[Edited lightly for readability]
Johnson Chapel, where we gather today, is the heart of Amherst. The first time I saw it was the day I was presented to the community as Amherst's president. I remember that the space seemed bright and the people assembled seemed friendly, but the rest is a blur, partly because, just before I walked into the Chapel with the chair of the board of trustees, the search committee members, and my predecessor, President Tony Marx, Tony had leaned over and asked me what I was planning to say in my speech. What speech? No one had mentioned to me that I’d be expected to give a talk. You could say, “Well, you should have known that you wouldn't be expected just to stand there and say nothing.” But I had not planned to give a talk.
I spoke then, as I did last week to those of you who are new students, about what drew me to Amherst. I think I cited exactly the same three things then as I did last week: the quality of intellectual life here, the beauty of the campus, and the challenge that Amherst has embraced to create a diverse intellectual community in which every term in that phrase has as much meaning as the second one has always had. Amherst seemed devoted to what mattered to me: an education aimed at freeing us from ignorance, bigotry and limiting loyalties, and devoted to pursuing truth. Something that still matters—truth.
The second time I entered Johnson Chapel was in the middle of the summer before my term as president had started. I had brought a close friend out from Boston to see the College, and I talked her into climbing up the steps to Johnson Chapel. And I saw it then as if for the first time because I hadn’t really seen it the first time. The Chapel was not yet air-conditioned. It was sweltering inside. The doors had been shut, and the windows had been closed, and I found the Chapel forbidding. It was only partly because of the heat.
It was mostly, I think, because of the portraits with their dark backgrounds and their stern-looking men. I felt intimidated. But I have come to love this space, this Chapel, and not only because it is now air-conditioned. It was a matter of learning who these men are. (There were no portraits of women in the Chapel when I came.) Every single one of us, when we’re new, and even when we’re not, has to find a way of inheriting a history that is not our own and may feel unfamiliar. One way that helped me was to learn who these men were and what they had achieved. Another was the opportunity to add portraits, and also to switch some of them around.
At the time, there were no portraits of faculty members who were only faculty member and had not become presidents. (Most of these portraits are former presidents and trustees. The first six presidents are on the second floor on the back wall, but tonight I’m going to tell you a little bit about the people on the front wall.) So, we had the opportunity when I got here to hang a portrait of a faculty member who had been a faculty member for 50 years. Her name is Rose Olver, and her portrait is right here.
Rose Olver joined the faculty when the student body was still all-male. She blazed trails for women faculty by mentoring and supporting them, and she also blazed trails for the women students who were to be added in 1975 when the College began admitting women She was a beloved professor and a faculty leader. She was on every major faculty committee. She left a lasting mark. She was incredibly witty, say her friends. She is said to have gotten the job when the chair of sociology went to Harvard and was invited by her to the Harvard Club for the interview, but had to go in with her through a separate entrance at Harvard for women.
Clearly, she got the job. I remember my correspondence with her when we wanted to hang her portrait in the Chapel. She knew we had acquired the portrait with the aim of hanging it in the Chapel, but Greg Call, then dean [of the faculty], told me that Rose probably wouldn't like the idea of having her portrait hang in the front in so visible a spot. And he was right. It was good that he forewarned me, because I then wrote her an email in which I anticipated that she might not like the idea and explained to her truthfully that it was both about her, but more importantly, about the symbolism of having the faculty represented in a visible place at the core of the College. And she wrote back (I still have the email): “Under those conditions, I concede.” And there she is.
At the same time, the brilliant then-chief of staff and secretary to the board of trustees, Susan Pikor, who’s sitting in the balcony tonight, and I decided we might move a couple of other portraits. I wanted Charles Hamilton Houston [class of 1915] to hang at the front of the Chapel. Do you know who Charles Hamilton Houston is? Some might know. Susan had the idea that we should reframe the portrait to give it a presence that it didn’t have because it is a smaller portrait.
Why did it seem important to have his portrait hang a visible place? Charles Hamilton Houston, [whose portrait] is right above me, was the architect of the legal strategy that resulted in the desegregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Justice Thurgood Marshall argued the case and deserves great credit, but Thurgood Marshall said of his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, that Houston did “all of it.” And how did he do all of it? By devising a strategy that took the long view, that started with a demand for equality of separate and profoundly unequal professional schools in the public sector. Knowing that there was no way the states could actually make the professional schools for African Americans and for whites equal, he built precedents that led to Brown vs. Board of Education.
When Houston was at Amherst, he was the only black student in his class. He came here at the age of 16, having graduated from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst, was chosen to give the Commencement speech [in]1915, and went on to Harvard law. Last year one of our trustees, Phillip Jackson [’85], gave a talk about Houston to new students in which he said, “Charles Hamilton Houston is the best of us.” And I think he’s right, and there are other bests of us, too. We had an opportunity to add a portrait of Richard Wilbur [’42]. Richard Wilbur, whom we lost just last year, is one of the great American poets.. He’s a graduate of Amherst College and taught here for many years before his death. He was poet laureate of the United States and won two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry. An amazing poet, translator, teacher, and human being.
Here is Joseph Hardy Neesima [class of 1870]. He illegally left Japan on a boat for China, which he sneaked onto, and then from China came to Boston. The captain of that boat made it possible for him to pursue an education. He was the first Japanese citizen to receive an American baccalaureate degree
And over here, this is the 30th president of the United States and a graduate of Amherst College, Calvin Coolidge [class of 1895]. He also served as the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was known as a Republican progressive.
William Hastie ’25 was Charles Hamilton Houston’s cousin. He also graduated from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. He was also a brilliant legal thinker. Hastie was the first black federal judge and the first black federal appellate judge in the United States. He was the first governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands who was African American. He was on the Harvard Law Review soon after leaving Amherst for Harvard, and he did as much to end discrimination in this country as his cousin, Charles Hamilton Houston.
Even though you’ve attended many events already in Johnson Chapel, I don’t believe that anyone has talked to you about the Chapel or told you about the people who are portrayed here. There’s not enough time to talk in full about the history of Amherst but there are a few points that I think are worth making in which we can take some pride and may be interesting as you decide how you locate yourselves in parts of its history.
First, Amherst College is not named after a benefactor. Harvard was. Williams was. Dartmouth was. Amherst was not. Why is that?
Amherst was founded by a group of townspeople. There was no one benefactor who gave the kind of money that would have warranted giving his name alone to the college. Amherst was named after the town of Amherst; actually, it seems from the history that it was founded and supported by a group of men most of whom who served on the board for the Amherst Academy at the time and who named it after the Academy. These founders were so determined to have a college in the town of Amherst, and people in surrounding towns were equally passionate and determined to have a college here, that they persevered through enormous obstacles to get one. If you look at the seal of Amherst College, you’ll see that it was chartered in 1825. It was founded and opened in 1821 but did not get a charter until 1825. Why?
Williams and Harvard opposed the charter for Amherst in the legislature, Harvard arguing that it would lose prestige if there were a college founded out here in Western Massachusetts by people who were Orthodox Congregationalists—Calvinist; and Williams feared the competition for students.
There was opposition in the legislature because of the Orthodox Calvinism, the rural location, and resistance from Harvard and Williams. Williams had reason to resent Amherst, because our first president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, whose portrait hangs upstairs in the back next to the door, had been the president of Williams, and he left Williams because he was convinced that a college could not survive in so remote a location.
In fact, Williams was losing students and was struggling financially in the period from 1818 to 1821, and even earlier, causing Williams trustees to think it might make sense, as they put it, to remove the college from Williamstown to Amherst and unite the colleges. The deliberations went back and forth. At one point several Williams trustees decided that Northampton would be a better location to which to remove Williams College and that Amherst should not be the site of a new college in the Commonwealth. I love reading the descriptions of the meetings in which Noah Webster—the lexicographer, compiler of the dictionary—spoke here in the town of Amherst and gave a speech that won over those who had initially supported Northampton as the site of the College. People in Amherst left their jobs in the middle of the day to hear him and lend support.
This is only a little bit of a great deal more detail about the early history of the College. It teaches us something about the importance of rhetoric, eloquence, persuasion, learning and knowledge. Webster had graduated from Yale and moved from New Haven to Amherst, and were it not for Webster, who was probably the best-known founder and member of the Amherst Academy Board beyond this region, the Unitarians in Boston and the wealthy folks who were eventually persuaded to support Amherst may not have been convinced.
Second point: before Amherst was founded, the founders of Amherst College had raised a charity fund. I like to think about the fact that they had chosen, before founding the institution and opening its doors, to raise money so that “indigent young men of piety” could get a free education. The charity fund became an endowment that made education free for poor young men. The College opened its doors in 1821. It is important to note the importance of fundraising in the success of the College. People sometimes assume that raising money as a responsibility of the president is a fairly recent phenomenon. They have forgotten that there was never a time when private liberal arts colleges did not rely on the generosity of townspeople, of alumni, of people from all over the state, and indeed sometimes the nation, who had a passion for education, who thought education for its own sake was an absolute necessity to the health of the region, the country, and democracy.
If you read about the work of the early presidents, every single one of them faced financial difficulty, and every single one of them spent a significant amount of time raising money and working to persuade those with means that education is worth supporting. It’s sad to think that we live right now in a moment when there are so many critics attacking higher education when its value and necessity has never been clearer. Amherst has been able to depend on the generosity, not only of its own alumni and donors but of townspeople and citizens who believe in education, for almost 200 years.
And, finally, what one learns from the history of the College and its early days is what it takes to make a college. What is a college? At the core of it are the faculty and students, but a college also needs buildings and facilities, and staff, alumni, donors, and a supportive public. When this college opened its doors, it had two faculty members, a few dozen students and a president. It had one building, and some of you live in that building right now. The first building was South Hall. South College, it was called. What was the second building built at Amherst?
No, not North College. The second building was a president’s house—not the current president’s house, but a different one that the president found moldy and inappropriate. The third building was North College. The fourth was Johnson Chapel. And why is it called Johnson Chapel? Because Adam Johnson, a carpenter who lived outside of Amherst, left $4,000 in his will to the College, which was used to fund the construction of this Chapel. There were rarely architects involved in the construction of these early buildings, but it seems there may have been one involved somewhat tangentially in building Johnson Chapel.
College Row—this row of buildings on the hill—is genius. Yes, the buildings were and are spare. Yes, they’re simple. Professor Hitchcock, the geology faculty member who eventually became president, criticized them openly for their absence of architectural interest. He had the Octagon built to show that Amherst College could do better than these original buildings. Some would differ!
To have a college, it takes faculty, students, alumni, trustees, donors, staff, even administrators. And it takes a population that believes in the importance of education.
I had wanted to talk to you tonight about a book I read this summer that some of you may have read or heard about, called Educated. It’s a book that’s been on The New York Times bestseller list for many weeks, and a book that moved me profoundly. It’s a memoir of a young woman who grew up in Idaho off the grid in a survivalist family.
She and her brothers experienced trauma of a sort that is almost unimaginable, and yet her powers of description make the traumas and the abuse they endured so vivid that it’s very hard to put the book down and also at times to keep reading. Without any schooling of a formal sort, and with the help of an older brother, she ended up at Brigham Young University, having never taken classes anywhere, but having taught herself enough math to pass an entrance exam. And from BYU, with the support of faculty and a bishop, she spent a year at Cambridge and eventually got her Ph.D. at Cambridge University in intellectual history. And she has written a book about what it means to be educated.
It is powerful. It is moving. It is not a perfect book; there is no perfect book. But if you get a chance to read it, I hope you’ll agree with me that it succeeds in showing the importance of being educated. It gave her the freedom to think for herself and to separate herself from an abusive environment. The freedom and the ability to think for yourself—in conversation and friendship with others and with the support of a faculty of the quality we have here—is a gift that we cannot allow to be eroded. We have to fight for a form of education—a liberal arts education—that has never been better suited to the world in which we live. Take good advantage of the education and the support this faculty is about to offer you. Make good use of it. It’s easy to take things for granted. Don’t. This is no longer a religious college, but the space and the project of the College are sacred. Thank you very much, and have a good semester.