Campus News

Convocation Welcome: Pres. Barry Mills

Story posted September 03, 2003

Convocation Welcome
Pres. Barry Mills
September 3, 2003

It is my honor to declare officially the opening of the 202nd academic year of Bowdoin College. May this be another year of deep and rigorous academic and intellectual engagement on this campus by us all.

It is my pleasure to welcome our faculty, staff, students and friends to this important ceremony, and to offer a special welcome to the members of the Class of 2007. We are delighted that so many members of our first-year class have come to celebrate with us today at the opening of our College's academic year. I've had the opportunity to spend some time with you over the past day and a half, and my initial impression is that you are certainly an exuberant and spirited class. We know you will make an important and lasting contribution to Bowdoin over the next four years and beyond.

I will to speak to you briefly today about three subjects: maintaining access to Bowdoin in light of the recent Supreme Court decision this summer, promoting and enhancing a sense of community on our campus, and focusing our priorities as we plan for the future of this great college.

First, access to Bowdoin. When I arrived on this campus two years ago, I recommitted the College to building opportunity and access for all those who deserve to be at Bowdoin. Our goal has been to create a community at Bowdoin that represents our society and the world.

The decision of the United States Supreme Court this summer in the University of Michigan case is remarkably gratifying to colleges like Bowdoin because, in its decision, the Court acknowledged college and university assertions establishing as paramount the educational benefits of diversity. In clear and unmistakable language the Supreme Court acknowledged that diversity on college campuses remains a compelling state interest.

We here at Bowdoin found ourselves in the public eye and ear when the decision was announced because many in the media wanted to know how a small college in Maine has created a diverse community of students, faculty and staff. I had spent my entire career prior to Bowdoin trying to stay out of the papers and stay off the radio, and there I was sitting in my office awaiting a call from NPR Talk of the Nation to talk on a live call-in show about the decision and Bowdoin. It was great fun, and frankly, a little intimidating. The response from alums and friends around the country was gratifying personally and for Bowdoin. But what surprised me in listening to all the hype around the decision - and maybe it shouldn't have given the quality of media reporting today - was the confused dialogue about the decision and its implications.

Here at Bowdoin, we have long understood that a diversity of view and experience are crucial components of the educational environment we seek to create and maintain. And in this decision, by validating the arguments set forth by the University of Michigan law school, the Court affirmed the processes for admission that we at Bowdoin have been utilizing for years. A so-called "holistic" approach to admissions that permits us to consider a number of factors, including scholarship, socioeconomic background, extracurricular achievement, race, and a number of others as we strive to build a campus that will be reflective of the world our students enter upon graduation. In fact we should take some pride in the fact that the Court referenced in large part a legal brief that Bowdoin joined in preparing as support for the majority opinion.

In the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor reaffirmed that diversity is essential to educational institutions that seek in their liberal arts mission to educate leaders for our society. Justice O'Connor stated that "in order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have the confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training."

As I underscored in my baccalaureate talk last spring, Bowdoin does have an impressive history of educating leaders. In that talk I asserted that our tradition of educating leaders is intimately linked with our liberal arts tradition. The Court's decision affirms as a compelling national interest what we have been doing for some time now: providing access to higher education to qualified young men and women from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances. Bowdoin's history shows us that many of our leaders - people who have made a difference in government, in business, in education, in social services, in science - come to college from a variety of places and from a variety of backgrounds. Our goal - now with the Court's blessing - is to continue to find young women and men with great potential from all walks of life and to do all we can to make them a part of this college.

But the Court's decision is not without its complications, because it sets forth challenges that we must take quite seriously. First, it assumes that colleges are correct in their assertion that there truly is an educational value in diversity. In making that assumption one can only predict that some will ultimately seek objective proof that diversity on campus actually has a demonstrable educational benefit. We must demonstrate what we believe to be true; that a pluralistic community of scholars, living and learning together adds up to something great, something valuable for our society. Merely saying so or believing so may not and should not be sufficient justification for our policies.

Lastly on this subject, it is important to remember that the Court's decision on the facts is really drawn quite narrowly. While we at Bowdoin can take comfort that our admissions processes may pass muster, larger, more complicated places will face modifications to their systems, expenses they did not budget and simply a test of their collective will. And because of the narrow decisions, all of the collateral decisions and programs that we support and administer at Bowdoin and what our peers do on their campuses will be subject to renewed scrutiny. Changes have already begun to surface. None other than the Mellon Foundation has changed the name, and to some extent the mission, of the program formerly known as the Mellon Minority Program, now calling it the Mellon Mays Program.

These are complicated times, and we at Bowdoin are not insulated from this complexity and the sophisticated, and occasionally unsophisticated thought, that surrounds these important issues.

It is in this context that I want to reaffirm once again that we at Bowdoin intend to meet these challenges to our fundamental mission. This College will maintain its commitment to creating opportunity for the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. And we will also maintain our commitment to creating and supporting an environment for learning that is comprehensive and pluralistic in perspective, experience and talent.

I would now like to talk a little bit about community at Bowdoin. When I came to Bowdoin as president two years ago, I was charged by the trustees and by students, faculty and staff with helping to strengthen the sense of community on this campus; a sense of community that was strong, but frankly a bit frayed with all of the changes that occurred here throughout the nineties. I believe that we have made much progress toward that goal and that we have a community now that is strong, resilient and respectful. This is especially gratifying given the financial challenges we have met together over the past two years as our nation's economy slowed.

Community and respect continue to be the hallmarks of this College and will continue to be among our highest priorities. But we must not allow our desire for community to impede our ambitions or prevent us from considering and implementing change that is important for the future.

As Bowdoin's 10th president, Roger Howell, stated in his inaugural address, "...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, that is a laudable enterprise. If it lulls us to complacent inactivity, it is fatal."

Simply stated, we must not allow our desire for a strong sense of community to prevent us from seriously considering our future and possible change. Debate on tough issues - the very essence of education - is to be encouraged here. And we need to acknowledge that tough issues can foster tough debates. As we work together for a better and stronger Bowdoin, I remain confident that this community has the capacity to tackle controversial and possibly divisive issues, and to do so with the knowledge that these discussions are of good and just intentions that can only make us stronger and more resilient for the future.

With that as preface, I would like to conclude my remarks with a look ahead. Last year we began a discussion on campus of two important topics. First, we asked what it means to be educated at Bowdoin and considered in grand terms our goals for education. Second, we considered broadly the hopes and aspirations of our faculty over the span of their careers at Bowdoin. Although initially the discussion was intended to center on the size of the student body at Bowdoin as a catalyst for our interaction and discussion, we did not consider the size issue in any meaningful way, but rather focused principally on these other two questions. I suspect that the economy and its impact here on campus made thought of expansion frankly just too difficult to consider.

These discussions were fruitful and they continued into the summer. Led by Craig McEwen, many of these discussions involved many participants from the faculty. I would like to thank Craig and Deb Degraff and all who participated this summer in these discussions, mostly in air-conditioned settings, for what I understand to have resulted in thoughtful, careful and creative consideration. This dialogue and the work accomplished over the past year considered these two issues I described and many others, and put us in a position to make great progress in the coming year as we think about the future and about what's essential for Bowdoin: our academic mission and program.

In the coming year, it will be a time for us to consider once again the size of the College in the context of our mission and program, and certainly in the context of the economic forces facing our college; but this year, I expect, with a more dispassionate focus on our immediate economic condition.

It is vital that these discussions come to some appropriate resolution in a timely fashion, because we are now beginning to think about and plan for a capital campaign in the not too distant future. I am told that every college president must have the pleasure of leading at least one of these blessed events.

A college the size of Bowdoin has the opportunity only once in a decade to raise significant resources in a concentrated manner. If we are to solicit our loyal alumni, parents and friends for the future of this College, it is vitally important that we have our priorities carefully analyzed and our agenda well in hand. So, last year we commenced discussions about very important topics and made significant progress; this year we must come to some important conclusions in order to chart our future.

I look forward to working with you all as we conduct this important work.

And so, another wonderful and ambitious year commences at Bowdoin College. I wish you all a year of success and inspiration, and welcome you all here today.

Thank you.

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