In Johnson Chapel last week, he offered his first words to the Amherst community.
Michael Elliott ’92 has had a lot of A’s in his lifetime. In Johnson Chapel on Thursday, for his first on-campus remarks since being named the College’s next president, he spoke about growing up in Arizona, his career spent in Atlanta (as a professor of English and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Emory University) and his upcoming arrival, in August, at Amherst.
During his talk, he noted how the Grand Canyon State had something in common with the College. In the Sonoran Desert, “if you wander off to the wrong trail, you fall into the wrong plant, you forget your sunscreen or your water, you’re not going to last very long,” he said. “It takes a certain kind of optimism and maybe even naiveté to try to make a home there and thrive. And I think it was that spirit of optimism and ambition, maybe naiveté, that I loved so much about Amherst College and that I still love so much about Amherst College.”
He continued about Amherst: “There is a utopian ambitious streak to this place that is never satisfied with what it is and that always strives to be something more. This is a place where we still believe that a liberal arts education, the creativity, the wide range of knowledge the liberal arts provides, the curiosity-driven discovery, matters in the world. And it matters not just as a private good that individuals receive, but a public good that makes the world a better place.”
Amherst College hosted a Meet and Greet session with incoming president, Michael A. Elliott ’92.
The audience of mostly faculty and staff, with a sprinkling of students, gave standing ovations to both Elliott and President Biddy Martin, who introduced her successor. “This is a person who shares the values of the college,” Martin said. “This is a seasoned administrator, a scholar whose interdisciplinary breadth is incredible. And this is a kind, empathic and really funny person.”
Elliott praised Martin and Andrew J. Nussbaum ’85, chair of the board of trustees, who gave Elliott three gifts, “true to the Amherst hymn” of that very name, as Nussbaum said (an Amherst baseball cap; a fleece pullover, because he's grown unaccustomed to the New England climate; and a copy of the 1992 Olio yearbook). Elliott, whose books include Custerology, also thanked the presidential search committee, which Nussbaum chaired. “It was a tremendous group that prodded and poked and discussed,” Elliott said. “At moments, it was like I was around a seminar table in the best sense of the word.”
In his remarks, Elliott acknowledged the College’s lofty goals: “We are trying to bring together an incredibly diverse set of students to learn and become a community together at a time when American society has become increasingly segregated, unequal, in which forces of racism, structural inequality, homophobia, transphobia, sexism are making it harder and harder to imagine a community of equals. We are trying some hard things here. But when I came to Amherst over 30 years ago, I came here because I wanted to do hard things. All of us came to Amherst at some point in our lives, not because it was the easiest path, but because it was the most meaningful and the most important.”
After his talk, members of the Amherst community asked questions about the College’s Climate Action Plan, enhancing access to non-traditional career paths, supporting marginalized groups on campus, student mental health and more.
The incoming president spoke of his first months as a time to listen and learn before acting. Toward that end, Elliott said he will create structures, as he did at Emory, to help him interact with students directly and consistently over time. “Amherst students are incredibly sophisticated and complex thinkers,” he said. “I need to hear them thinking in real time before I can know enough to begin to think about where the places are that we need to go in the future.”