May 24, 2009

AMHERST, Mass. — Calling the members of the Class of 2009 “the real return on our endowment,” Amherst College President Anthony W. Marx today urged the school’s graduates to “step into the forest ahead, toward rewards you had not even known you would seek” because “what we do is invest in you, in your possibilities.” “Our most significant endowment lies in you, as it lies in the generations of alumni you now join,” he told the assembled students in his traditional address during the college’s 188th Commencement. His remarks and the exercises themselves capped a weekend of activities celebrating the graduating seniors. The events also included the awarding of eight honorary doctorates to distinguished guests and 419 bachelor of arts degrees to the students, as well as lectures, concerts and other festivities.

Amherst President Anthony W. Marx
Marx began his speech by talking about the current economic landscape and how the financial crisis, in his opinion, was brought on by a “false, even destructive assumption about the nature of enterprise in society.” “Individual ingenuity came to be worshipped in the view that individual gain all by itself would lead inevitably to benefits for everyone…. We forgot that, left unchecked, individual enterprise is as likely to lead to a contagion of sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps as it is to penicillin or the microchip.” He praised the graduates for their courage in the face of such great change. “You have chosen, over and over, to step forward into unfamiliar territories. As a result, you now know how each such step you take enriches your life and the lives of those around you.” He similarly commended them for their service-mindedness. “Having struggled with, voiced and answered the cries of social conscience, you know that surrendering yourself to help others always ends up helping you, too.”

Marx went on to explain how the current crisis isn’t the first the college has endured in its nearly two centuries of existence. “Since our founding in 1821 we have recovered from frequent recessions and from three great depressions. In each instance, the college maintained or even increased financial support for its students who had come to need it more,” he said. “And, in each instance, the college reinforced a faculty who could teach us how to create a better world. We have come to this same place today.” Thankfully, current alumni, parents, students, staff, faculty and trustees, he said, have joined together to understand and counter the threat to the idea of the liberal arts college and to Amherst’s ideals by “sustaining an inspiring curriculum, a respected staff, a faculty who both teach us to achieve a better world and who nourish that world with scholarship and the most talented of students, who are brought here regardless of ability to pay, but from the widest array of experiences, so that they will lead principled lives of consequence.”

While living by such common values is perhaps an easy thing to do on campus, Marx conceded that in reality some people’s individual needs coincide with the greater good and some do not. But he charged the Class of 2009 to be vigilant against selfishness nonetheless. The college’s legacy depends on the graduates, he said: “You are the real return on our endowment. It exists in the lives you will lead, in the careers you will pursue. The multiplier effect of an Amherst education will ripple through you and countless others who will be inspired by you.”

“Ours is an investment that yields an even greater return in difficult times such as these, as the world stands needing of the gifts of principled determination for the lives of great consequence that you now have to offer,” he concluded. “With joy, confidence and pride, we watch and support you as you proceed before us.”

Marshall Nannes ’09
Prior to Marx’s remarks, the graduates heard from Marshall Nannes ’09, who was chosen by his classmates to speak at the ceremonies. Nannes, a four-year tour guide for Amherst’s admission office, humorously imagined giving brutally honest campus tours and then—on a more serious note—discussed trying to distill his feelings about college into a mere hour. It was an impossible task, he said: He just couldn’t boil down all of his experiences and thoughts on his alma mater’s people, campus and programs. He said he—like his fellow graduates—appreciates and loves the school in ways he can’t describe. “As you go forth to distant corners of the country and the globe, take these diplomas and put them to work,” he told his classmates. “Do something that fires up your passions. Do something that gives light to the world. Do something that makes you famous, so I can brag that I knew you back in college. And please, for Tony’s sake, keep those alumni donations coming.” (Read or listen to Nannes’ speech in its entirety at the Commencement Web site.)

In addition to the remarks of Marx and Nannes, the exercises featured the awarding of bachelor of arts degrees to the graduates and honorary degrees to eight distinguished guests. The honorands and the degrees they received include Margaret Bangser ’81, founder and former director of the nonprofit Women’s Dignity organization, doctor of humane letters; Peter Brown, the Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University, doctor of humane letters; former Virginia Congressman Thomas M. Davis III ’71, now president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, doctor of laws; conductor and pianist Leon Fleisher, doctor of music; researcher and Columbia University professor Andrew R. Marks ’76, doctor of science; entrepreneur Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and SpaceX, doctor of humane letters; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, doctor of humane letters; and abstract artist Frank Stella, doctor of humane letters.

Amherst also awarded Frank E. Stevenson II, a member of Amherst College’s Class of 1977, the school’s Medal for Eminent Service, which recognizes exceptional and distinguished service to the college for a great period of time. Douglas C. Neff ’70 served as Honorary Marshal for the ceremonies.

Three secondary school teachers were recognized by the college with the Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Awards on behalf of graduating seniors during the weekend. The 2009 recipients of the honor include Addison Diehl (formerly Addison Fontenot), an English teacher from Bel Air High School in El Paso, Texas, now teaching at Stratford High School in Nashville, Tenn.; Lawrence Forberg, an English teacher from Riverside Brookfield High School in Riverside, Ill.; and Kay Tipton, a retired math teacher who taught at Vestavia Hills High School in Birmingham, Ala. 

The Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, given by the trustees of the college to members of the senior class who have shown by their own determination and accomplishment the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education, was awarded to Tasha L. Drake of Byram, Miss., and Latisha R. Wilson of Baltimore, Md.

Finally, the Woods-Travis Prize, an annual gift in memory of Josiah B. Woods of Enfield and Charles B. Travis of the Class of 1864, was awarded for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. It went this year to Octavia Daniela Foarta of Bucharest, Romania.

For photos, audio and text of speeches, go to Amherst’s Commencement Web site the week of May 25.