So, I attended Amherst’s Commencement this weekend … thought I’d share a few tidbits:

— Overall, like Williams, Amherst is incredibly well-run, and the school put on a memorable weekend for all involved.

— Common theme from every speaker throughout the weekend: predictably, the economy.  Kind of got depressing after awhile, actually.  I felt that, while certainly the collapse and its implications needed to be acknowledged, it was overemphasized.  The only person who achieved the proper balance in my view was the student class speaker, who noted the economy but still made his speech primarily about the Amherst experience.  (He is a tour guide, and employed a very clever framing device in which he reflected on truths and lies told on the Amherst tour.  That also yielded the best line of his speech, something to the effect of, I’ve given the Amherst spiel so many times that I could almost recite it walking backwards …).

— Speaking of which, the seniors all listened to brief auditions for class speaker prior to voting on the winning orator.  The winner was, I imagine not coincidentally, outstanding (despite noting that “Williams College is a horrible college,” a reference to a t-shirt I observed on more than one occasion on campus).  This is an idea Williams should steal.

— On the topic of stealing ideas, Amherst stole Williams’ Olmstead Awards idea (Amherst has been awarding these for 12 years, Williams for 25).  To add insult to injury, Amherst named its version of these awards for Zephenia Swift Moore.  But, if Amherst is going to steal something, this is definitely something worth stealing.

— There is, however, no outside speaker, just the college President.  That went, ummm, far less spectacularly.  (The first ten minutes of the speech involved a Cliffs-notes recap of the financial crisis, followed by the President’s opining that individual greed rather than collective responsibility was responsible — yes, it really was that platitudinous.  He officially lost the crowd about two minutes in ….).

— There is no equivalent to the student-centric Ivy Exercises, which I thought was a shame.  Like Williams, Amherst does have a Baccalaureate Service (which, as one might expect from a NESCAC school, was sufficiently politically correct and featured a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Christian, Orthodox, and non-believer component).

— Random senior class tradition: each senior received a wooden walking cane for graduation — which led to the odd sight of a huge number of 22 year-olds employing those canes later that afternoon, not to mention the equally odd sight of bunch of canes going through metal detectors at the airport later that evening.  Of course I am biased, but I think the watch-dropping kicks that particular tradition in the butt :) …

— Coolest thing by far at Amherst: its Museum of Natural History.  The brand new building is spectacular (not to mention the only noteworthy contemporary building on campus), and the contents are even more spectacular.  Definitely worth a visit if in the area.  On the other hand, I’d skip the art museum, which (predictably) is far, far inferior to the WCMA.

— Most impressive thing about the physical plant: the dorms.  All of the frosh dorms are newly renovated and are incredible, one in particular which used to house the prior incarnation of the Natural History Museum and resembles a ski lodge at Vail.  Any tour going through the most newly-renovated frosh dorm is sure to come away impressed.  Amherst has also recently constructed two huge, gorgeous upperclassmen dorms, both with spectacular views.

— Least impressive thing about the physical plant: everything else.  Amherst is way, WAY behind Williams in terms of its non-dorm facilities.  The Amherst student center is definitely looking worse for wear (stylistically, it reminded me of the interior and new addition to Hopkins — unsurprising considering the buildings were built at the same time — only a lot shabbier).  Paresky absolutely destroys its interior, both aesthetically and in terms of functionality, and I actually prefer the Paresky exterior as well (the Amherst exterior is not nearly as daring or ostentatious as Paresky, so some might prefer it, but it is boring and the design is not aging well at ALL).  There is, moreover, no Goodrich equivalent so far as I can tell.  The main Amherst library is in even worse shape than Sawyer, believe it or not.  The lone dining hall on campus doesn’t come close to matching Williams’ dining facilities / options.  The science complex seems to approximate Williams’ science complex prior to the construction of the Unified Science Center.  Other than the building that houses the Natural History Museum, none of the academic buildings struck me as particularly impressive.  Amherst is in the middle of a fund raising drive, which I learned will support major renovations to its science and library complexes, but Williams is definitely WAY ahead in terms of physical plant needs in all areas but for dorms (and even when it comes to dorms, Williams is in MUCH better relative shape, as Williams has recently renovated most of its dorms, just not to the spectacular degree as Amherst).  I imagine to do the job right, Amherst will have to spend nearly as much on renovating its library as Williams’ remaining obligation on the new Sawyer.  And that still leaves Amherst with massive prospective outlays on crucial student life and science facilities if it hopes to keep up with the Williamses.

(*NB: I realize some on this blog have recently opined that physical plant expenditures contribute little to the educational experience; I am not trying to argue either way here, but rather simply make an observation.  Also, I don’t think the different levels of physical plant outlays reflect a difference in philosophy between the institutions, but rather a difference in timing.  Because the new buildings Amherst has constructed / gut-renovated are just as over-the-top luxurious as the newer buildings on the Williams campus).

— It would be very, very difficult to distinguish (without the aid of t-shirt slogans) a group of 20 random Amherst students vs. 20 random Williams students.  The only SLIGHT difference I noted is that there seemed to be a bit more of a stark divide, both in appearance and socialization, between jocks and non-jocks at Amherst, while at Williams there might be a bit more of a continuum.  But perhaps that observation was influenced by my preconceived notion on that point.

— Amherst’s senior class t-shirt: I Survived Swine Flu.  Awesome.

— There is no single location on Williams’ campus that is nearly as gorgeous or memorable as Amherst’s enormous, impressive central quad.  (Although I do believe Williams’ campus will at least finally have a similar true functional and aesthetic “center” between Stetson and Paresky once the Stetston-Sawyer project is completed).  But the Williams campus feels larger and less cloistered, is more interesting / diverse in terms of architectural styles, and offers a far greater variety of  noteworthy settings (Berkshire Quad, the row houses, the science quad, Mission Park area) than Amherst, which outside of the absolutely stunning main quad area, felt sort of like a closely-clumped and randomly arranged afterthought.  Without a doubt, the difference in architectural styles mirrors the difference in mascots and school colors: the Williams campus feels open, quirky, and fun, whereas Amherst’s feels traditional, impressive, and stuffy.  On the other hand, Amherst does not have to deal with Route 2, which is a huge plus.  In terms of natural surroundings, Amherst features one jaw-droppingly gorgeous view.  Williams, of course, features such views from almost everywhere on campus …

— Back on the topic of speakers, given that Clarence Otis is a businessman, his forthcoming address is expected to — and I am sure will — hit on the economy, but I hope that he and other speakers are not AS overwhelmingly focused on present economic conditions, and also discuss broader aspects of the Williams experience and the long-term future for graduates.  The last thing everyone in attendance needs is yet another sobering reminder of just how much the graduates’ lives are about to suck.

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