Campus News

Reunion Convocation Remarks: President Barry Mills

Story posted June 08, 2004

June 5, 2004

Good morning.

Welcome back to Bowdoin. And to those of you "from away," welcome back to Maine.

It is really an honor for me to stand before you this morning as president of Bowdoin. Like you, I am proud to be an alumnus of this great college. Bowdoin provided an education that has enabled me to achieve whatever success I have had in this world. My years here were transforming because like many of you, they opened and prepared my mind for countless possibilities and for the challenges ahead.

I've said it many times, but I have to restate that I am enormously proud - as an alumnus who reveres the history and traditions of this college - to have the opportunity to lead Bowdoin. I also admit to being more than a little humbled by the responsibility I have to all of you who feel so deeply for this College and are committed to its future.

I remain confident that with the support of the enormously talented people in this room and the thousands of Bowdoin alumni and friends around the country and world, that together - during our time - we will chart and sustain a course for this college that will ensure its continued excellence.

Again this year, Bowdoin has been the beneficiary of a striking level of generous support from alumni, parents and friends - support that means a great deal financially, but also represents a gratifying level of confidence in the College by people who matter a great deal, and who know Bowdoin best. From alumni who appreciate first-hand the lasting benefits of a Bowdoin education, to friends who see this college as a beacon, to past and present parents who, in addition to meeting the significant costs of educating their daughters and sons here, step forward to do even more.

In a few moments, you will hear about the impressive level of giving by the classes represented in this room today. This is your time to take pride in all that you do for Bowdoin and, through Bowdoin, for higher education in America. And it is a time for us to thank you once again, wholeheartedly, for your vital support.

I'm asked frequently by colleagues to explain the extraordinary alumni loyalty we enjoy year after year at Bowdoin. Why should we all support Bowdoin? What's our secret, why are we so special?

It's something that all of us who know this place talk about openly and often:

The personal relationships begun and nurtured here.

The faculty who teach, challenge, and inspire.

The time spent together on the Quad, on teams, performing in campus shows and in a myriad of other campus activities.

The unspoiled and familiar beauty of this place.

The learning community that takes raw talent from varied backgrounds and builds leadership, confidence, and responsibility.

The conviction that what we do here - what we teach here - will serve young people the way it has served all of us.

The "formula" boils down to the shared conviction that Bowdoin makes a difference in the world. That Bowdoin-educated people are leaders. That liberal education matters.

Each year, this event brings together a remarkable group of people. People associated with this small college in Maine who have made and continue to make a difference in the world.

This year is no different.

Look around you. You'll recognize George Mitchell and Paul Brountas, both celebrating their 50th reunion. You'll see Joan Benoit Samuelson here for her 25th. There's Ambassador Christopher Hill, celebrating with the class of 1974, and HBO's Kary Antholis visiting with a group of people who can't quite believe it's been twenty years since they were students here.

For each of these familiar names and faces, there are many, many others among us - educators, artists, business and civic leaders, physicians, social workers, scientists - Bowdoin alumni who do good work, inspire those around them, and who serve as bright and convincing evidence of the value of liberal education in America.

It is our shared experience at Bowdoin - regardless of class year or generation - that binds us together, draws us back to this place, and prompts our support. But there's also something else.

Since it's founding, Bowdoin College has reminded us that "...literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good." Students are selected on the basis of many factors for the privilege of studying at Bowdoin, but they are all chosen - and always have been chosen in some measure - to advance this bedrock philosophy of service.

We have that in common too.

But what does it mean to serve the common good? And how does a liberal education put us in a position to lead?

The world has always been a complicated place. It is a conceit to think of our own time as somehow unique or more difficult. Perhaps it's just that modern technology presents a more vivid and therefore more disturbing set of challenges. Today, we face a war in Iraq and a seemingly intractable problem in other parts of the Middle East. We are threatened by terrorism and grapple daily with issues that separate the rich and the poor, the young and the elderly. From the rising cost of oil and health care, to divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage - and this year in the context of a presidential election.

It is clear from the conversations and debates on this campus that there is a diversity of views about these and many other issues. But unlike other environments that might polarize, stigmatize, or disparage those with opposing views, at Bowdoin there is an appreciation for the importance of respectful, rigorous, and open discourse aimed at making all of us better informed citizens.

Bowdoin is - first and foremost - a place for reflection and learning, and we are proud of the willingness and the ability here to probe and evaluate beliefs and ideas in an educated and open manner supported and enhanced by the College. We are equally proud that Bowdoin students have, time and time again, used the knowledge and skills developed here to heed the call of service throughout their lives.

Service to the common good is a broad concept.

It clearly includes the work of our students who have participated in over 16,000 hours of community service this year.

The 46 Bowdoin tutors working in six different local schools.

The 16 student-run volunteer groups mentoring children, visiting with senior citizens, coordinating blood drives, and preparing food at homeless shelters.

It most certainly includes the 28 service learning courses offered at Bowdoin through eight different academic departments and programs, and the student-administered Common Good Grant program that awards $10,000 a year to local non-profits.

But Bowdoin's commitment to serving the common good is more than just doing good works in Brunswick and in Maine. It is also defined through the consideration in thoughtful and responsible ways of what is right and proper for our communities, our nation, and the world. It is this broad understanding of service to the common good that enhances dedication to community and guides our students along a path toward leadership.

At Bowdoin, we recognize our responsibility to help students develop the judgment to consider and to tackle the difficult issues they face today and will inevitably face in the future.

This is NOT a responsibility to set a moral course for students, but rather to make sure that each student who earns a Bowdoin degree is prepared to develop their own moral compass for life. Only then are we truly fulfilling Bowdoin's commitment to service in a manner that is central to our mission and true to our history.

Bowdoin's commitment to liberal education is also central to our mission and to the development of leaders for our society.

Liberal education and the liberal arts are frequently misunderstood and judged for what they are not. Bowdoin is not a vocational school, nor a professional school.

At Bowdoin, we believe in education for education's sake. Our form of liberal education is grounded on the belief that students should - during a four year experience - develop the confidence of mind and spirit that will allow and prepare them to consider in thoughtful and nuanced ways many of the important and varied issues they will face in life.

This year, for the first time in over 20 years, the faculty adopted a new series of requirements setting forth our view of the essential elements of a Bowdoin education in the liberal arts tradition. These requirements - which will be phased in over the next three years - include a focus on cross-disciplinary scientific inquiry and mathematical reasoning; on the study of international perspectives; on the arts; and on critical explorations of class, gender, ethnicity and culture. These requirements, together with our traditional disciplinary or interdisciplinary major, set forth key principles for a Bowdoin education.

The College's statement on liberal arts education asserts that "...the success of a Bowdoin education is evident in the capacity of graduates to be informed and critically analytic readers of texts, evidence and conclusions; to be able to construct a logical argument; to communicate in writing and speaking with clarity and self-confidence; to understand the nature of artistic creation and the character of critical aesthetic judgment; to have the capacity to use quantitative and graphical presentations of information critically and confidently; and to access evaluate, and make effective use of information resources in varied forms and media."

It states that "...graduates should thus have the ability to engage competing views critically, to make principled judgments that inform their practice, and to work effectively with others as informed citizens committed to constructing a just and sustainable world."

This statement is important and timely. It represents a clear and unambiguous recommitment by our faculty and by the larger Bowdoin community to liberal learning at a time when others may have begun to question the value and application of the liberal arts in a modern world.

This recommitment sets Bowdoin apart. It is consistent with our history, but also reflects today's world and the demands our students will face. It is both a mature understanding and direct statement of Bowdoin's educational mission.

James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth College, implores college and university presidents to expound on the value of liberal education because, he says, " the end, the cause of liberal education - the cause of well-educated men and women - is one of America's best hopes for establishing a more humane democracy."

I couldn't agree more. You - our alumni - are all the proof anyone could ever need.


Finally, let me return to a subject that demands our attention: access to Bowdoin. It has become my tradition at these events to remind each of us of the importance of ensuring access to Bowdoin for the best and brightest from across America and the world.

A few weeks ago, the College hosted a luncheon for alumni and friends who currently support students at Bowdoin through their gifts of financial aid. Many of these donors possess a heartfelt appreciation for the importance of this aid because they themselves came to Bowdoin only through the generosity of others.

This generosity should never be confused with charity. Financial aid is not charity - it is an investment in the lives of those who will lead us in the future, and therefore, an investment in our society.

For Bowdoin, it was an investment in the life of George Mitchell, a young man from Waterville who would one day lead the United States Senate and carve out peace in Northern Ireland.

It was an investment in the life of Steve Laffey, a first-generation college student from Cranston, Rhode Island, who would leave behind a successful career as an investment manager to serve as activist mayor of his hometown.

It has been an investment in countless lives, including my own.

The issue of access to Bowdoin is only growing more complex. Each year a larger and larger number of applicants seek financial assistance - especially in these more challenging economic times.

Bowdoin has an impressive record of meeting its goal of being need-blind. We not only admit students of great promise without regard for their ability to pay. We also meet the need of these students for the entire four years.

But need-blind admissions is not compulsory for Bowdoin or for any college. It is choice. And a choice we can make only if we have the financial resources necessary to make it possible.

I believe strongly - as I know many of you do - that preserving need-blind admissions and our ability to meet the full four-year need of worthy students are practices that we must seek to maintain if Bowdoin is to sustain its preeminence in American higher education.

What we all seek for our college is a sustained future of excellence. We want it to endure as one of the nation's truly great liberal arts colleges - dare I say the foremost liberal arts college in America - and to continue its proud tradition of educating future leaders in all walks of life.

These are high aspirations that can only be achieved if we continue to attract the very best students and make a commitment together to bring them here.


I have visited many of you and with other alumni these past two years, and I am proud to report that our alumni community continues to display the energy and determination that are required to achieve all that we want and expect for Bowdoin.

Colleges and universities across the country yearn to have an alumni group as talented, as generous, and as enthusiastic as this one. Bowdoin creates and nurtures special relationships with its sons and daughters. We respect and value those relationships and look forward to building even stronger ties with each of you as we advance the mission of this wonderful college.

Karen and I are delighted to have you back on campus with us today, and we look forward to speaking with as many of you as we can this weekend, and to welcoming you again as many times in the future as you are able to return.

I hope you take time to tour the campus, visit with faculty and staff, and take pleasure in your classmates, family and friends.

I hope you'll revel in some nostalgia for Bowdoin's past, take pride in the Bowdoin of today, and recommit yourselves to our important work together to shape an even stronger Bowdoin of tomorrow.

Thank you.

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