Story posted May 23, 2008
We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to begin officially our Commencement activities — the time when we honor and say farewell to the members of the Class of 2008 who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.
It is a time for celebrating all that you — our seniors — have accomplished, and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on Bowdoin's proud traditions, particularly our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education and our commitment to serving the common good.
It has been my practice at these Baccalaureate assemblies to address issues of the College that have importance to the Bowdoin community in the broadest sense. In past years I have discussed issues related to academic freedom, the environment and global warming, the importance of the arts in the liberal arts; and last year I talked about the importance of access to Bowdoin and the impact of financial aid. This year, I want to talk about Bowdoin's sense of itself in the 21st century — what I call "the exceptionalism of Bowdoin."
Bowdoin's history dates to the birth of our nation. We have a special place in the educational landscape as one of the very few American colleges with such a long and successful tradition. Founded in 1794, our College has never wavered in providing strong leadership in higher education while also educating leaders for our country and the world. It is our responsibility to remain true to that legacy.
As institutions grow, mature and develop they can lose their way. They can lose their focus. They can forget the shared sense of purpose present at the beginning — a sense of purpose that established guideposts for success. Bowdoin is an exceptionally strong college today because throughout its history, the Bowdoin community has never forgotten the purpose or the charge established by our founders. Two-hundred and fourteen years later, we remain intensely focused on the liberal arts and on the education of students in that tradition. It is this single-minded focus and commitment that has made Bowdoin strong, placing us among the very best liberal arts colleges in America.
Yet, as our nation has grown and adapted to changing times and different circumstances, so has Bowdoin evolved. Over the years, we have embraced co-education and replaced fraternities with a more inclusive House System. We have revised and expanded our curriculum, changed and changed back our grading system, modified our system of governance, we have eliminated the Bowdoin swim test and recently, eliminated loans as a part of our financial aid packages. These changes define our College today, and each has been guided by focused discussions about our mission and purpose, and a recommitment to what I have often called our core values. This recommitment requires an ongoing, engaged and candid conversation by trustees, faculty, staff, students and alumni to determine if the mission and values of the College remain constant, well understood and frequently articulated.
Since I have been here — as a student in the 1970s, as a trustee in the 90s, and as president these last seven years — these conversations have nearly always been grounded in two enduring tenets: the promise and vision articulated in Hyde's "Offer of the College," and the charge of our first president, Joseph McKeen, who forever linked a Bowdoin education to the Common Good.
These are our guideposts — where we return for direction as we adapt and advance in changing times. "The Offer of the College" has been tailored for modern times, but it endures because of its elegance and because it is a profoundly simple and concise statement about the meaning and goals of a liberal education. Meanwhile, the manifestations of our commitment to the common good may have changed over history, but the sense of using one's education for the betterment of society remains a mainstay of our community.
Few institutions are able to claim and articulate their guiding principles as clearly and as genuinely as Bowdoin. This is one reason for the palpable sense of pride at Bowdoin today — a pride in what we are, what we stand for, and how we are different. It is one aspect of our exceptionalism — an exceptionalism built from a strong, clear, and enduring sense of purpose and mission, and an understanding that our commitment to the liberal arts model and to the Common Good sets us apart. But the exceptionalism of Bowdoin extends well beyond our founding concepts. It is also defined by what we are today.
What we are begins with our faculty, those with direct responsibility to teach our students in the liberal arts tradition and to create a vibrant intellectual community through their research, scholarship and creative work. It is our faculty who teach and inspire our students day in and day out, who provide opportunities for close collaborative work, and who nurture a passion for learning and exploration to be carried throughout four years at Bowdoin and throughout life.
What we are is a campus-centric, residential community where students begin as members of living and learning communities in the "bricks" along the Quad, quickly joining and creating new circles of friends through the exploration of academic interests, extracurricular activities and athletic opportunities. Enduring friendships are born, as is a loyalty to Bowdoin that defines one of the most devoted alumni groups in America. Everyone knows that Bowdoin alums love their college.
What we are is an intimate setting for learning — a reality essential to our sense of self. Our relatively small student population creates a unique environment for education and residential life.
What we are is a college in Maine — a place and a people central to our personality, our history and our educational mission. We are deeply connected to Maine and to Brunswick, with both serving as extensions of our campus and as laboratories for academic, social and recreational exploration.
What we are is a campus of beauty, history and vitality, the heart of which is our distinguishing quadrangle — a place of both energy and serenity. Tomorrow as we gather together on the Quad, please take a moment to reflect on the beauty and grandeur of Bowdoin. The "five minute walk" created by the centrality of the Quad and the proximity of gathering places such as Smith Union, Moulton Union, Thorne Hall — and what will soon be a new Fitness, Health and Wellness Center to be constructed in this very building — all of these create and enhance Bowdoin's intimacy and sense of community.
What we are is a college with a distinguished record of educating principled leaders in all walks of life — many more leaders than one would expect from a small college in Maine, and more leaders than much larger colleges and universities have produced. Candidly, we aren't exactly sure how or why this has occurred at Bowdoin, but I believe our location in Maine and our size have a great deal to do with why our confident, independent and clear thinking students go on to leadership roles after Bowdoin.
And, finally, what we are is a uniquely authentic place. We understand who we are and what we stand for, avoiding fads and trends perceived to diminish other institutions. Bowdoin is a community where "people leave their ego at the door," but where there is an unambiguous ambition for success and excellence among our students, our faculty and for the college community as a whole.
And so, my Bowdoin friends, we are an exceptional college, and one without the hubris of other institutions or countries or cultures that seek to impose their mission or values with a sense of superiority. Our exceptionalism is, in many ways, our inner guidepost. We are exceptional because we understand who we are and do what we think is right, regardless of what others may do. Our future may be informed by what is happening on other campuses, but our final choices will be made, as they always have been, on what is right for Bowdoin.
Change is as much in our future as it has been in our past. We are not and cannot be a complacent place and we understand the necessity for change as the nature of education and the demands of society and our global world become more complicated and sophisticated. But the shared sense of our Bowdoin is so strong and our common values so well understood, we are poised appropriately to confront change.
Change — the buzzword of this political season — is vital to the success and enduring nature of institutions. In order for a college to endure and prosper, the community — the entire Bowdoin community — must confront and embrace change with optimism and with openness, as a critical element in our mission to ensure the exceptionalism of this great college into the future. Other colleges and universities have confronted change and failed — in some cases at the expense of their identity and sense of community. This cannot happen at Bowdoin.
At Bowdoin we have seen transformational changes during the last decade. Today we are a diverse community of students, faculty and staff representing people from all walks of life in our country and the world. We will live to celebrate further transformational change at Bowdoin as we seek in our confident and selfless manner to maintain our excellence and to improve this college for future generations. Whatever the future holds for Bowdoin, we should be ambitious. We know that any choices we make will be decided by a College that understands well its values, mission and purpose — a place that understands the importance of this Bowdoin exceptionalism.
An important example of this exceptionalism at Bowdoin is our new financial aid policy — adopted this January — that will apply to all students here next year. (I regret that the Class of 2008 will not benefit from these new policies — but I do hope you will in principle celebrate our decision.) Bowdoin will no longer require students to borrow funds in order to attend the College. We have replaced the loan component of financial aid with Bowdoin grants. Before this policy was adopted, first-year students receiving financial aid would have graduated in 2011 with an average loan obligation of $21,000 — a number that would have continued to increase for subsequent classes.
Some will argue this policy is not unique; that we merely followed the competition as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Williams, Amherst and a host of very wealthy schools modified their financial aid policies. Obviously, we don't appreciate losing fantastic students who we want at Bowdoin to these schools especially because of financial considerations. So, yes, we were informed by the decisions of other colleges and universities. But competition or the "arm's race" was not the most important factor in our decision by any measure.
At Bowdoin over the recent past we have recommitted ourselves to providing opportunity for all who should be at Bowdoin without regard to financial means. This is true for low-income students from South Portland or New York City and middle class students from California and Texas. We seek to be a college that represents America and the world, and providing access and financial support to these students is central to our mission and simply our responsibility.
In many respects, this decision was much more difficult for Bowdoin because, although our endowment is substantial, we are not among the mega-wealthy schools I just mentioned. But we took this step because we understand that as the cost of college continues to increase, debt burdens can and will affect choices students make after Bowdoin. We know that parents and students are frightened away from "elite" colleges because of cost and because of the prospect of debt that may be too complicated or risky in this "debt-laden society" for the families to consider. We made this decision fundamentally to increase access to Bowdoin for poor and middle-class families, and because as an institution committed to the Common Good there is no more tangible manifestation of that commitment than educating students who are first-generation college students or for whom the cost of college is simply prohibitive.
As we provide an opportunity for these students to come to Bowdoin to learn and allow them a path to the "American Dream," we change lives. And, as I have said many times, when we change the life of a student here at Bowdoin, we are often changing the lives of their families, and helping to change their communities.
We made this decision on one condition — that we would not reduce in any respect our commitment to low-income students at Bowdoin, now or in the future, in order to fund the increased costs of the no-loan policy.
Our no-loan policy represents that best of Bowdoin — a course of action determined by our community that is consistent and in furtherance of our core values. We were able after long and complicated analysis and discussion to adopt this policy, because it is in support of our mission; it is at the very heart of our mission.
Continued commitment to financial aid for low-income and middle-class families of this country will continue to be an issue for Bowdoin. And it is a truism to recognize that we live in complicated times that will likely change the face of the educational landscape. We understand that colleges like Bowdoin are essential and more than ever necessary to prepare our citizens for leadership and to create an environment for faculty, staff and our entire community to engage in the learning and reflection necessary to establish new ideas and new perspectives for these times. Colleges will be required, like all institutions, to evolve in order to meet these new challenges. As we evolve at Bowdoin, and consider new initiatives aimed at preserving excellence and enhancing the experience here, we can with confidence know that we are poised to confront future challenges well, because of our most important asset: the exceptionalism of the Bowdoin community
Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty. Thank you all for your dedication to your students, to your scholarship and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the Fall.
To our dedicated and fantastic staff: thank you!
To our graduating seniors, I wish you all the best as you leave Brunswick to begin the next phase of your promising lives. Some of you may not yet know what you'll be doing next month or next year. But rest assured that in earning a Bowdoin degree you are well prepared for whatever comes next, and for whatever comes after that.
The only certainty is that your lives will change and then change again. I stand before you as a college president who used to be a corporate lawyer, and before that a biologist. A strange path, but here I am.
No one, especially me, could have predicted such a course when I sat where you sit 36 years ago. And I am by no means alone. Bowdoin's alumni rolls are full of people who have moved successfully from one field of endeavor to another as the world has revealed new opportunities and offered new challenges. Each of you is prepared to succeed in the way they have succeeded. We are genuinely proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you on the Quad tomorrow morning.
Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago on the steps of the Museum with "The Offer of the College," those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:
...To 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 2008 — you future artists, leaders, statesmen and stateswomen — 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.