“Barry has never lost sight of the fact that the core mission of a liberal arts institution is to cultivate the intellects of students and shape their intellectual habits.”
Bowdoin has seen many important changes over the past fourteen years under Barry’s leadership: the endowment has grown; diversity among the student body has increased; access for lower income students has been enhanced; beautiful new spaces for the arts have been created; the McKeen Center for the Common Good was established; and exciting initiatives in Earth and Oceanographic Sciences and Digital and Computational Studies have been introduced. These are significant accomplishments and rightly celebrated.
I want to highlight another accomplishment of Barry’s presidency that is less often recognized but no less important: namely, his unwavering commitment to intellectual excellence and the centrality of the academic program at Bowdoin. In the face of mounting pressures on liberal arts colleges to become more relevant by training students for practical careers or becoming vehicles of social and political change, Barry has never lost sight of the fact that the core mission of a liberal arts institution is to cultivate the intellects of students and shape their intellectual habits. He has been a fierce advocate for what John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University characterized as the great desideratum of liberal education: “the culture of the intellect…the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of the intellect.”
Barry’s commitment to this core value of a liberal arts education was brought home to me most powerfully in a speech he gave at the convocation opening the 2007 school year. Reflecting on the idea of the common good that has informed Bowdoin’s tradition ever since its first president, Joseph McKeen, announced that “it ought always to be remembered, that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education,” Barry noted that evidence of the vitality of this idea could still be seen at Bowdoin. It could be seen in the commitment to make Bowdoin accessible to qualified students regardless of economic circumstance; in the hundreds of hours of community service performed by Bowdoin students, faculty, and staff; in the lively debates on campus over pressing social and political issues; and in the growing concern about climate change and the environment. But he warned that these legitimate expressions of the common good should not overwhelm the most fundamental value of a liberal arts institution, namely, education and the “primacy of the academic program.” Bowdoin is neither a “political convention” nor a “social service agency,” he stated; “our most important work on behalf of the common good takes place right here—in our classrooms, labs, theaters, and studios.”
In many ways this was a simple point, but I think it is an important one, especially as the siren songs of economic, technological, and political relevance become increasingly seductive. Barry deserves our gratitude for having the courage to say it. And unlike Odysseus, he did not even have to be lashed to the mast to do so.
Professor of Government