Campus News

Town Council Talk delivered by
President Robert H. Edwards
May 1, 2000

Story posted May 01, 2000

Annual Address to the Brunswick Town CouncilMay 1, 2000

Chairman McCausland and members of the Brunswick Town Council: It's a great pleasure to be here again to say a few words about what's going on at Brunswick's wonderful clean neighborhood industry with its budget of $83 million that will never be closed as an economy measure by the federal government and that, we believe, will survive even the world of dot-comery. This is the sixth time I've had the pleasure of appearing before you. It's my tenth year at Bowdoin.

Although I still have one more year as president, and this is not a valedictory, I thought to engage with you in a bit of speculation about the future. Change is of course everywhere: in the economy, the job market, and the way we spend our lives. Colleges are intimately engaged in all this, but for many reasons we change slowly. Our physical and intellectual capital have long cycles of turn-over. Therefore foresight accounts for a lot. This is why we have boards of trustees who view their colleges in the context of the professional and financial lives they live in the wider world. It's why Bowdoin's presidential search committee is operating in cooperation with a committee that is examining broadly the future of American higher education.

In brief, this is a time of enormous excitement and promise in higher education, but no small peril for liberal arts colleges.

Let us situate Bowdoin among the 3500 institutions of higher education that now exist in America. What Samuel Eliot Morison called the "hilltop college" used to be the model of higher education. Most of the relatively few people who went on to college as 18 year olds went to the small residential place nearby. But by about twenty years ago, liberal arts college enrollment had fallen to about 15 percent of post-secondary school students. Since then, such has been the growth of post-secondary education, and its explosion beyond the 18-22 year old age cohort, that our enrollment is now 2 percent of the total. If you look at the segment of education in which Bowdoin competes the top ten universities and the top twenty colleges our enrollment is minuscule. But our effect, in terms of educating future leadership, is disproportionately great, and within this top sector competition for the most able students and able faculty is intense.

But today's students and faculty long ago abandoned the easy assumption that "college" is in a small town and a small institution. The current generation is more inclined to seek an urban university, where the culture of the university merges with the city, with its diversions, excitements and opportunities. What this means is that our competition will increasingly be with universities in Boston, Chicago, Washington and New York, as will that of Amherst, Middlebury and Williams, with whom we also compete. The average size of the institution that students attend rose from 3,000 to 5,000 over the past decade.

What are we doing about all this? No serious college is idly watching able students drift off to the city and to research universities. We are constantly conducting research, travelling, and scrutinizing the competition, as well as our future student applicants, and we are taking measures to see that our small residential colleges meet the expectations and needs of the strongest faculty and students.

At Bowdoin we work very hard on two major axes. The first is quality. We believe that only the very best colleges that charge what we charge will prosper. If we cannot deliver the highest quality; if we are not among the very best faculty, facilities, students who graduate and enter the best professional and graduate schools we risk entering a declining spiral. Slowly but surely, mediocrity will overtake us. Our perceived value will cease to be worth our cost.

This is why Bowdoin endlessly seeks capital and endlessly plans the future. Capital enables us to give financial aid to the best students, pay our faculty well and renew our faculty ranks and our facilities in crucial areas. Thanks to a $450 million endowment, every full paying student receives a subsidy of $8-9,000 each, reflected in these elements of education.

You have perhaps read about two areas of major strengthening at Bowdoin this year.

The first is the theater. We recognize that, today, students and faculty are more sophisticated and worldly. The arts theater, music, dance are a natural part of their lives. One needs only to look at the quality of student talent that has performed in the theater in the few weeks it has been open, to realize how needed it has been, to service to the talents and passions of present and future students apart from the benefit we believe it will have for the Maine State Theater and the region's economy.

The second is of course technology. Information technology invades everything we do our academic programs, finance and administration, and the way we communicate with the outside world. Bowdoin's website, we know, is read in Europe and Asia by prospective students, as well as all over America. Investments in it will never end, but ourrecent $23 million gift of endowment from Stan Druckenmiller is enabling us to stay apace with the best. Rougly 5 percent of our education budget about $3 million a year is now going into information technology.

At the moment, Bowdoin, broadly speaking, is in a very strong competitive position for students: 4200 applications for 450 places this year. We accept about a quarter of our applicants, and our admissions office believes it will enroll this fall the most talented, diverse student body it has ever seen. But this is because of foresight and action. An example: the determining facts that drove the Board's decision to replace fraternities with a new residential system was uncovered by research: it disclosed that 85 percent of the most able high school students did not want to go to a college with a fraternity system; and we found that fraternity members at Bowdoin by and large did less well academically. We risked a declining spiral if we did not create a more rewarding residential system. Quality, then: of students, faculty, and facilities.

After quality, our second great issue will increasingly be size. Can we be and be seen to be clearly challenging, academically and socially. Can we be a place that fosters the growth we seek in students as a small residential college for a student's full four years? My strong belief is that today the education Bowdoin provides is second to none in the country. Our graduates do astonishing things in their years here. 95 percent expect when they arrive to go on to graduate school. But we cannot stand still. Because "too small" and "too remote" are given as the reasons why some of our best applicants end up going elsewhere. In purely competitive terms, Maine and Brunswick are both our greatest liabilities, in attracting applicants, and our greatest assets for the students who actually come here.

Bowdoin will always be residential and relatively small. We counteract the apparent liability of size by vitality and our ability to engage every student. Our first strategy is not to grow, but to increase our quality and density strengthening the texture and energy of what goes on academically and socially. But, inevitably, the growth of knowledge, competition, and the expectations of faculty and students require growth.

When I arrived at Bowdoin a decade ago, we had a Biology department of seven; it is now twelve. This has been necessary because of the explosive growth of knowledge in biology and chemistry and their importance economically, politically and socially in the world. Our growth has been possible reflected in other parts of the curriculum as well because the college grew: expanded its student body by 10 percent between 1994 and 1998, to sustain a larger faculty. For example, we can now offer students 600 courses a year: 12 percent more than a decade ago.

Thanks to an economy that has sustained a major capital campaign and a flow of annual gifts, we've also modernized and expanded facilities, as you know: science facilities, the Smith Union, residence halls, and now the theater.

The formula for growth at a college like Bowdoin produces no extra income. You merely produce an equilibrium at a higher level. That is, you can sustain a larger curriculum, and support more faculty, with a larger student body. But you make no money, because all your student revenues, in addition to housing and feeding your new students, pay the costs of faculty, facilities, and other inputs that sustain the growing quality of the program.

So, for a complex of reasons, even though we shall be true to our nature as a small, residential college of undergraduate students, Bowdoin, over time, will continue to grow, to maintain itself in the first rank of academic institutions, and to sustain programs of sufficient magnitude and density to meet the needs of truly exceptional students and faculty. In a recent campus space study, we estimated the requirements in terms of residence halls, faculty offices, dining facilities, and so forth for a college of 1750 10 percent larger than our present 1550. Bowdoin is a long way from making a decision to grow again. We have to digest our new residential system, a new president must arrive, and the endowment must grow. But growth will inevitably come to pass.

Although this will inevitably produce some abrasions and frictions with the town, I believe Brunswick, fundamentally, will want this growth to happen, because it wants, as much as we, to see Bowdoin in an ever ascending spiral of vibrancy and success. Unlike the Naval Air Station, we will never go away; but we could gradually become less successful, less selective of our students and faculty, and less productive of the leadership Bowdoin has traditionally sent into this world.

Equally inevitably, these changes will provide innumerable wonderful opportunities for cooperation between the town and Bowdoin, their neighborhood industry. I think we are getting better at cooperation, in part because we are now doing it in a much larger frame. Parking and zoning will always be significant and fractious issues and receive serious attention. But our relationship becomes very different when we are working together to make Brunswick better: improving the downtown; upgrading commercial areas; and improving and enhancing that wonderful green mall that means so much to all of us.

We hope that our new tradition, Bowdoin's Common Good Day, on which over 300 students and faculty and staff and Bowdoin Friends made a special effort of volunteerism in the community, will keep this tradition of cooperation in the front of our minds.

Finally, we have a wonderful specific opportunity for cooperation in the future. As you may know, Bruce Boucher, a 22 year veteran of the Brunswick Police Department, will join us as the new chief of Bowdoin Security. Bruce is currently the commander of the Support Service Division of the Police Department. All his professional work, we think, has prepared him for this pinnacle of his career! His daughter, who goes to Smith, a place not unlike Bowdoin, will ensure that he receives even at home what we all profit from: the endless inventiveness and suggestions for improvement provided by bright students.

Mr. Chairman, as ever it has been a pleasure to be here before your distinguished Town Council. We deeply appreciate the selfless work you do, and I thank you, once again, for courteously affording me the time to appear before you.

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