Campus News

Baccalaureate Address: President Barry Mills

Story posted May 27, 2005

May 27, 2005

Good afternoon and welcome. We come together at the end of each academic year for what is always a bittersweet occasion - the time when we prepare to say farewell to our seniors who have worked hard, learned and offered much, and who have grown into respected campus leaders.

With this group of seniors, I feel a special bond, for we started at Bowdoin together four years ago. They, as first-year students, and I, as Bowdoin's new president.

That new academic year four years ago began in typical fashion with pre-orientation trips, the traditional signing by each new student of the Matriculation Book, the start of classes. The campus was alive with a generation of young men and women that had not yet suffered through wrenching change or conflict. Of course, all of that changed dramatically on the beautiful late-summer day of September 11, 2001. Students remember that evening, as each of us collected our thoughts and emotions, and struggled to comprehend the immense loss of life in New York City, Washington D.C., and on a field in Pennsylvania, we gathered here - in this gymnasium - as a community to support and comfort each other.

The past four years have been turbulent and troubling in our country and in the world. They have been difficult years on college campuses in America, too, where we have seen a rebirth of activism and debate on many complex and divisive issues.

Thirty-five years ago last month, Bowdoin students effectively closed this college in protest over the war in Vietnam, the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, and the shootings at Kent State University. I was a student here then, and while today's debate on important issues has thankfully not resulted in the anguish and acrimony experienced across America in the early 1970s, it has certainly reaffirmed the power of student involvement.

Activism and debate are good for our college campuses, including Bowdoin - even if I might appreciate that activism a bit differently today as president than I did a generation ago as a student. Today's activism is intense and substantive, but it does lack some of the fervor of the '60s and '70s that I remember for many societal reasons, including in large part because there is no military draft.

While those of us on campus have been questioning and evaluating world events, much of the rest of America has been wondering about us. Educated, intelligent people are puzzled by controversies at colleges and universities like Hamilton, Columbia and Harvard. People and the press across the country have questioned these institutions and other institutions about inappropriate speech, intimidation and perceived "political correctness" that chills discussion and consideration.

Many assail what they see as a liberal bias in current American higher education. They worry about the direction of our colleges and universities.

In my view, these very public and intense concerns about the direction of higher education are linked to our turbulent times, because it is during periods like this that our principles of education, open discourse, and academic freedom are most in question.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger - whose academic specialty happens to be freedom of speech - recently gave a talk at the Bar Association of the City of New York in which he reviewed the history of academic freedom and its role in our institutions today.

Bollinger reminds us that the principles of academic freedom date to early 19th century Germany at the creation of the model of our modern university. The two basic principles of academic freedom are the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn - which, in both cases, are supposed to be free from administrative coercion. These freedoms were adopted in the United States in the late 19th century and were tested most vigorously during periods of our history that were similarly turbulent and troubling. Bollinger reminds us of the Espionage Act of 1917, and the Sedition Act of 1918 during the First World War; laws that prohibited so-called "anti-American activities" and made it a federal crime to criticize the government, thereby chilling dissent on college campuses and elsewhere. Again, in the McCarthy era and later during the war in Vietnam, American principles of free speech and expression were tested severely.

I will spare you the legal history that has embedded academic freedom into our First Amendment protections, but I must urge caution for those who would consider rolling back something so vital to education in a free society.

I believe academic freedom is at the cornerstone of our educational mission. Our goal at Bowdoin - and you, the members of the Class of 2005, personify our success - what it is about is to enable students to develop what Bollinger describes as the "scholarly temperament."

Those of you graduating tomorrow - and those who came before you at Bowdoin - have the ability to listen, analyze, debate, understand and learn from different perspectives. Today, some worry that college students are studying with and learning from professors who actually have a point of view. But for me, having an opinion - a perspective on complex issues - is entirely appropriate for educated scholars who are perceptive, thoughtful, and analytical. And like Bollinger, I don't worry that our students are somehow being corrupted or brainwashed by these opinions. Here, we are truly teaching our students to consider issues thoughtfully from all angles, with independent judgment and with a mature review and analysis of the underlying facts.

Bowdoin is a campus characterized by passionate, and I believe, responsible debate. Among us are students who are active, faculty and staff who represent remarkably diverse points of view on politics, the environment, and on many of the important issues of our time. That said, as Bollinger reminds us, these places are not political conventions. They are places where each of us is encouraged to learn. Advocacy has it place on campus, but we are fundamentally a place for students to come to learn with engaged faculty - to study, mature, and grow together in an intellectually charged environment that is not afraid or unwilling to tackle the most troubling issues of today or in the past.

There is not a single point of view at Bowdoin. There are many. Over the past six months our community has heard from the likes of Ambassador L.Paul Bremer (speaking about his experience in Iraq); Career U.S. Ambassador Tom Pickering (who has served nine different presidents over a career spanning 50 years); conservative activist Phyllis Schlafy, David Shipler (talking about the working poor), Kenneth Pollack (speaking about U.S. alternatives in Iraq) and Mark Sagoff (who challenged students on the topic "Is Environmentalism Dead?"). In each case, these are people of accomplishment, intellect and sophistication who challenge our community to think about issues constructively and rigorously.

The College is by no means isolated from the wider world, and we do not seek, nor do we support a limited range of visitors to our campus. While I receive the occasional letter or question on the diversity of views at Bowdoin, I am able to answer confidently that a vast range of opinions is presented to our students; opinions that challenge them to utilize their own analytical skills and to develop and test their own informed judgment on vexing issues of the day.

To our graduating seniors, I urge you to remember and to practice in your lives and careers the optimism of open dialogue and debate that you have learned and practiced so well during these four years at Bowdoin. Keep an open mind as you form your own views and opinions, whatever they may turn out to be. Enjoy likeminded people, but seek to surround yourself with those who will challenge your ideas. Use the skills you have developed here to analyze information and to uncover hidden meaning. Only then will you truly put your education to work as the leaders our world so desperately needs.

I wish all our seniors the very best as you leave Brunswick to begin the next phase of your promising lives. Each of you is prepared to succeed in the way generations of Bowdoin graduates have succeeded before you - to become valued members of your communities committed to the concepts of serving the common good and principled leadership.

Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, I would like to offer my gratitude and appreciation to the Bowdoin faculty and staff. Thank you all for your dedication to our students, to each other and to Bowdoin. I wish the members of the faculty well as you continue throughout the summer on your important scholarship, research and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the fall.

Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with "The Offer of the College" - those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:

" make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends."

To the Class of 2005 - to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come - I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.

Thank you.

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