On Oct. 15, the college celebrated its 200th anniversary with a campus-wide Bicentennial Party held for the campus community. After being delayed from the spring due to Covid-19, the celebration took place in person outdoors with minimal Covid restrictions. While students enjoyed the events, some also took note of its extravagance and expressed discontent at the funding that went toward the party instead of other on-campus resources.
Friday’s celebration began at 2 p.m. with a festival meant to resemble a “traditional New England fall event,” as President Biddy Martin described in her email invitation sent on Oct. 7. Tents on the Greenway Quad were filled with an array of food, from local pumpkin and apple delicacies to a meal of corned beef, baked beans and brown bread provided by Dining Services, which was inspired by food that might have been served in 1821.
The food was accompanied by a Ferris wheel and 100-foot slide near the tennis courts, with views over campus and the wildlife sanctuary. Pumpkin carving, burlap sack races, horse-drawn wagon rides, an old-time photo booth and live performances from musical artists Javier Colon and Kate Yeager were also available to attendees.
After a break scheduled from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., festivities continued with a party on the Main Quad, which was decorated with large fluorescent purple lights underneath the trees and lit-up banners with photographs of campus through the years. Community members had been told the previous day to arrive at 5 p.m. sharp for a special surprise, which turned out to be Martin riding onto the Quad on horseback, as a reenactment of the college’s first president — Zephaniah Swift Moore — riding into Amherst from Williams College.
After giving a speech to the throng of students who had gathered, Martin proceeded to do the honors of cutting a massive cake replica of South Hall, the college’s first building. Attendees then lined up to enjoy the many food trucks and carnival games spread across the Quad.
The day culminated in a performance from Grammy Award-winning artist Common at 7 p.m. Anticipation for the performance had been building for several days, as Common-printed door hangers had been distributed throughout each residence hall and life-size cutouts of the rapper graced campus buildings like Valentine Dining Hall, the Science Center and the Testing Center.
On a stage constructed at the base of Memorial Hill, Common — alongside a backup singer and two instrumentalists — sang and rapped to a crowd of onlookers.
Whether they were crowded in front of the stage or sitting on Memorial Hill, everyone got excited when Common burst into an Amherst-inspired freestyle rap. Lyrics included references to Hitchcock and Jenkins Dormitories; the Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought (LJST) major; and Antonio’s Pizza. At one point, Common invited a student on stage with him and serenaded her.
Once the performance finished, gold and purple fireworks lit up the sky above Memorial Field while orchestral music boomed to punctuate the occasion.
Many students found the celebration to be a delight. Claire Jensen ’24 said that the festival was “a great way to celebrate Amherst by connecting with friends over good food.”
“I thought Biddy on horseback was truly spectacular,” added Antonia Brillembourg ’25.
Nonetheless, several students were puzzled by the lavish event, especially given pressing concerns of understaffing of crucial campus services. “It was pretty fun, but I can’t help but wonder why the college is willing to spend ridiculous amounts of money on a party and yet no longer provides Val workers with hazard pay, and refuses to meet the demands of last year’s Black Minds Matter walkout,” said Claire Taylor ’23.
“I’m especially concerned about the understaffed nature of the Counseling Center right now, and would love to see Amherst focus its resources on student mental health and other changes that will help students be happier in the long-run,” she added.
Maristhela Alvarez ’25 expressed similar discontent at the extravagance, citing the demands of last week’s CACSAC walkout and “get[ting] more POC counselors … [that] can understand what we’re going through at a PWI [predominantly white institution]” as places where the college’s money would be better spent.
In a statement to The Student, Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius stated that the budget for the party was “generally consistent with a variety of similarly conceived campus events.” She noted that due to Covid, nearly all of the in-person events that had initially been planned for the Bicentennial celebration were cancelled.
“With the in-person Bicentennial events cancelled, we hoped to be able to mark the culmination of the programming with a single, celebratory event and provide an opportunity for the entire campus community — students, faculty and staff — to share an in-person, on-campus Bicentennial experience,” said Genelius.
The Bicentennial Party was one of many initiatives the college has undertaken for the bicentennial year — others include the Solidarity Book Project, three new books published about the college and a revamping of the sanctuary trail system. The projects have been in planning since 2019.