Campus News

Convocation 2005 Welcome: President Barry Mills

Story posted September 02, 2005

Good afternoon everyone. It is my honor to preside at the official opening of the 204th academic year of Bowdoin College. It truly is a pleasure for me to be here with you this afternoon after a summer that, for me personally, was not the best of times -- but more about that later. Today, I am very pleased to welcome our faculty, staff, students, and friends to this traditional ceremony, and to offer a special welcome to the members of the Class of 2009. We are delighted that so many members of your impressive first-year class have come to celebrate with us. We know you will make important and lasting contributions to Bowdoin over the next four years and beyond.

As we open this academic year, we are all aware of the loss of life and the immense destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. While the remnants of this devastating storm pass harmlessly through our region today, our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of New Orleans, Gulfport, and the other areas facing a very difficult period of survival and recovery. Those affected include current Bowdoin students and staff -- several of whom are here today -- and their families, and over forty alumni of our college. In the days ahead, these members of our Bowdoin community will need our help and support.

We cannot begin this new academic year without reflecting on losses closer to home over the past few weeks -- losses that, in many important ways, signify the end of an era at Bowdoin. Over the past few weeks we have lost two important forces in this community with the passing of Professor Edward Pols and Professor (and, for me, Dean) Paul Nyhus. Both of these men were profoundly important to Bowdoin during their careers at the College and will be missed by all who knew them.

We must also count our blessings as we welcome everyone back to campus for the start of another academic year, especially Professor Steve Cerf -- a healthy, vibrant Steve Cerf -- who gave us all a scare this summer but who has returned with his quintessential vigor to teach his classes and lead the German department.

It has become my tradition to use the occasion of the welcome at Convocation and at Baccalaureate to speak to issues facing the College that are especially important. Last spring at Baccalaureate I spoke about academic freedom in the context of Bowdoin College. Today I would like to talk a bit about core values and leadership of the College.

First, as many of you know, our superbly talented Jim Miller left us in August to return to his alma mater -- Brown University. We will soon begin a national search for Jim's successor. In the meantime, Dick Steele, our former dean of admissions, has agreed to serve this year as the interim dean of admission and financial aid of the College. I would like to publicly thank Dick for interrupting his retirement and book writing to take on this responsibility. We can all rest more easily with the knowledge that Dick is leading our admissions program with his maturity and judgment in this time of transition.

We can also rest assured that this time of transition in the leadership of our admissions office does not indicate nor will it result in a change in admissions policy for this College. Our resolve to ensure that Bowdoin students represent the best and brightest and most talented from across America and the world in the most diverse sense remains strong and will not waver.

We at Bowdoin have much to be proud of as we welcome the Class of 2009 to our campus. Colleges, like all organizations, are most importantly about the quality of the people within them. And we have been remarkably successful in recent years in bringing to Bowdoin students of the highest quality, with a myriad of talents, from all across America and the world. In its long history, Bowdoin has never had as racially diverse a student body as the one among us today. We are the envy of colleges and universities across the northeast for what we have achieved in this important area these last four years.

We also rank at the highest levels of colleges and universities in America in terms of socio-economic diversity. U.S. News & World Report recently published a list of colleges and universities with the highest percentage of Pell Grant recipients. Pell Grants are available to students from the poorest economic strata in this country and are a recognized measure of socio-economic diversity. At Bowdoin 13% of our students are Pell Grant recipients, as compared with schools like Williams at 11%, Swarthmore at 12%, Haverford at 12%, Bates and Colby at 9%, Middlebury at 9%. In fact, only eight liberal arts colleges in America have higher Pell Grant percentages than Bowdoin, and Bowdoin's percentage is even greater than those at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale.

In the past four years we have reconfirmed as a core value of this College our commitment to creating educational opportunity here for students across America and the world. It is, simply, a priority of this College that we build a community of students who represent America in the broadest sense: racially, geographically, and socio-economically. Our successes have not been happenstance -- they have been intentional. With the support of trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, and students, we have worked hard to achieve these successes. The formula is not complicated, but it is expensive and takes hard work and resolve.

Meanwhile our donors and endowment managers also deserve to be recognized. In 2000 our financial aid budget was $12 million and in this year our financial aid budget is $16.6 million -- representing an increase of 33%. In the year 2001, about 50% of our financial aid budget of $12 million was endowed. In the year 2005, almost 65% of a much increased budget at $16 million is endowed. And we have recently set lofty goals to raise more financial aid endowment in the years ahead. This increased endowment is due to two factors: the generosity of our donors and the performance of our investments. For both of these, we are very grateful.

So we certainly have much to be proud of. But the work must go on. We must persevere because the challenge of creating opportunity for all students becomes more complex each year. We can take none of this for granted. This year it costs over $41,000 a year to come to Bowdoin. And like all colleges and universities, we are grappling with increased costs. Reducing expenses in a manner that would make Bowdoin affordable to all is not remotely possible unless we change our model of education. But this is something we cannot and will not do. We must remain true to our principles as a residential liberal arts college committed to teaching, research, scholarship and artistic work. This leads us to one compelling conclusion: our financial aid endowment is central to the sustained excellence of this College.

We must recognize the challenges and perceived barriers created for families across America as our fees continue to increase. In the recent book Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil, and Gene Tobin make a very convincing case for "need-aware" admissions to seek out and matriculate students from the lowest economic bracket. It is our responsibility to create opportunity for this cohort. But the implications of increasing college costs are even more complicated than the Mellon Foundation reports. The high and growing cost of college is now having an important chilling effect on middle class and even affluent families who are beginning to wonder whether Bowdoin is accessible to them.

Bowdoin understands these challenges and we understand our responsibilities to society. The College is prepared to deal with these challenges and is prepared to support its core value -- the core value of access to this College for all who should be here regardless of financial means. So, as we search for a new leader in our admissions office, let there be no question about our resolve to stay the course and to continue to be an innovative leader in creating opportunity for talented students in the tradition of our commitment to the Common Good.

This year we also find ourselves in transition with the leadership of our academic program as our Dean Craig McEwen completes his tenure as dean for academic affairs. There is a committee hard at work conducting a national search for Craig's successor, and many of you have received the job description ably created this summer by the search committee under the leadership of Ann Kibbie. I would like to thank Ann and the committee for all their good work. The job description has been fashioned to reflect what we think of Craig: "God on a Good Day."

You will hear more about the search in the next few weeks and we will continue to ask for your help in identifying candidates. Each of us, and especially our faculty, must reach out broadly in order to identify the best person to lead our academic program.

So, we are also in a period of some transition at Bowdoin in our academic program. All the more reason for us to reaffirm the core values of this institution. Above all else, the strength and vitality of our academic program is Bowdoin's highest priority. In the past four years I have talked repeatedly about and supported the recentering of this college on the primacy of our academic program. Under Craig's leadership our faculty has done remarkable work over the past two years in considering our curriculum and an expansion of our faculty ranks. Much remains to be accomplished -- and I'm confident it will be over this year under Craig's leadership -- in both of these areas. The hard work of recruiting, retaining, and enabling a diverse faculty constantly demands our resolve. The administration of the College must be creative, intentional, and willing to support these efforts financially, and our faculty must be creative, thoughtful, proactive, and cooperative as it innovates and focuses on the educational needs of our students. I look forward to this work and have every confidence in our continued success.

Leadership at a college must always be considered in the context of our academic setting. In my view, our academic dean search committee has done an excellent job in thinking through many of the issues ahead of us, but leadership of our academic program requires engagement by each of us, not just by our dean. I think we can be informed as we think more generally about Bowdoin into the future by the work of Professor Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School.

Before anyone dismisses Professor Hill's work as the work of a HBS professor who couldn't know much about a liberal arts college like Bowdoin, I will note that Professor Hill is a Bryn Mawr graduate and long-time trustee at Bryn Mawr. And her work has been recommended by Pat MacPherson at the Mellon Foundation.

I see lessons for Bowdoin in Professor Hill's work; lessons for us all to appreciate as we consider our individual roles in this institution. Professor Hill writes that "developing leaders is an especially daunting task for higher education.... Academics are often ambivalent about assuming leadership roles. Their professional identity and sense of satisfaction from work are derived principally from their professional expertise and accomplishments" -- and I would add here at Bowdoin, from teaching. "They are not recruited for their leadership potential, but rather are selected and rewarded for their research, course development and teaching."

She goes on to write: "It is therefore not surprising that individuals in academic leadership positions often report an ongoing tension between research and teaching on the one hand and leadership on the other. Too often they abandon their people responsibilities for discipline-based obligations. The former seem so recalcitrant and out of their control. Because they feel overwhelmed by their many responsibilities, they tend to focus on execution and handling the complexity of their current assignments, neglecting their responsibilities relating to strategy, innovation, and preparing for the future. Rarely do they see themselves as change agents. Instead, unless they are in the very senior management of their institution, they are more likely to see themselves as targets of change, implementing the change initiative of their superiors. Since organizations today must continually revitalize and transform themselves to sustain success," Professor Hill writes, "there are simply too many change initiatives required at any given time to leave change management to top and senior managers."

I would add that Professor Hill's formula requires deans and presidents willing to consider, evaluate, and fund the innovation of the faculty -- a leadership willing to accept that some ideas and innovation will succeed and others may fail, but are nonetheless worth trying.

In writing about the implications for higher education, Professor Hill says that academic institutions must take account of leadership potential. She writes that the character and emotional intelligence of those we choose to recruit and reward must be considered. She defines the leadership mindset desirable for faculty members generally as grounded on at least three central beliefs: "1.) the institution is more important than any single individual, including himself or herself; 2.) the leader's job is to help others succeed; and 3.) first and foremost in making decisions, the organization's future and sustainability must be considered."

And so as we go about identifying a leader for the College and its academic program, it would be wise for us all to think more broadly about our individual roles and responsibilities as leaders of our academic program and where the responsibility lies. We are an institution that Professor Hill writes about because we must always seek to improve to sustain our excellence. In order to sustain our path to future greatness, as Professor Hill writes, it is not sufficient for us solely to await innovation from deans and presidents; we must have broad and institutionally directed leadership from our community of faculty. In that way we will have sustained excellence supported by a diverse group of leaders that will provide innovative program and policy for the College and new leaders to become academic deans for generations into the future.

Finally, a personal note. I would like to thank everyone for their good wishes during my recovery from surgery over this summer. Maybe I am a little self-conscious, but I find myself thinking that people are trying to measure what's up with me as they see me around campus. So, a brief medical report on the president: I feel very well, and my prognosis after surgery this summer is excellent. The doctors tell me I am healthy, cancer free. I have nearly all my strength back. I did lose a good deal of weight, but I'm getting stronger every day and I'm almost back to my former weight class. I still sometimes get tired at the end of the day -- don't we all! -- but I have always had a lot of energy and my energy level is almost back to normal for me, especially now that I am able to exercise.

I would particularly like to thank all of the many students who supported me so energetically and creatively this summer: led by the amazing DeRay Mckesson. Every day (and this is no exaggeration) over the summer I received a package or note or rhyme from students to keep my spirits high. I will never forget one Saturday evening in July when Karen and I were entertaining guests, a group of students arrived in our living room on Federal Street at 9 p.m. to serenade me with a cappella music. There I sat in my rocking chair surrounded by Bowdoin students singing away. Our guests immediately understood what is so special about this College and community.

And so, with all we have to accomplish over the next few months and years, I want to assure you that I have the strength, energy, enthusiasm, and resolve to work with all of you to lead our College as we sustain our path for excellence into the future. Bowdoin College is a remarkable and important place. Our College is defined by the quality of our people. We are a community of faculty, students, staff, and alumni and friends dedicated to education in the broadest sense, to excellence, to each other, and to the Common Good.

I now declare the College to be in session. May it be a year of peace, health, successes and inspiration for us all, and a recommitment to our most important tradition -- teaching and learning.

Thank you.

Note: The work by Professor Linda Hill referred to in this speech is derived from Futures Forum, 2005, Exploring the Future of Higher Education, pages 27-30.

Posted August 30, 2005

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