On Friday, Oct. 28, Amherst woke up for a cold afternoon and remembered it was an institution. It had to inaugurate the 20th president of Amherst College, Michael A. Elliott, with all the gravitas and pomp it could muster.
The inauguration was a chance to remember the purpose of Amherst. It’s easy to forget, while we’re buried under our classes, lives, and responsibilities: that we’re part of a collective institution. It’s easy to forget that a common undercurrent motivates all our activities, that there exists a real, sustained commitment to a higher goal in everything we do. More often than not, we're reminded of the institution and its purpose through jingoistic invocations of our motto and contrasts with our peer schools. It's either Terras Irradient — let them enlighten the lands — a reference to Isaiah 6:3 whose Christian undertones arebarely suppressed, or its Williams jokes. For us, Amherst is an institution precisely to the extent that we can be proud about it, and proud that it’s not Williams.
But really, the inauguration wasn’t for us. Obviously, in one sense, it was for President Elliott. But I mean in a deeper sense: it wasn’t for us. We weren’t the intended audience. The inauguration was for the faculty and the administration. The professors had front row seating, and were actually part of the ceremony, dressed up in doctoral robes.
The first remarks were from Andrew Nussbaum, the chair of the Board of Trustees. He quoted David Foster Wallace and spoke about the worthwhile goals of the institution. It was a bit self-congratulatory, and for good reason. Education is hard.
President Elliott’s successor at Emory, interim dean Carla Freedman, praised Elliott in her remarks. She mentioned that he liked Ursula K. LeGuin, and spent most of the speech talking about ceremony. She said that Amherst is obsessed with ceremony. Watching the inauguration, that was easy to believe. Any other time, I would have been a little more credulous.
President Elliott ended the inauguration by talking about the history of Amherst, and loving a place. He said all of this suspended perfectly before a background of trees and the Holyoke range.
There is history all around us, but most of the time that feels like window dressing for a liberal arts education with the serial numbers rubbed off. If you asked the student body for a description of Amherst, I’m sure you would get 2,000 different responses. Many of them would be about the buildings at Amherst, or the trees, or the view. None of that is Amherst, none of that really picks out Amherst in particular, outside of its happenstantial geography. Because, Amherst, as an institution, doesn’t really exist for us.
That’s not Elliott’s fault, and that’s not Amherst’s fault either. We students are a hungry lot. We’re ambitious and “driven” and all of us worked too hard to get here. For us, there is success and money, and Amherst is just rungs on a ladder.
Amherst has tried to appeal to that hunger. Amherst is a top-tier educational institution. It cannot afford to present itself as having a distinct sense of identity beyond that of being rigorous and demanding and elite. It has reduced itself down to something just beautiful and appealing enough to attract a slate of very ambitious students. The Amherst we were sold is a product, which promised to take in money and time and spit out success. The Amherst we were presented with was a product, because we live in an age where education is a commodity. We don’t love Amherst. We love what Amherst gives us.
For the alumni, Amherst exists as a falsified memory, a montage of youthful exploration, parties, and intellectually stimulating classes, before their lives bent their own ways. The alumni love Amherst because everyone loves their past.
But another Amherst does exist. It exists for the faculty. In places we never go, the faculty cultivate ideals, debate, and produce substantive scholarship. And they do meaningful, really meaningful work: they teach. Every single professor chooses to dedicate their lives to something bigger than themselves. For them, there is a real Amherst, Amherst as an institution of higher education, not simply as a product. This Amherst exists for the administration, too. They have the impossible task of funding those dreams and ideals.
That’s what I mean when I say the inauguration wasn’t for the students, or even really the alumni. It was for the faculty and the administration, to remind themselves of why they do it. All the pomp and ceremony and robes and speeches and music were weird. The inauguration was cold and long and the seats were uncomfortable. It was self-congratulatory, anxious about the past, and only slightly hopeful about the future.
It was all a little off-putting. It was an articulation of Amherst’s values and goals, about trying to make the place better. It was a reminder that Amherst is an institution. But none of that is directed at the students. Nor should it be. We are not making Amherst better or worse. We are not Amherst’s operators, we are its subjects. Michael Elliott is not our president, he is the faculty’s.
Still, Michael Elliott will be someone to us. Sometimes, he will be the figurehead of a mostly tiring bureaucracy. But sometimes, talking to him will be a symbol of having “made-it,” of living the small liberal arts college dream. We will love him, we will hate him. And, hopefully, like Amherst, he will outlast us.