A Story 200 Years In The Making: The College Celebrates its Bicentennial

On Feb. 24, President Biddy Martin officially launched the Amherst College Bicentennial. She emphasized the twofold commitment of the bicentennial in a prerecorded video: celebration of the past and an ongoing commitment to the central tenets of the liberal arts education. Originally slated to kick off in-person last fall, most of the Bicentennial celebrations were adjusted for a later start because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

More recently, the college celebrated its 200th anniversary with a “Masked Mammoth Meet-up” on March 19. This celebratory occasion, which hosted food from local vendors and live music, is one of numerous events scheduled to celebrate the bicentennial year. Planning for the bicentennial began two years ago. The celebration has more than ten projects which include live events, college property renovations, contributions to the arts and reflections on the Amherst Uprising and Indigenous History in Western Massachusetts.

“This college has earned distinction for the quality of its faculty for the intense engagement of faculty with students, for the dedication and talent of its staff, and very importantly for the loyalty and the generosity of its alumni. 200 years later the core mission remains the discovery and sharing of knowledge, the gaining of understanding and wisdom, and seeking of truth,” Martin said. 

Members of the Bicentennial Advisory Committee (BAC), a representative group of 12 students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, were chosen at the onset of the project to serve as ambassadors for and liaisons to the Bicentennial. They are charged with evaluating proposals from the college community for Bicentennial events, activities and projects and providing feedback on how each proposal will enhance the celebration. 

The Bicentennial and Amherst’s Past

For the first prong of the Bicentennial’s stated goals, the college thoroughly examined its past and published a website exhibiting their findings. Tracing its origins back to the South College cornerstone in 1820, online archives created by Frost Library provide insight into the college’s history. 

This process began several years ago, when Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein sponsored an extensive Bicentennial digitization project within Frost Library’s Archives and Special Collections. Led by Mike Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections, the team digitized thousands of yearbooks, student publications, photographs, scrapbooks and more from 1960 to 2005, all of which are available on its website. 

The archive team found that, over the decades, students have consistently risen up to challenges of their times: For instance weathering the hurricane of 1938 and voting in favor of coeducation in 1974. The investigation revealed ongoing short-comings in college policy and framed the goals for the next century. 

The college also commissioned three Bicentennial books around that period: “Eye, Mind, and Heart: A View of Amherst College at 200” by Nancy Pick ’84; “Amherst College: The Campus Guide” by Blair Kamin ’79; and “Amherst in the World,” edited by Professor Emerita Martha Saxton.

Bicentennial Manager Rebecca Kennedy stated, “Planning for the actual celebration of the college’s 200th birthday commenced more than two years ago with the formation of a Bicentennial Advisory Committee and with dozens of planning meetings across the college with all of our constituent groups. The Bicentennial website was unveiled last fall to offer one location where all Bicentennial projects and activities can be found, as well as a rich look at the college’s past, present and future.”

The first part of the undertaking highlights historical photos of Amherst students alongside current students. According to the college, the academic, athletic, campus, student and tradition folders demonstrate that in spite of significant world changes in the past two centuries, the college has remained steadfast in its dedication to liberal arts values. Viewers can drag a cursor situated between a historical and contemporary photo to reveal parallel moments in the college’s past and present. 

Bicentennial Projects

The process of reflecting on a story that is almost two hundred years in the making framed the diverse projects of the Bicentennial. All events were proposed by members of the college community.

The first initiative is the The Solidarity Book Project (SBP). Launched by Professor of Art Sonya Clark ’89, this collaborative, community-based work of art and activism invites members of the college community and the general public to stand in solidarity with Black and Indigenous communities.

Another project will be a physical manifestation of the college’s story. Kelly was in charge of creating an exhibition on the first floor of Frost Library that is intended to reach a wide range of audiences. His goal was to create a display case featuring the range of archival materials. 

In reference to the Archives & Special Collections, Kelly said “I intend to use this space to share some of the things I have found deep in the bowels of Frost Library. Everything you see on these pages [of the website] is available for use in the Archives & Special Collections.”

In an effort to recognize Indigenous history at Amherst, a part of the Bicentennial Celebration will be a land acknowledgment plaque dedicated to Indigenous people from the area. The project will also include a panel with alumni, students, and faculty who identify with the Native American community. Led by Sarah Montoya ’21, the Native and Indigenous Students Association (NISA) initiated the design and installation of a formal land acknowledgment plaque and the virtual event.

The lobby of the Amherst College Alumni Gym will also be refreshed to “brighten the space,” the website states. Particularly, the trophy cases on either side of the athletic center’s lobby will be redone to tell the college’s athletic story. This will give the college an opportunity to feature the milestones of one of the oldest athletics programs in the nation — one that began in 1860 with a compulsory physical fitness regimen for Amherst students.

The final construction project will renew the college’s sanctuary trail system and bird sanctuary. The goal of project sponsor Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Katherine Sims and co-leader Kenny Lauzier is to create a welcoming and well-marked trail system that will be accessible to all members of the Amherst community, town included. She aims to improve signage and wayfinding, physically spruce up some trail sections and integrate Sanctuary spaces into programming. Sims consulted frequenters of the trail system, such as members of the varsity cross-country teams for input on the initiative. 

“The best part of doing this project has been meeting and working with all the other people on campus who love these paths, woods and meadows. It has been inspiring and humbling to learn more about the incredible day to day work to maintain this landscape that is led by Kenny Lauzier, Mark Uchneat and others,” said Sims.

Three Emily Dickinson-themed projects will be offered as part of the Bicentennial. The Emily Dickinson Museum will host a themed museum tour that interprets the daily’s multi-generational involvement with the college and the influences of the college on the life of Emily Dickinson, a treasured American poet. The Emily Dickinson Museum also hosted the ninth consecutive Slant Poetry Festival on Sept. 14 as an ode to the “Writing College,” a reference to the centrality of writing to the college’s academics. The 2021 festival featured the works of various alumni, headlining poets as readers and masterclass facilitators. The final event is the composition of a new chamber opera titled “Emily Dickinson: The Homestead.” It will take place in various rooms of the Emily Dickenson Museum and will highlight Dickinson’s poetry. 

Other arts events include the Women in Music at Amherst College initiative. Celebrating the coinciding centenary of the passage of the 19th amendment and the Bicentennial, the Amherst College Choral Society, Amherst College Symphony Orchestra and Amherst College Jazz Ensemble will join forces to premiere a  piece by composer Reena Esmail. The 30-minute work will consist of settings of poems by contemporary female poets.

The bicentennial has also committed to improving online educational resources about the Amherst Uprising. The five-year anniversary of the Uprising coincides with the bicentennial year.

Additionally, the college aims to empower underrepresented groups through music. Professor of Music Amy Coddington, a sponsor of the project, pointed out that “the Bicentennial project has not been completed — we are doing an advance preview of the work next fall, and then will premiere the piece in fall 2022.” She also mentioned that “The most rewarding part of this project has been working with the composer and librettist to create a musical work that recognizes the political power of marginalized voices.” 

Furthermore, the college supported LitFest 2021 as part of the Bicentennial. This virtual event included an alumni career panel of unconventional writers, and three virtual events that detailed and explored the fifth anniversary of the Amherst Uprising. Jennifer Acker, the director of LitFest, as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of The Common — the college’s literary magazine, — explained that in 2021, LitFest aimed to draw attention to writing careers that don’t necessarily lead to writing books, but in which a writing practice is integral. This led the team to the idea of inviting several performing artists for the annual panel.

Acker hopes that “via the Bicentennial books Amherst is producing, and the Solidarity Book Project, and LitFest, and The Common and other book- and literature-centric events and activities, [the bicentennial planning team] can continue to broadcast the importance of writing at Amherst, which has led to its moniker as ‘the Writing College’ Already Amherst has graduated so many important writers, editors and literary scholars, and I hope current and future students are inspired to continue in this tradition and make it their own.”

An In-Person Celebration

The latest edition of the Bicentennial celebration was the “Masked Mammoth Meet-Up” that took place on the afternoon of March 19. The event was held on the college-wide day of no classes. Students were encouraged to enjoy the outdoor hangout with vendors and Amherst-themed decorations.

In an Instagram post advocating for the “Masked Mammoth Meet-Up” Martin said, “I hope wherever you are you will take the day off. You will get outdoors or do something very different from your normal routine. All of us need to take care of our overall well being by taking a break.”

Bobby Innes-Gold ’22 attended the event. “ It was nice to see lots of people out and about in one place, and especially great to see Biddy. I also liked the sandwiches and cookies. Also the music was very interesting,” he recalled.

When asked what she enjoyed about the event, Aditi Nayak ’23 said, “My favorite part was how alive campus felt even during the pandemic. Sometimes with remote learning, it’s hard to spontaneously run into people: I can’t help but wonder are there actually other people on campus. But seeing the entire student body come together and relax last Friday was so energizing!”

In an official statement, Martin said, “Once again, our wonderful events team, with help from other staff, designed a great event. I don’t know whether everyone had as good a time as I did, but I think the cookies and pulled pork, the cider and the Bicentennial hats were big hits.”

Major Initiatives Planned for the Next Century

As the college enters its third century, it has made a promise to continue promoting the values of the liberal arts. The campaign for Amherst’s Third Century is a promise to promote “critical thinking, freedom of inquiry and expression, reasoned argument, opportunity, equity and friendship” according to the Bicentennial webpage. 

In an interview with The Student, Kennedy noted that the Bicentennial does not have an overarching theme, but aims to celebrate the college’s influential contributions to higher education and consider how the college will continue to evolve. 

Kennedy remarked, “Amherst College’s Bicentennial will celebrate the contributions the college has made to our students’ lives, to higher education and to the world. It will allow us to reflect upon the institution’s extraordinary enduring qualities, the critically important ways we have changed and new directions we may pursue over the next 100 years. We will also explore the difficult times in the institution’s past.”

Among the college’s planned initiatives for the next century include a new student center in the place of the Merrill and McGuire buildings. The space will replace the Keefe Campus Center.

The college has also made a commitment to joining the fight to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change with its Climate Action Plan. The goal is to modernize its energy usage and shift from fossil fuel usage to renewable electricity. The college also aims to go beyond carbon neutrality and inspire students and alumni to address climate change on a global scale. Still, the college has faced criticism for recent inaction around this goal, especially given the lack of staffing in the Office of Environmental Sustainability after former Director of Sustainability Laura Draucker’s departure last year.

Advancing the Bicentennial also includes an ongoing recognition and addressment of racism. The Bicentennial will continue to pursue the aims set forth in the college’s anti-racism plan, which was published on Aug. 3, 2020. Although students were generally glad to see the prospect of concrete changes on the part of the college, many still noted the long road ahead of them to truly achieve a sense of racial justice.

Bringing the Community Together

While the Bicentennial celebration is kicking off quite differently than organizers imagined due to Covid-19, they are confident that the planned events will enable members of the Amherst community to engage with the Bicentennial.

The events and goals of the Bicentennial demonstrate the college’s concerted efforts to significantly increase accessibility to students from a wide range of backgrounds. In the college’s eyes, though the student body, faculty and curriculum may have changed over the past 200 years, the Bicentennial celebrates the common thread that connects communal members: deep intellectual curiosity, commitment to truth and a community that extends across generations.

“We hope to accomplish the goals we set out two years ago. Given that we’ve had to be apart for more than a year now, we also hope the Bicentennial can bring us together — virtually for now, but, with luck, in-person next fall,” Kennedy stated.