First-Class First Class
No chance of sleeping as Austin Sarat bounds into the room that Monday. The William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science is here to teach a seminar on the Constitution. He scans the veterans’ name plates: “Cameron! What’s a good thing about democracy?” he fires off. Cameron Wilson, a nuclear electrician’s mate who served on a submarine and was stationed in Guam, is a bit taken aback. But he gives it a shot: “The people are free to do and think what’s best for them.”
Sarat pounces: “The people can do what’s best for them. OK, I want to go to Smith College. It’s a women’s college and I’m a man but I think it’s best for me.” But Smith won’t let him in. “Is that democratic?” Marshall Roe, who worked on the Navy’s anti-ballistic defense in the Persian Gulf, cites Federalist Papers No. 10, in which James Madison writes of protecting “different and unequal faculties.”
Sarat nods vigorously: “Now we’re cooking with gas! Smith is a private institution and so can decide not to admit men. In democracy, you treat like things alike—unless there’s a good reason not to.” From there, Sarat asks which branch of government seems the most powerful from reading the Constitution. Tracy Santos, an aviation operations specialist in the Marine Corps, guesses it’s the Supreme Court, because the justices get to interpret what laws mean. Sarat says the court is crucial but Congress gets the most print space in the document.
From there, Sarat riffs on everything from Alexis de Tocqueville (“So boring! Don’t use a power drill while reading!”) to the musical Hamilton (“You want to be in the room where it happens, right?”) to the Bill of Rights (“a miracle of self-restraint”).
The energy in the room is all but giddy—many gut laughs, and big applause at the end—but also sometimes tense, since Sarat relentlessly calls on each warrior-scholar. When some can’t come up with a quick answer, Sarat never scolds them. Instead, he exclaims, “Fabulous, fabulous, I see you’re thinking!”
How It Rolled Out
The Warrior-Scholar Project was launched by two Yale grads in 2011 and has since been hosted by some 15 colleges and universities. Many veterans have found the experience life-changing: one of the Amherst participants was so excited about the doors it’s opened, he couldn’t sleep Thursday night, and instead walked the campus under a near-full moon from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., trying to think through new scenarios for his future.
In fact, the vets’ stories are so inspiring, and the organization so remarkable, that more and more press coverage has kicked in—most notably a segment for CBS Morning News, which was largely filmed on Day 5 at the College.
Over the past decade, Amherst has expanded its commitment to educating veterans, in part through the creation of the Veterans Scholarship Fund in 2008 (with support from Richard LeFrak ’67). In 2015 and 2016, Victory Media recognized Amherst as a Veteran Friendly College. There are currently five veterans enrolled on campus, including Nathan Needham ’18E, who was the campus WSP program coordinator this summer.
This is the Warrior-Scholar Project’s first year at Amherst, though the mutual ties go back longer, thanks to Mark London ’74, who has sat on the WSP board from its early days, and who created a short, moving documentary about the program.
London, who founded the Washington, D.C., law firm London & Mead, came to campus to speak to the veterans. “The Warrior-Scholars Project is very personal to me,” he told them. “When I was at Amherst, we were an outpost of dissent against the Vietnam War. We were right to protest, but we were wrong to leave behind the people who fought that war, to make them feel like pariahs. We did a disservice to an entire generation of men and women, and failed to take advantage of their unlimited potential to do good things in civil society. It’s a goal of mine to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”