Biddy Martin’s Address

May 30, 2021

“I know you will advance every institution or cause you take up. The world has never needed you more.” Watch President Martin’s address to the Class of 2021. See transcript.


Two hundred years ago, Amherst’s first president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, arrived on horseback from Williamstown with a satchel of books and 15 Williams students who were, wisely, transferring to Amherst. In our Bicentennial planning, we had decided to re-enact this part of Amherst’s origin story—the current president and 15 of you, members of the Bicentennial class, riding on horseback over a smaller hill than the Hoosac mountains, then onto the quad. But for COVID, I’m sure we’d have done that.

There were only two graduates at Commencement 200 years ago: Ebenezer Strong Snell and Pindar Field. Like you, they celebrated their graduation without receiving official degrees. And why was that? The College did not receive a charter from the legislature until 1825, in part because of opposition from Harvard, Yale, and Williams and from people in towns like Northampton that had competed with Amherst for a new college. The Commencement was a festival that involved the entire town and surrounding region. It lasted all day, and it included more than a dozen orations in Greek, Latin, and English. I wasn’t there, but it sure sounds like fun. (Honestly, I think it does!) That’s how they educated ministers in 1821. Not so much now.

You could understand why Williams might resent us, their president having left to lead the new college in Amherst, adding insult to injury by saying that Williamstown was simply too remote to attract students. For Harvard and Yale, the issue was competition and their objections to the orthodox Calvinism of the founders. Despite all the naysayers, on the campus the students earned admiration not only from their faculty, but also from others who appreciated their seriousness of purpose. None other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher, essayist, and abolitionist, just out of Harvard, visited the relatively new college in 1823 and wrote that:

The infant college is an infant Hercules. Never was so much striving, outstretching, and advancing in a literary cause as is exhibited [at Amherst]. The students all feel a personal responsibility in the support and defense of their young alma mater against antagonists. And the students are all divided into thriving opposition societies, which gather libraries, laboratories, mineral cabinets, etc., with an indefatigable spirit, which nothing but rivalry could inspire. Upon this impulse, they write, speak, and study in a sort of fury, which, I think, promises a harvest of attainments.

That is Ralph Waldo Emerson on Amherst.

I think this intensity, this studying sometimes “in a fury,” also infuses Amherst today, not just in classrooms but in the other things that you decide to do.

All the money that had been raised for this new college was earmarked for student financial aid and could not be used for construction. Another fundraising campaign yielded South Hall, which stands today, though a little bit renovated since 1821. There were only funds initially for three professors—and what did they teach? Mathematics and natural philosophy; rhetoric; and what were called the learned languages. President Moore added moral philosophy and theology. The ministry was seen to be grounded in the study of these areas, math, natural philosophy, Greek, and Latin.

The students lived very differently than the way you’ve lived at Amherst. In his history of Amherst, Claude Moore Fuess tells us that

there was no danger that the collegians would be enervated by luxury. A portion of the ten acres was set aside so that charity students could have their own plots of land for gardens. They took entire care of their rooms, without the aid of a janitor or chambermaid. They sawed their own wood, made their own fires, and drew their own water from the college well.

We could have re-enacted all of that, too—if COVID hadn’t gotten in the way.

But we could also have just gone back one hundred years, as Provost Epstein did on Friday, and re-enacted the Centennial oration given in 1921 by President Alexander Meiklejohn. You won’t remember that I spoke about Meiklejohn at your convocation in 2017. You may not even recall that Provost Epstein referred to him on Friday. But it is worth paying heed to Alexander Meiklejohn. In his speech at the Centennial celebration, he offered three hopes, which he called three prophecies, for the next hundred years of the College. Interestingly, he opened by telling the assembled trustees and alumni that he was not speaking to them; his speech was, instead, addressed to us, here today, in 2021. He titled his speech “What Does the College Hope to Be During the Next Hundred Years?”

He was speaking after the end of World War I; in the midst of gloom over the failed peace, rising inflation, increasing inequality, anti-immigrant sentiment; and only a year after the pandemic known as the Spanish flu had come under control after killing 10s of millions of people around the world.

His first hope, or prophecy, was that America should become independent politically and culturally from the Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain. The best essay I have read on this speech was delivered during Reunion this year by Robert Howard from the class of ’76. In that talk, Howard reminds us that the term Anglo-Saxon came into use after Reconstruction as part of the effort to deny the role of slavery in the Civil War and to promote Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Meiklejohn was arguing in 1921 for what today we might call diversity and antiracism. He argued, as Provost Epstein mentioned on Friday, “for welcoming boys of other stocks”—his language. And, as Provost Epstein pointed out, he made sure that Amherst did. This was a speech given to an audience that included opponents of immigration, including Calvin Coolidge (the then vice president and soon-to-be president of the United States). Knowing his audience, Meiklejohn addressed them by saying, “We have already here one people whom we rule, with whom we do not genuinely associate. … How many more subject races would we like to have?” 1921 was the year of the Tulsa race massacre, the murder of over 300 Black citizens in attacks by whites on the ground and from the air, destroying a thriving Black urban community—and then burying evidence of the massacre. May 31 to June 1 marks the hundredth anniversary of that massacre. There were others.

Meiklejohn’s second hope was that idealism would be restored to what he saw as an overly materialistic society. “Men’s lives are thwarted,” he wrote, “stunted, twisted, throttled, killed by circumstances of every sort. That is our failure, even more than theirs.” He continued, “each life shall be what it might be, what may be made of it, what under favoring circumstances, it may become.” The goal of a democratic society and a liberal arts college should be to ensure that, under favoring circumstances, each life can be what it has the potential to be, and the College and society should do what they can to create those favoring circumstances. You have pointed out that we here at this College have not yet done enough to create equally favoring circumstances for everyone. I accept that criticism.

Meiklejohn’s third prophecy was that faith would be restored, not religious faith per se, but faith in the values he associated with democracy. Among those values, he included education, liberal arts education specifically. And here’s what he said about American society in 1921: “This lack of faith appears today,” he said, “most clearly in our cleverness. We have become too shrewd…. We know too well the tricks of using for our own ends both men and truth.”

Howard suggests, and I agree, that Meiklejohn believed “people had to learn how to be democratic through critical intelligence and ethical understanding.” And he took both, critical intelligence and ethical understanding, to be the goals of an Amherst education. Just two years after Meiklejohn gave this Centennial speech, he was forced by the trustees to resign. No one knows the actual reasons. He was said to be a bad administrator, in part—a bully who had stirred a faculty revolt against his attempts to require the teaching of courses that would give students ways of understanding the social, economic, and political realities of the day. Some said that he and his wife had overspent or that his wife had misused funds. (It’s always the wife.) He left Amherst and went to the University of Wisconsin, another place in my heart, where he created a liberal studies program that still exists—but not as the core of the required curriculum.

Here we are now in 2021, a world that is different, yet not different enough from the world of Alexander Meiklejohn in 1921. We are seeing the damage to democracy that results from denials of science, evidence, and truth. We are living with the undeniable consequences of extreme economic and racial inequalities, exposed in yet another way in the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black and Latinx communities and on the poor and elderly all over the world. We have seen the scourge of bigotry in overt white supremacist or Anglo-Saxon speech and violence, including violence against Asian Americans.

What Meiklejohn could not have known in 1921 was the urgency of global warming, the human causes of it, and the pressing need to take immediate and concerted action against it.

At Amherst, we have succeeded in bringing a very diverse group of students, fulfilling Meiklejohn’s hope in that way, but we have not yet created the conditions that would make Amherst as inclusive and equitable as it needs to be, to the detriment of too many students—students of color, students with disabilities, and queer and trans students, among others.

Your time at Amherst has been full of extraordinary challenges for all of you. And yet you, too, have studied in a kind of fury, as Amherst expects. And, with the support of faculty, staff, and friends, you have stretched intellectually beyond what you probably could have imagined when you arrived. You completed your coursework over the past 15 months during a global pandemic and with constant reports of racial violence. During your time at Amherst, Anglo-Saxon supremacism has been on full display in the country, and it has been made overt at the highest levels of government. And, still, you rise to the challenge while also challenging the wrongs.

I have tremendous respect for you. Despite the constraints required by COVID, the losses of time and proximity to one another, and the exhaustion of having to fight against racism and gender norms, among other ills—not only beyond the bubble, but also within it—despite all of that, you have done remarkable work, and you have shown remarkable leadership.

Eleven of you have won Fulbright Grants. Jeremy Thomas was named a Rhodes Scholar. Two of you were awarded prestigious Watson Fellowships: Eniola Ajao ’21 and Margot Lurie ’21. Forty-four percent of the graduating class wrote senior theses. Many of us had the good fortune to hear about some of your theses at the Zoom production of the Three-Minute Thesis competition—three minutes of incredible clarity from each of you about topics as complex as biodegradable plastics; the possible molecular basis of autism spectrum disorders; and anti-Asian hate and violence. Some of us also got to hear brief thesis presentations in physics and astronomy, equally clear and compelling, even if not always understood by this particular guest.

Improvements in the course of the virus and vaccinations near the end of the semester allowed me to attend three live student-organized events. (Only three! Usually, in the spring, I attend so many more.) The first was Project 2020, an art installation that took place on a beautiful night, brisk and clear, with a full moon rising above Merrill. Student films were projected on the walls of the building, along with videos of students using dance and movement to reflect on the isolating experience of COVID.

The second live performance was the Dance and Step at Amherst College showcase. Just a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of students sat in folding chairs or on blankets on the rolling green hills of the outdoor amphitheater outside the Science Center. The performances were riveting. I marveled at the talent of the dancers, who are also choreographers, all of them current students, and many of them you, seniors. I was amazed by the technical and design artistry, also done primarily by students. I wondered how you could possibly have imagined, planned, created, practiced, and performed so extraordinary a show while completing coursework, participating in student government, getting tested three times a week, and keeping distant and safe. It was simply remarkable.

And third, with a handful of others, I attended Obed Amissah’s senior organ recital in Buckley, where Obed played three gorgeous pieces of music, very different pieces, that he had chosen and interpreted in a breathtakingly beautiful recital. Obed has studied organ while at Amherst with a faculty member at Mount Holyoke, traveling to South Hadley to use the organ. And then, COVID hit. Knowing that he would be lost and unable to do thesis work without an organ, Professor David Schneider in our music department searched far and wide until he found an organ somewhere nearby, at a place that rents organs to bands for a night or two at a time. David Schneider convinced them to rent it to us for 10 months and, with the help of our incredible staff, the organ was moved into Obed’s dorm room where he was able to practice with headphones at any time of day or night, in preparation for his remarkable recital.

These stories of student achievement, faculty inspiration and support, and the generosity and competence of staff are the best that Amherst has to offer. They are the best any place has to offer. We have been given valuable lessons during COVID in how interdependent we are. As the Dalai Lama says, we are not made for independence, but for interdependence. How much we need each other! Our success in keeping people safe depended on your restraint, your hard work and cooperation, and on the resilience of faculty and staff. And you, students (not all equally, I know), rewarded our trust in you by doing what was needed.

Now I want to go back briefly to your first day on campus, in August 2017. After you had unpacked, you gathered for a short talk I gave about Amherst’s values. After I spoke, you were asked to list the three words that made the biggest impression on you for the purpose of creating a word cloud. That word cloud is up on the screen. Clearly, friendship stood out, followed by diversity, support, community, intellectual, excellence, and others. These are the values—friendship, diversity, support, community, intellectual, and excellence—that need to cohere in ways that they don’t yet fully cohere at the College. In your Integrate Amherst campaign, you have said as much.

Because you have dwelled on the importance of friendship in the celebrations you’ve had this spring, at least some of which I was able to hear online—you gave such beautiful tributes to your friends at special ceremonies—I want to dwell on the importance of friendship to our well-being and our growth. We become who we are, I think, because of the worlds that are opened up by the friends we make. I have had the great fortune in my life of having close friendships that have held for over 40 years, since our days as students in Madison, Wis. We studied in different fields, but we were all involved in the gay and lesbian activism of the time and in the still-nascent women’s studies program. We got to know each other through intellectual interests at a moment when it was not only possible but imperative that we let the one—our intellectual lives—be influenced by the others—our political and personal lives. In winter, we took time out from our studies to go cross-country skiing in the arboretum. On weekends, we gathered for coffee and talked until late afternoon. There was no season in which we did not interrupt dissertation work to go to Ella’s Deli for ice cream sundaes. (I don’t know how many we ate; I don’t know how we did it, but I’m still proud.) We stood on picket lines during the teaching assistants’ strike. We made flyers protesting the academic conferences in our departments that had included no women. When I was asked as a grad student to teach feminist theory to undergraduates, the entire friend group came to every class so that we could read and digest the material together (and so that they could tell me where they thought I had gone wrong). We lived in a time when friendship, intellectual life, and political activism were bound up with one another, sometimes in tension with one another, but in ways that made everything we were doing seem to matter. And you live in such a time, as well. We used to travel an hour and a half to at least one performance at the outdoor Shakespeare theater. And once, after a performance of The Merchant of Venice—a wonderful performance—for some reason, we got into a rip-roaring fight about Heidegger on the way home. There was so much anger in that exchange that I worried the friendships could not be repaired. (Heidegger can inspire that kind of anger, as well as reverence.)

All the new friendships that each one of us has made over 40 years have enriched us and our long-standing friendships, and they have allowed all of us to be part of much bigger worlds than we could have been on our own. We have learned what friendship teaches about the value of honesty and commitment, how trust is earned—that it has to be earned—and how it can be sustained in the face of disagreement, disappointment, periods of discord, even long periods of separation. In that way, friendship is a lesson about what societies need. In its enduring form, friendship requires the acknowledgment of the wrongs we commit against one another and the harm they can do—societies, too, need to acknowledge the harm they have done—even, as in friendships, when the harm might have been inadvertent. I believe that love of country and love of a college, not only the love of a friend, requires acknowledging and setting right the harm when it has been made apparent. There can be no true bonds among people, no friendship of the private or of the public kind, without truth-telling. For leaders to lie about known facts is an assault on our sense of reality. To do that intentionally not only sows division; it also affects everyone’s mental health. In the face of intentional lies and gaslighting, friendship, solidarity, and a shared sense of what is real and what is true is all the more important, especially for those whose very identities are under attack. I had that solidarity, and I know that many of you do as well.

College is for intellectual development, for acquiring habits of mind that will serve you throughout your lives, not just in careers but in relation to yourselves and others. College is also for making friends and for the development of those qualities that friendship requires. And at their best, these two qualities, these two projects—the intellectual and the interpersonal—inform and enhance one another. I hope that, as alumni, you will carry your friendships with you, that you will build new friendships, maybe with classmates here today that you didn’t get to know while students.

Our goal here at Amherst, which you will continue to help us reach as alums, is to reach beyond the focus we have placed on the students we have brought or attracted here, to something more important, namely to ensuring that every one of those students can be OK—and can also thrive, but first, on a day-to-day basis, can be OK—and have equal access to the best the place has to offer. That is our aspiration, and that is our concrete intention. That we haven’t realized it yet to the extent we must makes me sad for those of you who have felt harm.

We are launching you into a world that doesn’t actually make these promises. Whatever your relationship to the College has been as a student, I hope you realize that when you’re out there in a world that doesn’t make these promises of friendship and equity, that you will realize that Amherst is always here, regardless of your experience over these four years. It has been here for its graduates for 200 years. Our alumni have made the College what it is—through their philanthropy for sure, but also through their engagement and their criticism of the College. I expect nothing less of you. Your insistent critiques have helped move things forward. Even when we have not agreed about the pace of change or the process through which change can come, I have had the greatest admiration for your determination to create a better Amherst and a much better world. I know you will advance every institution or cause you take up. The world has never needed you more.

Congratulations to all of you, and thank you.