Campus News

Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: President Barry Mills

Story posted October 26, 2007

President Barry Mills

Bowdoin College's 2007 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 26, 2007, 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 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, at that point some will remember, 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, faculty and staff to study, teach and learn.

It's my tradition 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 what was 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.

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 less a businessman, but really 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, 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 — and recently 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 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. Her 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 that transferred 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. The scholars sitting among us are the Bowdoin students who in the prior academic year achieved important grade point averages in their course of study that places them in the top 20 percent 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 proud.

This sense of pride is shared by the College because these young men and women represent what the College is all about. The College has been blessed with a talented faculty and the resources to provide an enormous range of learning for our students, whether in the classroom, in residence halls, athletic fields, studio, laboratory or library or art museum. But we intentionally make relatively few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. Our students are eager participants in our liberal arts tradition and the students among us today are intentional and purposeful in the pursuit of academic excellence that is at our core.

Achievement of good grades at Bowdoin is the metric we use 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. I know that 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 should be our goals for our students. We agreed that the defining characteristic of our best students is that through their education at Bowdoin and through that education they become "fearless" learners — 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.

And as I mention the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, I invite you all to go and visit this weekend. It is simply a fantastic museum — both architecturally and with its collection. At Bowdoin at this time in our history we experience a renaissance of the arts — a new vision of the role of the arts in our curriculum, supported in large measure by our superbly talented faculty and staff, and housed for our entire community in our Pickard and Wish Theatres, Studzinski Recital Hall and Kanbar Auditorium and now in the new Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Each, in its own right, fantastic, and each in the words of one of our trustees from London — "dead chic."

In a world so focused on technology and business, why do we as a liberal arts college choose to create this new environment for our community in the arts? We know the arts present our world as it is: a rich mix of variety and viewpoints. We know that those who study the arts develop analytical skills, creativity, critical thinking abilities and aesthetic judgment. Art is communication — the communication of ideas and the communication of perspective — that entertains, but also teaches, persuades and challenges us all. It is this process of thought, seeing, listening and challenging that shapes and educated mind. And, so at Bowdoin, we understand what colleges and universities across the country do not: that the arts are central to our conception of the liberal arts.

Your assignment then — is to go to our museum — communicate with the artists and architects represented in this museum — and share some of the gifts to this College bequeathed to us by our founders, Sarah and James Bowdoin. For on parents weekend, one should not come to Bowdoin only to visit your children, but you should go away from this campus with the experience of learning.

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

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