Campus News

Sarah & James Bowdoin Day Address: President Barry Mills

Story posted October 01, 2004

Bowdoin College's 2004 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 1, 2004, in Morell Gymnasium. Following is the text of the address by President Barry Mills.

Good afternoon. I'm Barry Mills, president of the College. It's a pleasure to welcome faculty, staff, students, parents, and friends to these exercises where we will recognize students who have distinguished themselves as Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars and have earned other important academic distinction over the past year. I offer a special welcome to those of you who have earned these important distinctions. All of us are proud of you and your achievements and I look forward to congratulating each of you.

Our recognition of Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars goes back more than sixty years to 1941. The College was all men in those days and that this day was originally named exclusively for James Bowdoin III. In 1997, the College, by faculty vote, determined that it was appropriate to reestablish this tradition in the name of James Bowdoin and Sarah, his wife, certainly partially in recognition of the fact that the College is a place where men and women from across the United States and the world come as students and faculty to study, teach, and learn.

The Honorable James Bowdoin III lived from 1752 until 1811. He was the son of James Bowdoin II for whom the College is named. The father -- James II -- was a Revolutionary War hero well remembered for his role in putting down Shay's Rebellion who was later twice elected governor of Massachusetts. He was a very successful entrepreneur, especially in maritime business dealings and as a member of the elite business society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- which, in those days, included the District of Maine. James II -- who along with John Adams, John Hancock, and others founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences -- was also a man with a profound interest in learning. When visiting Boston, in the Granary cemetery on Tremont Street near the Parker House Hotel, you can find Governor Bowdoin's grave.

Let's just say that his son, James III, known as Jemmy, was -- as sons can sometimes be -- more of a free spirit than his father. Less the serious student and businessman and more one of America's first connoisseurs of life, culture, and politics, both in the Americas and abroad. During his lifetime, he acquired a substantial library, a significant art collection, and an impressive array of scientific materials, for which we at the College are the inheritors. His art collection was the genesis of the art treasures still accessible to us all within the walls of our glorious Walker Art Building. In 1794, it was $1,000 and 1,000 acres of land from this generous diplomat, agriculturist, and art collector that started us off on our noble mission.

Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn traveled to London and Paris from 1805 and 1808 with James III when James served with President Jefferson in Europe. The Bowdoins operated out of Paris and Sarah kept a journal (which can be found in Special Collections here at Bowdoin) documenting the daily life of the family. Sarah and James, it appears, flourished in this community, entertaining Americans living in Paris and important friends of America. Sarah's journal indicates that she was very much involved in the collecting life of the couple and we therefore also owe her a deep debt of gratitude for the treasures we have inherited at the College. In fact, one of the deeds transferring the lands of the College from the Bowdoin family to the president and trustees of the College, dated January 7, 1795, was signed by both James and Sarah Bowdoin.

So, today we remember our founders and meet to celebrate and congratulate the Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars sitting among us. How does one earn this honor? By achieving one measure of academic success here at Bowdoin measured by grade point average. The scholars sitting among us are the Bowdoin students who in the prior academic year achieved a grade point average in their course of study that places them in the top 20% of the class. That's not an easy thing to accomplish. It takes hard work and dedication, for which each of these students and each parent can and should be particularly proud.

This sense of pride is shared by the College because these young men and women represent what Bowdoin is all about. The College has been blessed with a talented faculty and the resources to provide an enormous range of learning opportunities for our students, whether in the classroom, residence hall, athletic field, studio, laboratory, or library. But we intentionally make relatively few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. I'm proud to say that there are few spectators on this campus, only participants. Our students are eager participants in this College's great liberal arts tradition and the students among us today are intentional and purposeful in the pursuit of academic excellence that is at our core.

But beyond promoting scholarship and rewarding academic achievement, we must remember that Bowdoin exists also to open young minds to a world that grows more complicated and more confusing each year, and at a far more rapid pace than what many of us have known before. A Bowdoin education is more than merely information transfer. Our liberal arts education at its best promotes a subtlety of mind and spirit firmly grounded in intellectual curiosity and endeavor and ethical conduct. It is a community of informed individuals studying and living together that allows residential liberal arts colleges to enable our students to develop judgment and sensitivity.

And so, to our students, I offer my congratulations but also, I urge you to recommit yourselves to another year of academic achievement. I encourage you to continue to sharpen your powers of analysis, critical reasoning, and ability to communicate while you learn the content, imagery, and subtlety of academic disciplines in the most creative, imaginative, critical, and passionate way possible. In doing so, you not only strengthen your minds and your abilities. You also strengthen your ties to this College, underscore its mission, and join a proud inheritance that runs over 200 years from Sarah and James Bowdoin to today.

Finally, Bowdoin is about the Common Good. It is one of our most important core principles. In fact, I believe that the men and women who graduate from Bowdoin represent our core value -- they are each and every one people of principle and determination. We are proud of the likes of Geoff Canada and Ellen Baxter and Sue Marsh who have done important work in their community with conspicuous disregard for their own personal wealth. And we also celebrate the lives and accomplishments of countless others in our Bowdoin family who through their businesses, professions and community commitments improve the lives of others through their principled leadership.

As Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard put it last night in speaking about Good Works: Bowdoin educates people with the goal that we can all look at ourselves in the mirror and see reflections that would make our "mothers proud."

A couple of weekends ago on Common Good Day hundreds of students, faculty and staff worked in the pouring rain in our community doing good works -- remarkably impressive and important. And today is another special occasion, we are a small college and unfortunately rarely do we come together in relatively large groups to celebrate. So, while I have so many of you in rapt attention -- I ask you to take some time this weekend to do more of the Common Good. Over this weekend you will encounter many, many people on the staff of the College who work at Bowdoin in your service and the service of the college -- our remarkable dining service, student life people, coaches, security officers, our physician, housekeepers, people in the library, admissions officers, development staff, facilities people who worked all last night fixing the water main break on the Quad -- people who are dedicating their careers to make Bowdoin a wonderful and excellent place -- literally hundreds of dedicated people committed to you and this College. I ask each of you as you take in this beautiful campus to recognize, acknowledge and have some good words for our devoted colleagues -- the Common Good reverberates in what we do outside our campus in the Brunswick and Maine communities, but also is a vital component of our enduring and nurturing Bowdoin community.

Thank you and congratulations to all here today on the brilliant accomplishments of the students we celebrate today.

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