New head of Amherst College emphasizes public interest

AMHERST — In an increasingly politically polarized country, where some view higher education as a private benefit that only accrues to certain individuals, Amherst College President Michael A. Elliott wants people to understand that today’s students will soon serve the public good.

“We invest in students here at college, not just for the education they will receive, but because of the impact they will have on the world upon graduation,” says Elliott. “I’m interested in how we can ensure that we educate students to play a leadership role in an open and democratic society.

As Elliott settles into leadership of the college as 20th president, he prioritizes ensuring students, as well as faculty and staff, have a sense of belonging and a sense of community cohesion. . That sense will help students ground their path in the post-college world, Elliott says, much like his own college experience more than 30 years ago.

Elliott, a 1992 graduate, succeeded Biddy Martin on August 1. Its official dedication ceremony took place last Friday on the college’s Quad, with student performances, music, a poetry reading and remarks from Elliott and Andrew Nussbaum, chairman of the college’s board of trustees. . administrators, as well as students.

Elliott grew up in Arizona, came to Amherst in the 1980s, and while in school fell in love with the intellectual atmosphere of a liberal arts campus, pursuing an academic career in American literature.

After completing doctoral studies at Columbia University, he began a career as a tenure-track professor at Emory University in Atlanta, where he became Charles Howard Candler Professor of English. Elliott specializes in 19th and early 20th century American literature and culture.

In 2010, he became involved in academic administration recruitment, working with department chairs and serving as Dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences when the pandemic hit. The pandemic, he said, has thrown into relief what matters to him, becoming one of the reasons he is returning to Amherst College.

“Over time, I have reflected on what matters to me, which is undergraduate teaching, educating students to impact the world, and maintaining an intellectual community” , Elliott said.

He appreciates the form of education offered at the college, which values ​​creativity and innovation in the liberal arts. “The opportunity presented itself and I decided to see where it might lead,” Elliott said.

Sitting in his office at Converse Hall, Elliott said he was not ready to set any specific goals, but was waiting before offering ideas publicly so that there was a clear roadmap for how to move forward. reach them. He will use the first year of work to listen and learn, then hopes to make a positive impact with a program that grows organically.

But it will continue to focus on some of the goals Martin has prioritized, including recruiting a socio-economically, racially and ethnically diverse student body, 10% of which is international, and the need-blind admissions process. .

“We must support this mission, which is extraordinarily ambitious,” Elliott said, praising the college’s ability to move faster than many of its peer institutions. “It makes the job more exciting and challenging, and gives students a different kind of education.”

Reconnect with the city

The challenges facing the college are similar to any other entity under inflationary pressure, even with an endowment of $3.3 billion as of fiscal year 2022.

“Amherst College has enormous resources that are the envy of almost any other institution,” Elliott said. “But our ambitions will always exceed what we can do.”

Coming out of the pandemic, during which the college operated in a bubble for some time, rebuilding ties with the city will be a priority. Elliott said he felt those ties weren’t as strong as they could be.

“I would like everyone who lives in Amherst to feel that having Amherst College in the community is an asset, that the college makes Amherst a richer and more interesting place to live,” Elliott said.

This includes student performances, sporting events, and lectures, and other activities that happen almost daily and are likely to bring people to campus.

Likewise, he wants that synergy to be students heading into town, whether it’s Antonio’s for a slice of pizza, Amherst Books to get literature, or the Amherst Cinema to watch a movie, though he laments the closing of Hastings, which had a large selection of Mammoths products.

“For me, the city was a big part of the undergraduate experience,” Elliott said. “I would like students to have the same experience of the city and the community as part of their educational experience.”

He continues to love what downtown has to offer, noting that he recently attended an open mic night at The Drake performing arts venue. “Being in Amherst is a great pleasure,” said Elliot.

The college, however, must do more than just provide financial support to the city. “We want to do what we can to make the city economically viable, and we want to be a partner,” he said, pointing to Sarah Barr, the college’s full-time community engagement manager.

Living off campus

One change that will come next year is that he and his wife, Jennifer Mathews, will move into a residence hall on Sunset Avenue, the first time the president has lived off campus. This should make it more accessible.

“I love that Amherst is such an interesting community, and I love that it’s a walkable community,” Elliott said, noting that he doesn’t like to drive, likes to get around on foot and is a jogger. keen.

The Presidents’ home on South Pleasant Street, which he calls a combination museum and dormitory, will continue to be used for certain functions by the President, such as dinner parties he may host, but residential areas will be vacated.

Returning to his undergraduate campus, Elliott said he notices the physical changes, such as the new science building and new dorms, but some of the more critical changes are less specific to Amherst and more societal, such as using email to communicate. with teachers, which reduces face-to-face interactions.

“It changes and sometimes challenges our efforts to create a sense of community,” Elliott said.

In his spare time, he reads fiction for pleasure and cultural history texts, and listens to music and podcasts.

He anticipates that one of the biggest adjustments for him personally will be the onset of cold and snow, and he’s making sure to get boots and other gear so he’s ready, having spent almost everything his time since he was in college in either the South or the Southwest.

“I haven’t been to a New England winter in 30 years,” Elliott said.

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