A moment of shared laughter during Michael Eilliott's inaugural address.
A moment of shared laughter during President Michael A. Elliott’s inauguration address.

What does it mean “to love a place”? What does it really mean to love Amherst?

To President Michael Elliott ’92, loving Amherst means taking joy in what happens here: special moments in classrooms, in labs and on athletics fields, and meaningful conversations between students and professors. It also means viewing the College’s past and present with clear eyes. But, more than anything, it means believing that “a small place can make a large difference in the world.”

Against the backdrop of the Mount Holyoke Range in all of its colorful fall glory, Elliott explored the idea of love of Amherst in his inaugural address on Oct. 28. An estimated 1,600 students, faculty, staff, alumni, distinguished guests and members of the community gathered in front of the War Memorial on the Main Quad for the ceremony installing Elliott as the College’s 20th president. The events capped a day of activities marking the inauguration, which aligns with Homecoming weekend. On the morning of inauguration, the local Daily Hampshire Gazette published a column by Elliott about his return to the College.

The audience during President Michael Elliott's inauguration on the Academic Quad at Amherst College.
The audience applauds during the inauguration ceremony.

Three of his predecessors—presidents Tom Gerety (1994–2003), Anthony W. Marx (2003–2011) and Biddy Martin (2011-2022)—sat side by side in regalia on the inauguration stage, as did three former chairs of the Board of Trustees: Chuck Longsworth ’51, Jide Zeitlin ’85 and Cullen Murphy ’74. Past and current members of the board, delegates from other academic institutions, and an enthusiastic group of Elliott’s family and friends were also in attendance.

The proceedings featured performances by the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and the Glee Club, and the recitation of an original poem, “Our Story Keeps Writing Itself,” by Haoran Tong ’23. Members of the College community presented Elliott with “gifts and symbols of the office”—a Conway Cane, “keys to the College,” the College seal and the charter. Board chair Andrew Nussbaum ’85 presided over the ceremonies, and the Rev. Philip A. Jackson ’85, the 19th rector of Trinity Church Wall Street, gave the invocation.

Several others delivered remarks: Lisa Brooks, the Henry S. Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English and American Studies; Katherine K. Chia ’88, president of the Society of the Alumni; Sirus Wheaton ’23, president of the Association of Amherst Students; Dale R. Hendricks, director of admission and financial aid systems and strategies; and Gregory S. Call, the Peter R. Pouncy Professor of Mathematics. Carla Freeman, a colleague of Elliott’s from Emory University, where he was previously dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also spoke. She is now the interim dean there.

President Michael Elliott accepting a gift from Carla Freeman of Emory University
President Elliott accepts a lapel pin shaped like a mammoth from Carla Freeman, interim dean at Emory's College of Arts and Sciences.

Following a stretch of rainy days, the sky was nearly cloudless during the ceremony, and the air had a 50-degree chill that befitted a crisp New England autumn day. The setting sun cast a warm glow over the proceedings, which ended in a spirited reception on the Quad at dusk. That celebration featured a casual menu representing Elliott’s journey from Tucson, Ariz., where he grew up; to Atlanta, where he spent his career up until now, at Emory; to New England. (Yes, there was peach cobbler.)

During the ceremony, Elliott began his remarks—which were sprinkled with poetry and references to various authors and thinkers—by describing in simple terms the formative time that is college: Students arrive at a new place, find friends, arm themselves with knowledge and are then propelled into the world. Along the way, a bond forms between student and college. “Our ties are not superficial,” he said. “They demand of us self-reflection. And they lead us to ask questions about our obligations to this College and to each other.”

An important obligation alumni have to Amherst is to reconcile love of place, memories and nostalgia with how the College was shaped by the past, he said. That can involve facing difficult truths, such as Amherst’s own role in perpetuating institutional racism. This is where a liberal arts education—specifically, its quest for truth via rigorous evaluation of evidence and origins in ethical reasoning—comes in.

Biddy Martin, Michael Elliott,  Tom Gerety, and Tony Marx
Former presidents (left to right) Biddy Martin, Tom Gerety and Tony Marx join President Elliott (2nd from left).

“One of the great misunderstandings of our time,” Elliott said, “is the mistaken belief that this kind of scrutiny, this effort to examine critically what we have inherited from our forebears, is incompatible with love of place, whether that place is a nation, or that place is a college.”

And that brought him back to the idea of love: “True love,” he said, “is made of sturdy stuff. Like the great trees that surround us, it grows slowly, with deep roots and wide branches to withstand all seasons over time, and to thrive in even the most changeable weather.” In fact, the deepest love of a place “requires that we are clear-eyed about its past for it to flourish in the future.”

Elliott referenced the author James Baldwin, who once said that “to accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” People often fail to love themselves and each other for who they are, Elliott said, and “instead drown themselves in the past.” As anyone who has been in love knows, he continued, “loving someone for who they are—instead of who we want them to be—is hard. That kind of love does not come easily. And the same can be true for a college—or, for that matter, a country.”

Students gather at a firepit
Following the official program, there was a community celebration full of friendship, food, music and fun.

But that kind of love, while it may not come easily, does opens doors. “We come to love this place when we discover something truly fundamental: that this small place, this Amherst, can somehow make the world almost infinitely larger for all of those who walk its halls and its hills,” Elliott said. “And our love endures because we know that the future can be greater than the past.”

Elliott concluded by directly addressing the students who’d gathered on the Quad to hear him speak. “This place is yours now,” he said. “You must believe in your fellow students and be willing to risk friendship and fellowship with them. But most of all, you must have a belief in your own potential to learn, to grow, to make mistakes, to take chances, to be vulnerable. And, ultimately, to contribute to the common good.”

Four men in academic regalia.

The Inauguration in Pictures

Photos of the inauguration of President Michael A. Elliott ’92, held on Oct. 28, 2022.

Inauguration of Michael A. Elliott ’92 (Full Ceremony)

October 28, 2022

Some 1,600 students, faculty, staff, alumni, distinguished guests and members of the community gathered on the Main Quad for the ceremony installing Elliott as the College’s 20th president. Watch the speeches and more. (length: 1:31:01)