Traditionally, Massachusetts governors hang portraits of previous governors in their office for inspiration. But Maura Healey, both the state’s first female and first openly LGBTQ governor, elected to hang an empty frame. Students from Western Massachusetts asked Healey to do so in a contest-winning essay, to symbolize those unseen in the halls of power and to find inspiration in the future rather than the past.
Healey told this story to a packed Johnson Chapel during her conversation with President Michael Elliott last Wednesday evening, which drew students, staff, faculty, and community residents. The event, named “Democracy and the Greater Good,” was part of a series marking the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s dedication of Frost Library.
While their demonstration was barely audible, outside of Johnson Chapel, Amherst for Palestine demanded that Healey support a ceasefire in Gaza. As guests exited the event, they were greeted by a crowd of students holding signs and chanting “Free, Free Palestine.”
In introducing Healey, Elliott referenced Kennedy’s words that day: “It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools' graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest. Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility.”
Six decades later, Elliott emphasized that the college is rededicating itself to educating students in democratic values to prepare them for a lifetime of contributing to the greater good. This comes at a time when “the problems that face us often seem insurmountable, when cynicism, anxiety, and mistrust in institutions can seem overwhelming.”
Eliott added that the devastation and staggering loss of life in the Israel-Hamas war, including the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, have sharpened this resolve.
“In this moment of upheaval, when so many of us are feeling despair, I understand that some in this room may wish to disrupt or even shut down tonight's event,” Elliott said. “I urge you to reconsider and instead use your voices to spark conversations rather than silencing them.”
The college is recommitting itself to civic service, Elliott said, by taking action in four core areas: classrooms, career programs, campus culture, and community. These actions include the Thinking Democratically initiative, led by Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science Austin Sarat, where faculty develop courses with these shared goals; the student-led Better Amherst Initiative’s partnership with the Loeb Center to expand support for public service careers; the post-graduate social impact grants sponsored by Sandy Rosenberg ’72, which the college is doubling this year; and the Open Minds Project — led by Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought Martha Umphrey — inviting students whether they agree or disagree with each other to engage in thoughtful discourse.
In the context of the 60th anniversary of the dedication of Frost Library, the college announced a donation of $1 million to the town’s Jones Library Building project, in addition to further investment in town infrastructure.
Theo Dassin ’24 and Aidan Orr ’24, leaders of Amherst Students for Democracy (ASFD), continued the opening remarks: “Democracy is in peril. From the erosion of civil liberties and the rise of autocratic leaders to the proliferation of disinformation and the weakening of democratic institutions, the principles and practices of democracy are under attack,” Orr said.
Sarat and ASFD developed their pledge campaign, which they launched at the event, to address this. The goal is to have each Amherst student commit themselves to work at a pro-democracy organization during their time at the college, Orr said.
Quoting Kennedy, Orr continued: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it."
“We are one of those few generations. Democracy is under attack. Are you willing to fight for it?” Dassin responded. “Then take the pledge.”
Elliott then introduced Healey, detailing her commitment to helping Massachusetts become a leader in clean energy, a more affordable and equitable place to live, and a great place for businesses to operate. Healey has created a climate office, made free school meals for students K-12 permanent, created a free community college program for residents 25 and older, and cut taxes for the first time in 20 years, including creating “the most generous child and family tax credit in the country,” Elliott said.
Healey emphasized that she never planned on running for office. But if she had to start again, she would have worked in public service earlier, she said.
After attending Harvard, she played professional basketball in Austria, before attending law school and working at a big international law firm. That’s when she did “a 180,” Healey said, when given the opportunity to run the Civil Rights Division for Massachusetts for the state attorney general's office. In filing a lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act and investigating the Sackler family’s role in the opioid crisis, “it was seeing the power of public service in action. That’s what inspired me to run for attorney general. Doing the work as attorney general then inspired me to run to be governor.”
Elliott asked about the role of a private institution in serving the public good.
Healey responded by referencing the affordable housing project, East Gables, located adjacent to the college’s Pratt Field, which she toured before the event.
“It's an example of how a private institution like the college can live alongside the community because those residents, many of whom have complex needs, are able to take advantage of the premises here and the green space and the athletic facilities,” Healey said. “It is incumbent upon our private and public colleges and universities to not just exist within the walls of their institutions and premises, but to really be part of the community.”
Healey applauded ASFD’s call to action and encouraged greater participation in the town, at school board meetings and town council meetings as part of truth-telling. “That’s something that seems small, but it actually really matters to the fundamentals of democracy.”
Another issue facing higher education is the Supreme Court decision limiting the ability to think about race as part of the admissions process, Elliott said.
Massachusetts has been working with the attorney general’s office to assure colleges that many efforts to ensure diversity are acceptable to continue along with dealing with the pipeline of students, starting with early education and childcare, Healey said.
“It really drives home the need to make sure we’re doing all we can to foster and develop that pipeline,” Healey added.
Healey ended by returning to the Kennedy quote that Elliott referenced at the beginning: “With that privilege comes both a responsibility and also a huge opportunity, because the world needs you and the world awaits you. But don’t wait for the world either.”
Healey departed without acknowledging the protestors.
Students and community members resonated with Healey’s recommendations to become involved in public service in tangible ways.
“Healey understands that there’s so much to do at a local level because that’s where the change comes from,” said Cameron Mueller-Harder ’23. “And that’s the sort of change that anyone can get involved in.”
Jake Montes-Adams ’21 added that they “appreciated her focus on very practical change-making elements, being willing to take a look at things that are specific, local, gritty and not very glamorous, and see that’s where change has to happen.”
For Orr and Dassin, Healey’s talk was the perfect place to launch the ASFD pledge, with the help of Elliott.
“She was talking about the importance of going into public sector work and the responsibility Amherst students have,” Dassin said. “The pledge is an opportunity to follow up on that responsibility and make use of it.”
“It’s clear that for President Elliott and Amherst, it’s not just lip service,” Dassin added. “They really believe in the democratic mission that they’re talking about and that Amherst students can be a force for good.”