“The best thanks we can offer President Mills for his years of service is to consider our work enhanced, imperative, and far from over.”
I arrived on the Bowdoin campus for my job interview in the fall of 2001, during Barry Mills's first year as president. I’d been through two college presidents by then and expected a sort of pro forma meeting with him. That wasn’t what I got, at all. We talked for a surprisingly long time, and about important things, including our backgrounds, intellectual interests, and concerns about the academy. I learned that, in addition to a shared, albeit different, interest in shopping malls (as an attorney, he had provided their owners with legal representation; as a scholar, I had studied their appeals to women to “shop till they dropped”), we shared a deep professional, personal, and political commitment to diversity. "My plan is to create a pluralistic society at Bowdoin," he told me, and I could tell that he meant it. I left campus at the end of two days, impressed with so many elements of life and work at the College; even so, President Mills’s words stood out, and I was eager to be part of the change he envisioned.
Looking back now over a dozen or so years, it would be hard to overestimate the degree to which Barry Mills has moved Bowdoin College, in the very ways he imagined. His straight talk and leadership on campus, coupled with his ability to speak passionately and convincingly on behalf of inclusion to the many people who support us financially, has resulted in a profound transformation. This academic year, over thirty percent of the first-year class is composed of students of color. First-years come from forty-one states and fifteen foreign countries, with roughly ten percent from Maine. The financial support we provide students is, by all accounts, phenomenal. By significant measures, including race, ethnicity, social class, and region, we have come a long way.
The numbers matter, but they tell only part of the story. With Barry Mills’s leadership, we have the opportunity to spend years together—some of us four years, many of us far more than four years—figuring out what it means to craft community through difference. It’s no easy process, and we cannot expect Bowdoin to be free of the many insufficiencies that plague our nation and world. But as members of a college community we do have a unique opportunity to work hard intellectually so our answers to the difficult questions have more substance and more staying power, and to learn, in a residential setting and through our differences, what it takes to build friendships, neighborhoods, and citizenries. The best thanks we can offer President Mills for his years of service is to consider our work enhanced, imperative, and far from over.
William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities in Gender and Women’s
Studies and Interim Dean for Academic Affairs