President Elliot and Governor Maura Healey speaking on a stage

Gov. Healey and President Elliott spoke to a packed Johnson Chapel.

The single best way to make change is to be the change maker, and to do that, you have to be in the room, or support those who are in the room. The world needs you.”

So said Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey on an  October evening in a packed Johnson Chapel. She was there for a conversation with President Michael A.  Elliott titled “Democracy and the Greater Good,” held to mark the 60th anniversary of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s October 1963 address on campus, as Elliott seeks to renew Amherst’s commitment to supporting democracy. In the week prior to Healey’s visit, the  College hosted an alumni panel on the same theme.

Elliott began the night by quoting from Kennedy’s speech: “In return for the great opportunity which society gives the graduates of this and related schools, it seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools’ graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest.”

Elliott linked Kennedy’s call to the Amherst of 2023—and the years ahead: “Six decades after Kennedy’s famous speech, now is the time for this College to rededicate ourselves to educating students for democracy, to building and promoting a culture among our students in which their Amherst experiences will prepare them for a lifetime of contributing to the greater good.”

Indeed, that commitment to democracy and the greater good is one of Elliott’s strategic priorities for the College. He listed a number of actions to support his call, both ongoing and new, such as those from the Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning. These include the Loeb’s new Social Impact Careers  programming; an Interns for Democracy program that will support paid summer internships for democracy-oriented organizations; and grants for graduating students who choose to work in the nonprofit sector, thanks to funding from an alumnus sitting in the audience, Sandy Rosenberg ’72, the longest-serving member of Maryland’s House of Delegates.

Elliott also cited the Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s “Thinking Democratically” faculty seminar; Professor Martha Umphrey’s Open Minds Project, which will invite students to hear and make opposing arguments on a single question; and the student groups Amherst Students for Democracy and the Amherst Political Union.

John F Kennedy addressing a group of people from a wooden balcony on the campus of Amherst College

President Kennedy offered inspiring words on democracy at the dedication of Frost Library in 1963. 

The College, in addition, is expanding its commitment to the community, added Elliott, from collaborating with Amherst public schools to contributing a $1 million gift to the local Jones Library Building Project, “in recognition that libraries are essential democratic institutions.” 

Sitting on overstuffed chairs on the chapel’s stage, Elliott and Healey chatted about her career path, from her undergrad years at Harvard to her job as a cocktail waitress (“I learned as much about life in that experience as any”), to touring Europe as starting point guard of the UBBC Wüstenrot Salzburg professional basketball team, to her career as a lawyer in private practice. After that came her switch to public service, as chief of the state attorney general’s civil rights division, then as the Massachusetts attorney general and governor. 

She spoke of her vision for the state, and said housing was her first area of concern; before this event, she toured a new affordable housing development near Pratt Field that the College has helped support. And she took questions from students, on topics such as the state’s public transportation and educational systems. Healey said these systems shore up democracy by  increasing access and equity.

She cited an Amherst student by name, Theo Dassin ’24, co-founder of Amherst Students for Democracy, who, along with co-founder Aidan Orr ’24, spoke on stage that night. 

Healey added that now is a time in which democracy seems fragile and discourse has broken down. “We must protect the First Amendment and our right to engage in diversity of thought and expression of views,” she said. It was not lost on the audience that one form of expression was happening just outside, as some 100 students gathered on the quad to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war.

In his opening remarks, Elliott noted that, when planning first began for the night’s conversation, he could not have anticipated “the devastating violence and staggering loss of life in the Israel-Hamas war, the terrorist attacks on Israel and the widening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” These events, he added, “have sharpened our resolve to rededicate ourselves to educating students for democracy and service to the world.”

Elliott later asked what tangible suggestions the governor might offer to students to help fortify democracy. She suggested they get involved locally, by voting, working for a newspaper, or serving on school committees and other governing bodies.

“I can’t encourage public service enough,” she said. “Your ability to make an impact is so profound. You don’t have to be like me, out in front of a camera. There are so many ways to serve in government. Nothing you do will be as interesting or as satisfying as working in public service. It’s where the action is.”

Johnson Chapel photo: Maria Stenzel; Kennedy photo: Pat Deleon ’64