A man in a blue suit sitting on a window sill looking out the window
The news arrived on the first day of reunion: Michael A. Elliott ’92, a professor of English and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Emory University, would be Amherst’s 20th president. “Michael impressed the search committee and the board with the breadth and depth of his scholarly work, joined with a proven record of excellence in leadership,” said Andrew J. Nussbaum ’85, chair of the board and the search committee. Elliott is a scholar of late-19th and early-20th-century American literature. His books include the acclaimed Custerology (University of Chicago Press, 2007). At Emory, he worked to establish race and inequality as one of the college's signature research and teaching strengths and, with faculty, led the development of a new doctoral program in African American studies. During his tenure as dean, more than half of the college’s new faculty identified as underrepresented minorities or as women in STEM, or both. Elliott grew up in Tucson, Ariz. A summa cum laude graduate of Amherst, he majored in English and Russian and was editor of The Amherst Student, where he met his future wife, Jennifer W. Mathews ’91. They have two teenaged children. Elliott sat for this interview in June and began the job in August.

What appealed to you about this position initially?

I have had a terrific career at Emory, where the positions that I’ve held have offered me the chance to learn about what it means to support the liberal arts in our current moment. Like for many people, the pandemic led me to reflect on what’s most important to me about that work—and on what I might bring to the challenges that I care about most. I have a real passion for the liberal arts and for working with faculty and staff to think about what the liberal arts can and should be in the future. Amherst is one of a handful of institutions that’s positioned not only to defend the liberal arts but actually to define its future in a proactive and creative way. Because of where Amherst sits in the landscape of higher education, it doesn’t have to worry about following every trend—and, in fact, it can define the trends. That’s a remarkably privileged position, and an exciting one. Of course, Amherst also happens to be my own undergraduate institution. The thought of playing that leadership role at a place that has been so meaningful to me added something special to the possibility.

What else about Amherst at this point in its history made you want to be its leader?

The institution has momentum, because of its excellent leadership, faculty, students and alumni. Amherst is known nationally as being on the forefront of thinking about what it means to recruit and support a 21st-century student body. Similarly, Amherst has recruited a new generation of extraordinary scholar-teachers. And the alumni of Amherst College are an incredible asset. They are passionate, they often disagree with one another, and sometimes they disagree with the leadership of the College. I see that kind of engagement as a positive force that many other institutions would love to have.

Where will you begin as president?

One of the pleasures of being at an institution of Amherst’s size and scale is the opportunity for leaders to get to know people and their experiences at a granular, individual level. You can read reports. You can look at data. You can read the excellent stories in this magazine. But they only give you part of the story. I need to learn more about what it means to be on the campus today. I also plan to focus on strengthening a sense of academic community—something that has been undermined by the pandemic on every college campus.

What, to you, are the most important values of Amherst College today?

First is a core belief in intellectual rigor—in the power of deep, careful engagement with ideas. Amherst also places strong value on the autonomy of individuals. You can see that in everything from the open curriculum, which allows students to make decisions about their own academic futures, to the autonomy that faculty have over shaping courses, majors and new programs. That’s a real strength of the place. Alongside those beliefs in individual autonomy and intellectual engagement, Amherst places a premium on the relationships that exist among members of the community. The way that students talk about the professors who guide them, the way that faculty talk about the students who inspire them—that’s at the core of the Amherst experience. It binds together generations of alumni.

When you spoke to students, faculty and staff in Johnson Chapel in June, you said that you took this job because you want to do hard things, and you related it back to your arrival as a student, saying we all came here at some point because it was the most meaningful and important path, not the easiest one. What do you see as the most meaningful and important—and also the hardest—next steps for Amherst?

Amherst’s student body and faculty are the envy of many other institutions in higher education. The hard thing that comes next is to demonstrate the value of the Amherst experience as a public good, not simply a private good. We need to talk about and show why an Amherst liberal arts education provides a positive benefit to society beyond students’ individual careers and happiness. That’s a hard thing to do. It runs against the current of American society right now that understands higher education as only a private good. But we are Amherst. We didn’t come here to do easy things.

Michael Elliott working in his office at a wooden desk with a computer

Elliott in his new office in Converse Hall. “I like to ask big questions and then address them through finite, detailed problem solving,” he says.

Looking back at your career, how have you approached other hard things?

In an academic community, you can’t accomplish goals unless you have a keen understanding of how those goals resonate with the priorities of other people in that community. Nothing lasts or works just because a president or dean waves their hands and says, “We must do this.” I believe that leadership requires harnessing bottom-up energy from a community, and it also requires top-down signaling. The waving of the hands does matter—I don’t want to discount that. As a leader, I have found it important to talk about my ideas publicly, hear how the community responds and learn about what’s already happening that advances the priority. Often, there are many things going on that aren’t as visible as they should be or could be. And then you begin to set real goals and milestones, action items that have tangible results. You very rarely solve a big problem with one set of initiatives or action items, but you can make progress, and you can create spaces that lead to further creativity.

What’s an example of a hard thing you encountered as an Amherst student?

I came from a very different part of the country. Trying to figure out my place at the College was an important part of my Amherst journey, just as it was for many students then and surely now. One of the ways that I worked through that question as a student was to join The Amherst Student, which gave me a chance to get to know people across campus. It also taught me a lot about writing and editing. It brought me a little bit out of my introverted shell. At that moment, picking up the phone to call people was a hard thing for me to do. But because it was hard, it was really valuable.

We could also talk about Russian verbs of motion, which are the hardest thing that I think I’ve ever encountered academically. And I don’t know that I actually ever quite conquered them.

The Amherst Student was also where I met my future spouse, Jenn Mathews ’91. And so, Amherst is not just an important place for me, but also for our family. I have two younger brothers who went to Amherst, too. As you step back, it’s improbable that a family like ours, from southern Arizona, who had no familiarity with liberal arts colleges would send three boys off to the same small town in Western Massachusetts.

What made you choose Amherst in the first place? It was a long way from home.

My mother noted that. I was born in Washington state. I grew up in Arizona. No one in my family had attended a college like Amherst. I’d never even been to the Northeast. I had some romantic notions about New England—probably picked up through American literature—but also I loved the idea of a community the size of Amherst that was so devoted to the power of ideas. And, like so many people, I came to the campus on a visit after I’d been admitted and was entranced by the place. Another key attraction was the relationship between the College and the town—the way, even physically, that one bleeds into the other. Amherst seemed like a very attractive place to live. And it was.

What courses and professors engaged you the most at Amherst?

I majored in English and Russian, but when I came to Amherst I thought that I would study political science, and I did take a number of political science courses that are among my most memorable. I had tremendous professors: Barry O’Connell, Dale Peterson, Kathy Ciepiela [’83], Stephanie Sandler. I took my first English classes from David Sofield, whose English 11 syllabus I can recite to this day, perhaps even accurately. I had courses with both Bill and Jane Taubman, and with both Hadley Arkes and Austin Sarat. So I got the full experience.

Why did you choose English and Russian over political science?

I was captivated by the power of narratives. For me, studying literature also seemed like a way to understand how intellectual and artistic ideas are socially meaningful.

When did you know you wanted to be an English professor?

I started thinking about it seriously near the middle of my college career. I loved the environment of Amherst so much that I wanted to find a career in which I could be part of a world where people are constantly learning, where you have the freedom to create and innovate, and where conversations transpire among people with many different viewpoints.

And is that what’s happened?

Yes—I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I went to graduate school at  Columbia, and Emory was my first job out of graduate school. Although it is a research university, Emory prizes the undergraduate experience. It’s a place where the liberal arts continue to be very, very strong. I’ve had the opportunity to create new classes, to take students on study-abroad trips, to live among students as faculty-in-residence, to innovate new programs. I’ve also had the opportunity to make some mistakes, to try some things that didn’t actually work out. That’s important.

What’s an example of something that didn’t work out?

There are so many! For several years, I spent time interviewing people and attending meetings related to the development of a new public history institution in Atlanta—what became the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. I thought that I could write a book that would be a compelling story about both Atlanta and the challenges of telling the history of the civil rights movement. I collected a lot of terrific material, but I never found a way to write the book that I imagined. I still have the notes, though, and maybe I’ll get back to them someday.

Let’s talk about your area of study, late-19th- and early-20th-century American literature. What drew you to that specialty?

The real question is: How could anybody be interested in anything else? The late 19th and early 20th century is a moment in the United States when people are wrestling with questions that feel very relevant to our own moment: How do we pursue racial justice? How do we think about the growing inequality of wealth as new technologies allow for the accumulation of incredible fortunes? How do we think about the shifting nature of work? What is the role of women in a society where they have new opportunities for education? What does it mean to be an American in a society that is seeing waves of immigration from places that, at that time, were not understood as the traditional cradles of the American experience? I became particularly interested in the ways that these questions played out for Native American nations, which were trying to preserve a sense of sovereignty in a country that sought to incorporate them.

One of the many things that makes studying the past interesting is the way that the questions can seem both familiar and strange. From our contemporary standpoint, the answers don’t always line up with the politics that you would expect. In that familiarity and strangeness, you can start to think differently about the ways that ideas evolve. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling evolves in the face of social pressures.

Michael Elliott speaking at a podium with an Amherst Seal as a backgrond

Elliott welcoming new students to campus on Aug. 27. A few days later, he spoke at Convocation in his first major address as president. “A diverse democracy,” he said, “needs leaders who have received an education in the liberal arts.” Photograph by Maria Stenzel

What led you into administration?

One of the great pleasures of being a professor is that you get to focus on your own areas of interest and expertise. At the same time, I wanted to learn more about what it takes to make other fields run, including fields that I knew little about at the time. I started by working on questions of hiring, tenure, promotion and faculty development. I liked the opportunity to work with a team of people to address important matters. That’s been really enjoyable for me. I liked the chance to ask big questions and then address them through finite, detailed problem-solving. It’s fun to work on something that feels on the one hand very contained, but you can see it’s in the service of a larger mission.

I searched your name on the Amherst website. I don’t know if you know this, but Custerology was on the syllabus of a 2013 Amherst English class.

I did not know that.

It was a Lisa Brooks class called “The Spiral of Time in Native American Novels,” which is English 459.

I’m touched and honored. That’s probably the greatest sign of respect that anybody could ever receive from a fellow member of the faculty.

This means there is a small cohort of Amherst alumni who read your book for class.

I expect that they will have critiques for me, which is the Amherst way.

You are the first alum to serve as Amherst president since Julian Gibbs, class of ’47*. In what ways is your alumni status helpful, and in what ways does it bring special challenges? [*Editor's note: The version of this question that appears in the print magazine incorrectly states that Elliott is the first alum to serve as president since Calvin Plimpton '39. Gibbs served more recently, from 1979 to 1983. Plimpton was president from 1960 to 1971. We regret the error.]

Being an alum means that I start with a tremendous affection for the place and with some knowledge of its history. This also presents a challenge. I have some knowledge of Amherst history, but even my 1992 classmates had different experiences at Amherst than I did. It’s important that I don’t suggest that my experience is the only one.

Becoming the president is not an exercise in nostalgia for me. Actually, when I was on campus [in June], I visited some of the most meaningful places for me on campus so that I could do that myself, alone, before the students arrive. It’s important that I’m not approaching problems simply because of some experience that I had on the campus 30 years ago.

On the other hand, to me as somebody who believes in the importance of history, knowing something about what the campus was like 30 years ago is valuable. I was there at a time when coeducation still felt very recent and when the abolition of fraternities was even more recent. The history of those changes still matters to the campus today. I’m hopeful that, as I get to know more Amherst alumni, the fact of my Amherst experience will give us a common vocabulary for speaking together, not just about what Amherst has been, but about what it can and should be in the future.

What do you think Amherst can and should be in the future?

There are lots of places right now in higher education that are worried about defending the liberal arts. Amherst doesn’t need to defend the liberal arts. It is one of the most sterling and visible examples of what the liberal arts can achieve. It’s important to me that Amherst continues to innovate, both inside and outside the classroom, and that it tells the story and lives the story of why the liberal arts are so important for a democratic society. It’s important to show why this effort that we have made—to lower the socioeconomic barriers of student access and to recruit such a diverse, interesting generation of faculty—why that matters.

It matters because the problems we’re facing as a society and will be facing for decades to come will not be solved by technical expertise alone. Racial inequality, climate change, the future of democracy, the future of work: These problems require leaders who can think creatively; who can be compassionate and empathetic across divides of culture, class, national origin, religion and so on; who can communicate effectively; and who can be creative and innovative problem-solvers.

The pandemic has been a reminder that technology can’t save us from every problem. That we were able to come up with vaccines on incredibly short order and make them available is astonishing, but the ability of our social institutions to bring people together, to rally a sense of common good, to ensure that the impact of the pandemic is minimized in spite of real social inequalities—that has been much less successful. Those are the kinds of problems that leaders trained in the liberal arts should be ready to address.

What advice do you have for young people who are starting out in their careers? What do you want them to know?

What I would say to anybody at that stage is that the growing never stops. The learning never stops. The other thing I would say is that, as we get older, we realize the importance of the relationships that we formed as students and as recent graduates. It’s never too late to begin making new friends, and it’s also never too late to maintain and revive the friendships you already have.

We should talk about everybody’s favorite pizza place, Antonio’s, because I believe it opened while you were a student.

Yes, it did. Antonio’s is near and dear to my heart, and has achieved an iconic status in our family. We have many pictures of the kids at Antonio’s. There are some things that may change about Amherst in the future, but if I have anything to do with it, Antonio’s will remain forever.

Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor in chief of Amherst magazine.

Photographs by Jessica Scranton