Campus News

2006 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: President Barry Mills

Story posted October 09, 2006

October 6, 2006

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 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.

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, 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 soon-to-be-glorious-again Walker Art Building. In 1794, it was $1,000 and a few 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 to 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 the Bowdoin Library) 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 percent of the class. That's not an easy thing to accomplish here at Bowdoin. 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 relatively few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. 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 we may ever 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. Bowdoin is an educational learning community committed to academic freedom: Freedom for our faculty to teach and to study and freedom for our students to learn. 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.

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

Recently I 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 education at Bowdoin they become "fearless" leaders: learners who are fearless and 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.

Our students sitting before you today also hopefully subscribe to the following: "of course we all have our limits, but how can you possibly find your boundaries 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." A quote from and exemplified by our speaker at these exercises last year — A.E. Hotchner. And so today we celebrate a group of students who are "fearless" leaders who have all the skills, knowledge and character to invent, create and participate in improving our society for all of us and the entire world.

And today we also celebrate students who also understand that Bowdoin is about the Common Good. Bowdoin, founded at the dawn of our country, has remained committed to its mission — the education of our community in the liberal arts tradition and the common good. They are our most important core principles. In fact, I believe that the men and women who graduate from Bowdoin represent our core values — they are each and every one people of principle and determination. We are proud of the likes of Geoff Canada '75, Ken Legins '92, this year's Common Good Award winner, and Hanley Denning '92, who works in Guatamala, who have done important work in their communities and the world 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, including a new Bowdoin family member, our speaker today Dr. Günter Blobel.

As Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard put it a couple of years ago when speaking at Bowdoin about his Good Works Project — 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 the participation in Common Good Day activities on another beautiful Maine day was inspiring. But, we practice the Common Good every day here on campus, in our community and beyond. Our College has not forgotten or ignored the issues of rich and poor, of and race exposed too often in our country — these are issues our students, faculty and staff discuss and should explore and debate candidly and with sophistication and passion. This is an academic community that understands that academic excellence and the Common Good are fundamentally linked at Bowdoin as we prepare students to enter the world with the "keys to the world's libraries in our pockets" but also with an appreciation of the value of "cooperating with others for common ends."

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

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