Saturday, November 26, 2011

Town Greetings: Inauguration of Carolyn "Biddy" Martin as President of Amherst College

As noted in the previous post, I was deputized to represent the Town at the inauguration of Amherst College President Biddy Martin. Because several people requested that I share those remarks, it seemed simplest to post them here.

The event, as one might expect of the sponsoring organization, was a dignified and immaculately organized affair. Inauguration Coordinator Pat Allen saw to it that everything ran like clockwork (do we still say that in the digital era?). Nature, history, and a sizable endowment combined to provide the ideal setting: the southern end of the quad at the War Memorial, looking out over acres of protected land, with the magnificent Holyoke Range as backdrop. Even the weather cooperated, granting us a crisp and sunny morning after a stretch of rainy days.

musicians arriving for the ceremony: barely 20 minutes to go, and most seats still empty
The only thing that proved beyond the limits of planning and organization was: the students. Not only as we arrived for assembly in Pratt Hall (originally the wonderful old natural history museum, since refurbished as a dormitory), but even as we finally "processed" to the dais, young scholars were few and far between, as the rows of empty seats testified. It was, after all, 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning, which, as we know, follows Saturday night. (In fairness, some could plausibly plead to having stayed up too late at the inaugural dance, which President Martin herself visited until the wee hours.) At any rate, they eventually drifted in.

dignitaries line up in their regalia
outgoing President Anthony Marx pauses to greet a young well-wisher
The ceremony was complex, and if anything, threatened to burst the bounds of the schedule if not tax the patience of the audience. Careful planning and careful instructions prevented that. Speakers were given strict instructions on time limits, which most managed to obey. There was a lot to get done.

After a slightly wobbly rendition of the overture from Händel's Royal Fireworks music by the college orchestra (one could almost hear the waves rocking the barges), things got underway. There were numerous "greetings": from Amherst College and its alumni, trustees, staff, and students; from other institutions of higher learning; from the town (I represented the Select Board, and Superintendent Maria Geryk, the public schools). There were honorary degrees and various ceremonial gifts, from the symbolic keys to the College (many or most from buildings that no longer exist) to a volume (just on loan) from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington; few outsiders know that it belongs to Amherst College. There was music, old and new: in the latter case, an original piece by composer and faculty member Eric Sawyer. Among the highlights—in addition, of course, to the actual inauguration act and the address by President Martin—was Richard Wilbur's (Class of '42) reading of his poem, "Altitudes," which, concerned with spirituality and art, references both classical Europe and the nineteenth-century Amherst of Emily Dickinson.

(the full program booklet—all ten pages of it)

As on most such occasions, you ponder what to say—only more so. You don't know the audience and its tastes. The only thing you do know (and had better remember) is that they're not there mainly to hear you. Given my choice, I would have preferred to come up with something brief and witty.

In the end, lacking sufficient inspiration and creativity, I decided to stick with what I knew best: Amherst history and the Five Colleges. It proved to be the right choice. As chance would have it, several of us, including Dean of Faculty Greg Call and President Martin herself, gravitated, independently and in complementary ways, toward similar themes. We all dealt with the pattern of experimentation and change: Amherst College, despite its elite status (and at times, marked awareness of same), always had a democratic streak that made room for or even encouraged visionary change. We all mentioned the educational innovator and gadfly Alexander Meiklejohn, who served as president from 1912 to 1924. We all noted the College's tradition of assistance to students of merit rather than means, and we all noted the eventual and essential acceptance of diversity, and the significance of selecting a woman president.

* * *

Remarks for the Amherst Select Board, on the Occasion of the
Inauguration of Amherst College President Carolyn (“Biddy”) Martin
16 October 2011

When Noah Webster—whose birthday it happens to be today—spoke at the laying of the cornerstone here in 1820, he praised the location in part by virtue of the townsfolk, “whose moral, religious & literary habit dispose them to cherish the cultivation of the mind.”

The town seal depicting “the book and the plow,” invented by an Amherst professor [for our Bicentennial] in 1959, reflects our self-image. None of the pioneering institutions of higher learning in Amherst would have come into being were it not for the peculiar passion for learning evinced by the residents of this rural community.

It was the people of Amherst who created the Amherst Academy in 1814, to provide a modern secondary education for women as well as men. Citizens associated with the Academy in turn created Amherst College, to provide future Christian clergy with a new liberal-arts education, regardless of financial means. The ordinary citizens of Amherst were no less enthusiastic, donating not only money, but also stone and lumber: laboring day and night, we are told, “like the Jews in building their temple.”

When the Morrill Act of 1862 created land grant colleges to advance democratic education and scientific agriculture, our residents fought to win a charter for the new Massachusetts Agricultural College. To be sure, Amherst College, with its, shall we say, typically complex mixture of altruism and acquisitiveness, unsuccessfully sought control over the new institution—but its intellectual elite both shaped and led it.

A century later, the four area colleges—led by visionary Amherst administrators and alumni—created Hampshire College, which offered an experimental interdisciplinary education suited to a coming information age and global community.

Amherst College was conceived of as a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy, and yet from the start, it grew and adapted. It never imposed a religious test on students or faculty. It graduated its first African-American student in 1826. It (finally) admitted women in 1975.

Vice President Webster envisioned a college shaping a world devoted to learning rather than destruction:
Too long have men been engaged in the barbarous works of multiplying the miseries of human life. Too long have their exertions been devoted to war and plunder: to the destruction of lives, and property; to the ravage of cities; to the unnatural, the monstrous employment of enslaving and degrading their own species. Blessed be our lot! We live to see a new era in the history of man . . .
In welcoming President Martin, we also mark a new era: in the history of men—and women.

Amherst College has not always been kind to its presidents: in the 1920s, when Alexander Meiklejohn tried to update that vision, he was forced out for being too radical. Today, his vision of progressive, interdisciplinary education and community-engaged learning seems, well, visionary. He left for the University of Wisconsin. In a happy irony, we today install as President a graduate of that great institution.

On behalf of our government and residents: Welcome! May we always embrace rather than fear new ideas and approaches. May your efforts be crowned with success as the partnership between the Town and College of Amherst approaches its third century.


Information on Biddy Martin (including her inauguration) (official Amherst College President website)
Video of the inauguration and text of President Martin's address (official Amherst College website)
Video of the inauguration (YouTube)
• "Carolyn Martin inaugurated as first woman president at Amherst College," Hampshire Gazette, 17 Oct. 2011
• "Amherst College president inaugurated," Boston Globe, 16 Oct. 2011

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