Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: President Barry Mills

Story posted October 28, 2005

Bowdoin College's 2005 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 28, 2005, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is 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, family members, and friends to these exercises. And please join me in thanking the Bowdoin Brass Quintet, directed by Scott Vaillancourt.

Today we 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 immensely 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 very 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.

It is a tradition for me to give a brief history lesson, with apologies to repeat participants in this ceremony:

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, you can find Governor Bowdoin's grave in the Granary cemetery on Tremont Street near the Parker House Hotel.

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 housed within the walls of our glorious Walker Art Building, which is currently undergoing a major renovation, and which will reopen in the spring of 2007. 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 here in Brunswick.

Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn traveled to London and Paris from 1805 through 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 in the Library) documenting the daily life of the family. Sarah and James, it appears, flourished in this community, entertaining Americans living in Paris as well as 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 that put 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 and family member 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 very few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. I'm proud to say, as we say often, 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 the core of Bowdoin.

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 confusing each year, and at a far more rapid pace than what many of us have known. A Bowdoin education is more than merely the transfer of information. Our liberal arts education at its best promotes a subtlety of mind and spirit firmly grounded in intellectual curiosity and endeavor and ethical conduct. Bowdoin is an educational learning community committed to academic freedom -- freedom for our faculty to teach and study, and freedom for our students to learn. We are a community of informed individuals studying and living together. In many ways, it is this residential component of the liberal arts college experience that allows our students to develop judgment and sensitivity.

Achieving good grades at Bowdoin is the metric we have used for many years to identify our Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars. It is a worthwhile metric, and you should be proud of your achievements. But grades alone do not and should not tell the whole story about the talented men and women we celebrate today -- these students are much more than their grade point averages.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting with an accomplished scientist at a research university and we spoke about the importance of a liberal arts education. In our discussion we talked about what our goals should be for our students. We agreed that the defining characteristic of our best students is that through their Bowdoin education they become "fearless" learners -- learners who are unafraid of new ideas and new concepts; learners who are unafraid of questioning "conventional wisdom;" learners who are fearless in the face of complex technology; learners who are fearless when they listen to a symphony, or enter the Bowdoin Museum of Art.

Fearlessness certainly has its limits, but our guest speaker A.E. Hotchner has correctly suggested, those limits are best kept at a distance. "..how can you possibly find your boundaries," he asks, "...unless you explore as far and as wide as you possibly can? I would rather fail in an attempt at something new and uncharted than safely succeed in a repeat of something I have done before." And so today we celebrate a group of students who are "fearless" learners. Students who possess all the skills, knowledge and character to invent, create, and participate in improving our society for the benefit of us all.

Today we celebrate students who also understand that Bowdoin is about service to the Common Good. It is one of our most important core principles, and I believe that the men and women who graduate from Bowdoin represent this value well becausethey are people of principle and determination. We are proud of the likes of Geoff Canada of the Class of 1975 (recognized this week in no less than U.S. News & World Report as one of the 25 most important American leaders in our country) who have done important work in their communities 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 year when speaking at Bowdoin 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."

Hundreds of Bowdoin students understand and celebrate their commitment to the Common Good each year. This year participation in Common Good Day activities in the pouring rain was inspiring. But, we practice service to the Common Good every day here at the College on campus, in our community and beyond. While the horrors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Wilma are still vivid, equally vivid is the outpouring of support offered by members of this community to people in need. Our College has not forgotten nor ignored the issues of poverty and race exposed by recent national disasters in our country. These are issues our students, faculty, and staff discuss, debate candidly, and act on with sophistication and care. And the outpouring of support by our students for the people of Sudan over the past few weeks on our campus must also be recognized. Ours is an academic community that understands the linkage between academic excellence and service to the Common Good. As we prepare students to enter the world with the "keys to the world's libraries" we also work to instill an appreciation of the value of cooperating "with others for common ends." These are the hallmarks of a Bowdoin education carried forth by our students and alumni, hallmarks that we celebrate today.

Thank you and congratulations to the students here today who have accomplished and who will continue to accomplish so much, and of whom we are all very proud.

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