates of Amherst College. The ceremony, then as now, capped off a week of festivities that was filled with distinguished guests, pomp, and circumstance. The only problem was this: The day before the Commencement activities, President Meiklejohn had been summarily fired—or forced to resign—by the Board of Trustees—who were concerned about his handling of personal finances and tired of hearing from faculty who complained that he ran the College like an autocrat. When it became known that Meiklejohn had been forced to resign, several students decided to refuse their diplomas at Commencement, and The New York Times—always on the hunt for a tale of academic drama—covered it on the front page for several days running.
So today, as I stand here on the anniversary of Meiklejohn’s dismissal, at the beginning of my presidency, I do so with a little trepidation. If I seem a little nervous to be standing here with my back to the Board of Trustees, it’s because I know my history.
Meiklejohn’s career, though, should remind us of the most important message that I have for you, the Class of 2023. There is life—in fact, rich and rewarding life—after Amherst College.
Though Meiklejohn is remembered here as one of Amherst’s most important presidents, he became a figure of even greater national prominence after he left Amherst. He was a pioneer in experimental education, including the education of working adults and education for civic democracy. He wrote several important books. And he became one of the twentieth century’s most influential advocates of free speech and interpreters of our Constitution’s First Amendment, even though he did not have a law degree.
It is that last piece of Meiklejohn’s legacy that I think makes him so important for us, today, in 2023, 100 years after Amherst fired him. Meiklejohn was a fierce defender of intellectual freedom—a strong believer in our right to speak freely and without restraint on matters of public interest, regardless of whether the ideas were unorthodox or even seemed dangerous. He believed that intellectual freedom was a critical component of what he called “The Liberal College.” For him, academic freedom was essential to the work of a college, because it is in the freedom of our faculty and our students to pursue truth—and to disagree with one another freely and openly about how to pursue truth—that we serve society. What makes academic freedom—the freedom of colleges to determine what they teach, how they teach, and who they teach—so important is that it is through its exercise that we serve a larger, public purpose.
The reason that I am speaking to you about Meiklejohn today is I believe that it is essential for every generation of Amherst’s leadership to renew the commitment to these ideals: First, a firm belief that academic freedom is the bedrock of liberal education—and that our commitment to it is unwavering, even if—and perhaps especially since—we may argue about how we exercise that freedom. And second, a principle that our academic freedom must be joined to a deep obligation to educate our students to serve, advance, and improve free, just, democratic, pluralist societies.
Those foundational beliefs must be renewed and reaffirmed because, at this very moment in the twenty-first century, they are under attack and subject to deep suspicion, and powerfully so. State legislatures across this country are working to constrain the ability of universities and colleges to fulfill their mission and to curtail the freedom that, thankfully, we enjoy at Amherst as a private institution. The Supreme Court is considering arguments that would restrict the ability of Amherst and other colleges to select and compose the racially diverse student body that we believe best serves our mission to educate students to be leaders, engaged citizens, and servants of democratic societies. And most Court experts predict that the ways we pursue our mission will be severely curtailed.
Unfortunately, the growing mistrust in institutions of higher learning among some factions of our country has been translated into an attempt to restrain how we teach, and who we teach.
If Amherst is going to continue to be an exemplar of “The Liberal College,” as Meiklejohn hoped for us, then we must both embrace the freedom that he espoused and earn back society’s trust by demonstrating our commitment to using what we have learned to serve the interests of the greater good, in large and small ways.
We must be clear that at Amherst we believe in and practice freedom of inquiry—and we must also be clear that we embrace our obligation to serve the public interest.
You who are sitting here as the Class of 2023 – probably without even realizing it, you have been both the beneficiaries and the embodiment of the kind of intellectual freedom that I have been describing. You have walked out of class to call attention to the needs of your mental health. You have challenged the College to repair and redress our own institutional history of racial harm; you advocated for reproductive rights, and for a rethinking of how we maintain our physical safety on campus. You have confronted me about the way that we pay and treat our staff at the College. You have argued about what it means to live in a democratic society—about domestic and international issues, about the College’s obligations to fight climate change and support our local communities. You have written senior theses in which you argue for dignity, for rethinking the foundations of the Constitution, for reforming the way we support students with disabilities. You have asked for a better Amherst that prepares its students to explore and excel in careers with social impact.
A campus that is less open in its inquiry, that constrains the range of its debate, or that is prohibited by the government from selecting the students it deems best suited to advance its mission will also be a campus that will be less capable of taking on the hard questions that you have asked of Amherst College.
Today, on this stage, I am joined by a remarkable group of people who have each used their intellectual freedom to serve society—through archival and scientific research, through poetry and journalism, and through institutional reform in education and in the business world. They have fearlessly and uncompromisingly investigated our past and looked to the future.
All of our honorary degree recipients honor us with their presence, and I am especially delighted that we could have with us Oleksandra Matviichuk from the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. For years, Ms. Matviichuk, now Dr. Matviichuk, and her organization have tirelessly advocated for democracy and the rule of law, championing legislative and judicial reforms that have transformed Ukraine's government and civil society. Since the occupation of Crimea in 2014, they have documented tens of thousands of war crimes and instances of political persecution--work that became even more urgent and difficult with the full-scale Russian invasion nearly 16 months ago. In recognition of this essential work defending human rights, the Center for Civil Liberties was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Memorial, a Russian human rights organization that has been suppressed by that nation’s government, and Ales Bialatski, a democracy and human rights advocate in Belarus.
Oleksandra Matviichuk’s work is a reminder that so much of what we take for granted every day —a civil society, the rule of law, human freedom—must be remade and fought for by every generation. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she argued, powerfully, that the responsibility for advocating for a free and just society lies not only with politicians, but with us all. Ordinary people, she said, have much more influence than they realize. And she called on us—all of us—to create together “a new humanist movement that would work with society at the level of meaning, educate people, build grass-root support, and engage people in the protection of rights and freedoms.”
That is a lofty goal and an ambitious project— and I can think of no one better, no one more prepared, to advance such a movement than the Class of 2023 of Amherst College—wherever you go, whatever you do. At Amherst, we believe that no place and no person is too small to have a larger impact and meaning to the world.
Earlier, as I was telling you the story of Alexander Meiklejohn’s being fired, I said Commencement was his final act in 1923 as Amherst president, but that’s not exactly the case. He actually presided over what was a presumably awkward post-Commencement dinner the next evening, delivering closing remarks to students and alumni.
“What is America today?” he asked at that celebration 100 years ago. “It is a people trying to be a democracy but not knowing what a democracy is.” His words are true today, still, not only for America, but for so many nations of the world, including Ukraine. You, who are sitting here today, will be among those, I hope, who will help us come closer to discerning, finally, what a democracy is—and what it should be. America, Meiklejohn concluded, “with its attempt to live beautifully, honestly, generously, courageously, is a glorious, mad, intoxicating thing. And I have had a good taste of it—and so have you. But now you go your way—and I go mine…. And we will, I trust, keep honest toward one another.”
As we go our own way, let us keep honest with one another, Class of 2023, by committing to both remembering the past with fidelity and working together with intelligence, with deliberation, and with empathy to create a shared future that better serves us all. Let us all remember again those musicians from Fall 2020, photographed so brilliantly on the Val Quad by Hantong: your classmates, bringing forth melody and harmony in spite of being seated so far apart. The photograph itself may be silent, and the players may be masked. But if you spend enough time looking into their eyes, I think you can tell that underneath it all, they are forever smiling.