Campus News

President Barry Mills's Inaugural Address

Story posted October 27, 2001

Inauguration Address
October 27, 2001
Barry Mills

Good morning. Thank you all for being here today as we open together a new chapter in the long and distinguished history of Bowdoin College.

Governor King and Mary Herman, we welcome you as friends, as neighbors. Dean Rosovsky, thank you for being here and for your thought-provoking talk -I'll get back to it. You honor us with your participation in these ceremonies. Thank you also Bernice Johnson Reagon and Torsten Wiesel for your participation in this weekend and especially for the time spent talking with our students.

I also want to make a special welcome to the representatives of the colleges and universities here today, with a special welcome to my NESCAC colleagues, President Tom Gerety from Amherst College and President Bro Adams, from Colby College. Thank you for coming.

Thanks also to all who have spoken and performed here this morning. I deeply appreciate your words, your talents, and your enthusiasm.

We are honored to have so many members of the faculty, staff, student body, alumni and the Board of Trustees with us today, as well as two of my predecessors.

President Edwards and President Greason, thank you for coming, and thank you for all you have done for Bowdoin. I would also like to welcome Polly Greason and my good dear friend, Blythe Edwards.


For me, this is a moment of exhilaration, tremendous pride, and deep humility. I look forward to the challenge, and I am grateful to be entrusted with the future of this historic college.

On this day, as we mark a new beginning, many of us recall our own experiences on this campus and remember with optimistic spirit our hopes and prayers that we have long had for this College and for its future.

I pledge to do my utmost to build well on the excellent foundation provided to us and to work tirelessly with you to advance Bowdoin's commitment to inquiry, to learning, and to serving the Common Good.


I'd like to take just a moment to introduce you to my family: my wife, Karen, and the newest sons of Bowdoin - I don't have any daughters, this is politically correct, I don't have any daughters- William, Henry, and George.

Now it is true that our move to Maine has been a great adventure after spending so many years in New York City. The adjustment for me has, frankly, been fun and interesting, but the move presents many challenges for Karen and my boys.
I want to thank them publicly for their love and support. And I am happy to report that the most serious issue we have had so far was when we discovered our cable company didn't carry the Yankee playoff games - the problem is solved for the World Series.

As you might imagine, this is a pretty big day for the Mills family, especially because so many friends and members of our extended family are here. Thirty-four years ago, my parents drove me from Rhode Island to Brunswick to take a look at Bowdoin. I have a vivid memory of that day, when an early snowfall dropped flakes as big as silver dollars on three Rhode Islanders enchanted by the Bowdoin Pines. On that day, with my parents at my side, my journey with this college began. On this day, it is incredibly special to have my parents here with me again.

My brothers David and Ira and their families are here, as are Karen's parents Ellen and Melvin Gordon, and Karen's sisters Ginny, Wendy, Lisa, and their families.

Now, these "Gordons" are a group with some pretty strong allegiances to Dean Rosovsky's school in Cambridge, but they have also been wonderfully supportive and encouraging to Karen and me throughout our careers, and especially with our move to Bowdoin.

Speaking of our move to Bowdoin, it really has been a fabulous experience. Most of you already know what Karen, and the boys, and I discovered: that a summer in Brunswick, Maine is pretty tough to beat.

Since our arrival in early July, we've met and gotten to know some terrific people. The faculty, staff, students, and alumni we've met have been warm and gracious, and the people of Brunswick have welcomed us into their community with warmth and friendship. It's been wonderful and we're really grateful to everyone for their kindness and generosity.


So my time at Bowdoin begins again - with enthusiasm, hope, and high spirits. We look to the future of this great College with a profound respect for its traditions and with a deep and abiding belief in the value of its mission, a mission made even more vital by recent, terrible events.

As we gather here this morning to celebrate this ritual of transition at Bowdoin, we can't help but feel some anxiety about transitions facing our country and the world.

When the atrocities of September 11th unfolded, many of us realized immediately that our lives would be forever changed. Having lived and worked in New York City for so many years, I found myself personally shaken by the impact of these attacks on family and friends.

Like so many families, the Bowdoin family suffered the loss of loved ones that day. And like many other families, we rallied quickly around each other. We gathered on September 11th in this very place. Two-thousand of us. To speak and weep into open microphones. Students from New York sharing memories of growing up in the shadow of towers now lost. A young Iranian student, sitting up there in the balcony, reminded us quite rightly about differences, understanding, and respect, and the audience responded with a long standing ovation.

We spoke that day about a world we had known. A world of relative safety experienced from the haven of American shores as rational, thoughtful, and balanced. A world that has now changed to something that appears far less rational, far less balanced, and far more uncertain.

But it is important to remind ourselves that feelings of uncertainty in times of national conflict and crisis have been common on this campus at these moments of transition in college leadership.

Samuel Harris, the first alumnus to lead Bowdoin, was inaugurated in 1867 as the nation struggled to recover from the Civil War. Casey Sills's 34-year presidency began as World War I was winding down, endured through the Second World War, and concluded at the height of the conflict in Korea.

I remember well reverberations of the war in Vietnam that were felt here in Brunswick and across the nation when Roger Howell delivered his inaugural address in 1969. And I remember well being in this room.

And when my predecessor, Bob Edwards, delivered his inaugural remarks eleven years ago yesterday, America was busy forging a coalition for a conflict that would become Desert Storm.

As a student here during the late sixties and early seventies, I remember well the sense of anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the Vietnam War and by civil unrest.

Today again our nation and the world face serious conflicts, and anxieties and uncertainties abound. In such a time, we should be ready to support and encourage our government in one of its fundamental responsibilities - to protect its people. At the same time, we all must work harder to understand the rest of the world and our complex relation to it.

Now, the fact is that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and their aftermath have forced many of us to reassess our lives and our priorities. Things that appeared so vital and important only two months ago can now seem trivial. I have sensed this ongoing reassessment as I travel around the country on behalf of the College. I hear it from parents who tell me how relieved they are to have their sons and daughters studying in the relative safety of Brunswick, Maine.

This sort of reexamination is valuable because to some extent, I believe the excesses of the recent past have led us away from what is truly important in our lives and in our society. And as we recalibrate our priorities, I believe that the value of education will be reaffirmed as central to a rational future.

The question, though, is where our particular form of education - the residential liberal arts college, fits in any reaffirmation of the value of education.


It is of course a truism to say that we live in an increasingly complex world. Our economy grows more complicated every year; our technology more prominent every hour.

We also live in an age of specialization and celebrity, which tests and often disparages the educational values and ideals that Bowdoin holds central. Education that is less expensive and more vocational - more "skill based" - is seen as appropriate and efficient for our time. To some critics, our model - the liberal arts model - is seen as merely a quaint luxury.

But those who would deny the importance of the liberal arts tradition are, and always will be, wrong.

It will come as no surprise to hear me say that I believe deeply in the model of education practiced and refined at Bowdoin during the past two centuries. I intend - as president of this College - to do all that I can to support and advance that model.

College presidents today spend a great deal of time raising money, building budgets, alternatively supporting and worrying about athletics, and acting more and more like CEO's of commercial enterprises. The fundraising piece is important, very important, but making sure that we remain focused on academic achievement and intellectual development is really the most important responsibility of a college president.

And as the times and generations change, we must continue to underscore in language that everyone can understand why the liberal arts model of education deserves our time, energy, financial resources and passion as scholars, students, alumni, friends and benefactors.


So exactly what is it that happens here that is so important?

Bowdoin students spend the better part of four years in a residential setting developing and sharpening their knowledge of a wide range of disciplines. It's a period of intensive study - especially during their last two years as they select and complete a major course of study. As they gain substantive knowledge sitting elbow to elbow with talented and dedicated faculty, our students also develop their powers of communication, writing, speaking, and quantitative literacy.

But there's more to it. As their knowledge grows, they also gain and refine the ability to compare and contrast, to distinguish concepts, set priorities, and critically deconstruct theories and assumptions - the essence of developing intellectual rigor.

At the end of four years, they leave with a great deal of substantive knowledge. But they also leave with a passion for the experience of learning - a passion that forms the basis of an intellectual life to come.

We've all heard the skepticism about our model of education. And it comes up time and time again as young students probe the curriculum. Worried parents wonder what in the world will my son or daughter actually "DO" with a course, say, on "magical realism?" What is the practical purpose of such a course?

The "practical purpose" is, of course, to open one's mind. To enhance one's imagination. To improve one's ability to communicate. To encourage collaboration. To reward creativity - all attributes of value to a future leader. More importantly, all attributes necessary for a rewarding lifetime.

And as we broaden the spectrum with other courses - religion, sociology, government, and language; with art, women's studies, biology, chemistry, and philosophy; as we inject concepts of ethics and risk taking, and as we encourage open debate, welcome disparate points of view, and insist on high standards and careful analysis, we begin to develop minds best suited to lead society in a demanding and uncertain world.

Bowdoin has done this for generations. My job - our job - is to see that it continues to do so well into the future.

Now, there is an additional challenge that best suits our liberal arts model of education - and that is the challenge of literacy in the technical scientific age. Making judgments in the future will be increasingly difficult because the substantive facts underlying many issues often obscure, and are the product of, highly specialized and technical research. We should be firm advocates not only of fact based analysis, but of an education that opens students to a critical understanding of such technical knowledge and its creation.

A major challenge for us then, is to promote an environment and curriculum that makes the complexity of the sciences and our technical world available and accessible to those who may decide to concentrate in other areas, but who are sufficiently wise to appreciate the need for basic literacy and who want to understand the methods of inquiry of the sciences and technology.

So, for example, when we are faced once again with an ethical decision on stem cell research, at least we can begin the discussion knowing what a gene is and that even tomatoes have them.


I'd like now to return to a discussion that I understand occurred a number of years ago.

Dean Rosovsky was very kind when he talked about liberal arts education and our place in the world. However, in his book The University: An Owner's Manual, Dean Rosovsky describes his conversation with a young student attempting to decide between Harvard and Haverford.

Now, I would never presume to suggest that Bowdoin is for everyone, especially over Harvard with so many Gordons in the hall, but I'll try to update that discussion for you. (Parenthetically, you'll note that I am taking full benefit of the home court advantage, because, being aware of Dean Rosovsky's power of intelligence, wit, and debate, I would never attempt this if I didn't have the last word up here.)

Throughout much of its history, a distinguishing factor for Bowdoin has been our faculty's commitment both to serious teaching of undergraduates. Dean Rosovsky's point was, I believe, that although a commitment to teaching is of great institutional value, for some students - and, I think he may have meant the best - studying in an environment where more vibrant curiosity and cutting edge research crackled through the air would enhance education in nearly all respects a bit more intently than would merely good teaching.

Curiosity of mind in the research university would lead to a more challenging educational opportunity for those minds capable of absorbing all that electricity.

It's a point well taken. But such an environment of vibrant scholarship and artistic work is no longer confined strictly to the research university. It's going on right here at Bowdoin and it makes our model of undergraduate education, the undergraduate liberal arts education even more compelling.

I invite any skeptics among us to return in the spring to the atrium in Druckenmiller Hall to view the "poster sessions" by our undergraduates, showcasing the work they have done with Bowdoin scientists in the laboratories. I invite them to the art building to see the murals completed by Bowdoin students with the guidance and inspiration of our faculty. Or to read the poems and short stories of Bowdoin students who have been taught and coached by our English professors.

While every generation of Bowdoin students can tell you about the one or two faculty members who challenged them and changed their lives, today's students describe faculty who are not only committed to teaching but who are intensely committed to their discipline as scholars, researchers, creators, and artists.

We support, encourage, and applaud this high level of scholarship and research and art because Bowdoin should be and is a place for talented and dedicated faculty to continue to pursue their passions for their fields of study. What significantly sets us apart from the research university and makes us unique is the extent to which this scholarly research and artistic work is accessible to and involves our undergraduates.

We hear a great deal today about differentiation; about image and branding. So what is our sound bite? What we do best? What do we excel in? The answer lies in this relationship between our students and our faculty. It is the faculty's commitment to teaching and learning, to making their own work accessible to undergraduates, and their willingness to share their imaginations and their curiosity of mind and spirit for the purpose of learning.


Many people have asked me to set out for you this morning a list of priorities or imperatives for Bowdoin. This is quite natural given what we expect of our leaders today. There is also some expectation here that the pace of dramatic change seen here on our campus in the last decade might continue.

Think for a moment of what has been accomplished. First and foremost, we expanded our faculty and our curriculum.

We have boldly and successfully reinvented our residential life system.

We have created new spaces and structures that enhance and support both the academic and social life of this campus.

These fundamental advancements have improved Bowdoin in incredible and significant ways.

Institutions that undergo this level of dramatic change often require a period of time to absorb these changes and to incorporate them into their bones. Timing is everything, and the economy may require that we act judiciously and with restraint as we move through these next few years.

But, stasis at a place like Bowdoin is not healthy, nor is there any room for complacency in our highly competitive environment. And, finally, for those of you who know me, it just isn't in my nature to rest. As Roger Howell said in this inaugural speech, "we should remember that no institution can live on its past, no matter how praiseworthy that past may be. If the study of the past leads to a stimulation of our minds for the future, then the effort is a laudable enterprise. If it lulls us to complacent inactivity, then it is fatal."

So, what will be our guideposts for the future? What principles will guide us?

As I said in my talk at Convocation this year, our highest priority is sustained and enhanced academic excellence and intellectual rigor. Every decision we make will be tested to determine the impact on the quality of our academic program, and on the excellence and engagement of our faculty.

I firmly believe that everything we do here at Bowdoin is important: residential life, athletics, student services, extracurricular activities. But what will make Bowdoin stronger and enduring is its commitment to its central intellectual mission.


So, with that as backdrop, let me briefly address three important topics to consider for our future: Size, Collaboration, and Access.

First, "Size."

We are a small college in Maine. Our academic program is deep, diverse and challenging. Our students are involved in a wide range of intellectual and extracurricular endeavors, but we are only 1,550 students evenly split between men and women. Parenthetically, this is the 30th anniversary of women at Bowdoin, and we should all be proud.

We are not located in a community with a number of other excellent colleges virtually next door.

While we must work diligently to preserve our character, I believe we should consider over the next few years whether the breadth of experience here academically and intellectually could be widened if we were a somewhat larger but still small community.

Now, I am not suggesting Bowdoin on steroids, only that a marginally larger community might allow us to enhance Bowdoin's capacity to achieve its academic mission.

We grew from 1,400 to the current 1,550 students between 1994 and 1998. That growth was accomplished as we changed our system of residential life and during the construction of long overdue facilities for the academic program and for our residential life program. A further expansion of our student body to say, 1800 students, would be somewhat less complicated today because of the progress we have made over the past years.

Nonetheless, any change in the size of the College would have to be considered carefully and be implemented incrementally because a larger student body comes with significant costs. We have the opportunity to hire additional faculty in order to preserve our student/faculty ratio, currently at 10:1. We would face greater pressure on facilities, and we would have to maintain small class sizes. And student services would have to be expanded - a quick stop at the tremendously popular Watson Fitness Center will convince you of that!

Of course, any growth in our enrollment would have to also be done with appropriate respect for our Brunswick neighbors.

But the point is that this isn't an attempt to get more tuition into Bowdoin College. While an increase in enrollment can be a very expensive endeavor, and must be done carefully it also can propel us in new and exciting directions that relate to our fundamental mission. It's an issue we should consider carefully at the proper time.


The second topic I'd like to touch on is "Collaboration."

We are a small college with limited resources. We have both geographical benefits and burdens. There is no doubt in my mind that the academic experience provided on this campus could be enhanced significantly through thoughtful collaboration with other colleges, universities, and research centers.

Such collaboration could allow us to expand our curriculum, enhance opportunity for research and scholarship by our faculty and students, provide greater diversity of people, and ideas and culture and bring a greater vitality to the life on this campus.

We already collaborate successfully with Colby and Bates, a relationship that I expect will increase in the years ahead. But I believe Bowdoin should also explore collaboration outside Maine, around the United States, and internationally in order to enhance our academic program and mission.

Technology, properly utilized, will enable us to consider collaborations previously unimaginable, as we seek to strengthen and deepen our academic program and opportunities for our students and faculty.


Lastly, but in many ways, most importantly, we need to talk about access.

A Bowdoin education is expensive. It's expensive for us to provide and it's very difficult for many families to afford.

As costs rise, it is essential that we preserve access to Bowdoin for the best and brightest students from across the United States and internationally. Our continued commitment to a strong financial aid program will ensure that students from rural Maine, and students from poor neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles, and even some not-so-wealthy students from Rhode Island will be able to come here to learn.

This is a significant challenge in the best of times that is made even more difficult in a weak economy.

Bowdoin has been need blind for a long time now, admitting students on the basis of their ability, not on their ability to pay. We meet the full calculated need of students and commit to do so for all four years. Changing our policies to admit students on the basis of their ability to pay, or to use scarce financial aid resources in a bidding war for superior students, from my point of view, is not correct, and, I believe, would destine us to mediocrity.

So for Bowdoin, the challenge is to continue to expand our capacity to attract the best students and to support those with need. This will require the continued commitment of the Bowdoin family, which has long been generously supportive of this imperative. It is a challenge that Bowdoin should be able to meet.

So these are three significant challenges as I see them. To reexamine the size of our enrollment, to encourage collaboration, and to enhance access to Bowdoin for deserving students.


Finally, let me conclude today where Bowdoin began - committed to the common good.

As many of you know, the ideal of service to the Common Good was introduced at Bowdoin in the inaugural speech of the College's first president, Joseph McKeen. It was probably the most memorable statement any Bowdoin president has ever made.

"Literary institutions," said McKeen, "are founded and endowed for the Common Good and not the private advantage of those who resort to them for education."

We repeat these words often around here because they underscore a basic canon of this place. McKeen set the tone for generations of Bowdoin students who would live their lives as leaders committed to the Common Good.

Here on this campus, there are no spectators - only participants. We maintain the highest of standards and demand that our students take responsibility for themselves and their community.

Our job is to provide students with the intellectual grounding to make what they consider to be the correct decisions for themselves, their families, and their communities. But, to this burden, I would add the responsibility of preparing students to live lives of moral leadership best exemplified by graduates like George Mitchell, Geoff Canada, and Ellen Baxter.

Robert Coles, in his recent book Lives of Moral Leadership, quotes a teacher from New Orleans as she describes leadership:

"You have a real honest talk with yourself and find out who you are and what you really believe is right, the correct choice, and why that's it, and then, with your values figured out, the reasons you have why you are ready to do something. That means you have to act, act on your beliefs, and you have to behave right, not just talk right, and you have to convince others to go in the direction you are going. A leader is someone who knows how to persuade others to keep others company, to stand for what she believes in, the good the one hundred percent right thing to do."

I believe this is a model of leadership - of moral leadership - that Bowdoin must champion. It is not that we will define the precepts of morality. Each of us must do that on our own. But we do have a responsibility to provide knowledge and ideas and powers of reasoning and analysis so that our students may be prepared to determine their own ethical path.

And so, during these complicated and confusing days, I implore each of us to think carefully about this concept of leadership and to try to live our own lives in accordance with it.

For me, as president of Bowdoin College, I commit to you that I will endeavor to lead this great college with this notion of moral leadership as one guidepost, and with a firm commitment to academic excellence as a second guidepost while striving constantly to determine with all my powers of analysis what is right and just, and then acting on those beliefs with conviction and courage both for the greater good and for the good of our beloved Bowdoin College.

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email