Campus News

Baccalaureate 2009 Address: President Barry Mills '72

Story posted May 22, 2009

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 2009 who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.

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President Barry Mills '72

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 spoken about issues related to academic freedom, the environment and global warming, the importance of the arts in the liberal arts; and the significance of financial aid to our core mission. Last year I spoke about Bowdoin's sense of itself in the 21st Century, what I called "the exceptionalism of Bowdoin."

Bowdoin's history parallels that of America. 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 succumb to trends and forget the shared sense of purpose present at the beginning — a sense of purpose that established guideposts for success. Bowdoin is an exceptionally strong and successful college today because throughout its history, this College has never forgotten the purpose or the charge established by our founders. For 216 years we have remained intensely focused on educating students in the liberal arts tradition while also advancing the conviction that literary institutions are "founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education." These fundamentals define our college, set us apart, and have guided us through periods of instability and challenge.

Today, we are in such a period.

What a difference a year makes! Last year we met in a time of optimism and hope. Change was in the air everywhere. Today we meet with the same optimism for the future and excitement about the direction of our country and its future. But, at the same time, we find ourselves in a vastly different economic environment that has created a sense of anxiety and uncertainty for us all.

For many, particularly the youngest among us, this can be unfamiliar territory, but Bowdoin has seen these times, and worse. In reading about Bowdoin's past, I encountered this passage from Sills of Bowdoin written by the noted Bowdoin professor, Herbert Ross Brown. President Casey Sills was president of this College from 1918 until 1952 — a tenure that I actually do not aspire to!

Kenneth Sills at first was disposed to regard the market crash in October 1929, as only another periodic crisis, which would mainly affect a lunatic fringe of speculators. In the next few months, however, when every brief rally was punctuated by a violent collapse, he was not entirely reassured by those who kept insisting on the soundness of the national economy. At a faculty meeting in December, he warned of future financial stringency for the college even though Maine was suffering far less than the heavy industrialized states. Department budgets, he said, would have to be cut to the bone (Sills of Bowdoin, p. 261).

Brown continues to write:

As the shadows of the Depression lengthened in the autumn of 1932, Kenneth Sills told alumni that the state of the nation compelled him to think more seriously than ever of the real purpose of the college. "Suppose," he asked on November 5, "that Bowdoin's funds were so far reduced that we had to cut out everything that was unessential — what would be left? One can well imagine a college run without administrative officers, a college could certainly be run without a president. . . . It would still be a college if there were not athletic fields. . . . When you come right down to the bare necessities of the college you are driven to the conclusion that the college consists of those who teach and those who study together. The essential equipment can be confined to the library and the laboratory, with a few classrooms thrown in for good measure" (Sills of Bowdoin, p. 264).

The daunting issues facing Casey Sills and Bowdoin three quarters of a century ago help to put our time in perspective, and they remind us of the resiliency of this College. While today's recessionary times are serious, we do not yet find ourselves in the throes of an economic depression, nor do we face the draconian measures contemplated by Sills in 1932. Bowdoin is better positioned to deal with our country's economic issues today that at any time in its history. Nonetheless, I do believe we are at a point of fundamental change for colleges and universities in America.

Bowdoin is an endowment-driven school. All of us here today, particularly families and students, know that a Bowdoin education is expensive. Yet, the tuition and fees collected by the College account for only 70 percent of the full cost of a Bowdoin education for each student. The remaining costs principally by income from our endowment and from the annual gifts we receive from alumni, parents, friends and foundations. It is this additional annual revenue that permits us to provide the full range of educational and residential experiences that our seniors have enjoyed these past four years. Without these additional funds, Bowdoin would be a significantly different place.

Most colleges and universities in America do not have the benefit of endowment revenue. They are dependent nearly entirely on tuition and fees. Although these colleges are not in the short term facing the immediate issues that endowment-driven colleges face, they will in the very near term face existential pressures as fewer and fewer people in America will be able to pay the tuition and fees necessary to support these excellent educational institutions. In the case of public universities, tuition revenue is supplemented by state contributions — contributions that, in most states, have declined in recent years and will likely decline even further as a result of the distressed economy. We witness the dramatic increase in tuition at the state institutions and the progressive increase in the amount of student aid supporting wealthy students as opposed to the middle class and poor students at these public institutions. For this and other reasons, the strength of public institutions has not matched citizen expectations for excellence, and the prospects for the future are not bright. As a matter of public policy, the future of public higher education demands our attention.

For the relatively small number of colleges like Bowdoin that depend on endowment income, this year has brought both near-term challenges and concerns about the future. Most of these endowments have lost anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of their value since last June, resulting in a corresponding drop in available revenue. And while Bowdoin's endowment is, happily, better off than most (with losses at the very low end of that range), we too will see less revenue than we projected for the next two to 10 years.

I have written to you all extensively over the last year describing in detail the principles we have applied in meeting these economic challenges, as well as the tactics we have employed to balance our budgets. These measures represent a sense of shared sacrifice among all the members of our community. They also underscore our shared commitment to maintain the excellence of our academic program, the vitality of our residential life experience, the opportunity Bowdoin provides for our faculty and staff and the importance of providing financial aid to every student who ought to be at Bowdoin and cannot afford to be here.

The long-term challenge presented to us as leaders of this College is to define excellence for future students, for their parents, for alumni and for ourselves in a manner that I believe is somewhat different than what we have experienced in recent years.

It is natural for visiting prospective students and their families to marvel at our facilities during campus tours. It is gratifying during Reunion Weekend to speak with alumni about how well the College is doing as they focus on our new buildings and enhanced programs. I can only imagine the thrill people will have next week at reunion when they visit this facility, which doubles as a hockey rink! Or come by next year and see the climbing wall in the new health and fitness center. All around us are the physical manifestations of tangible progress, and they are easily and naturally identified during brief visits to this remarkable campus. But the essence of what Bowdoin has always done and what we must continue to do is more difficult to observe.

Sills had it mostly right when he asked those in 1932 to focus on the fundamentals; when he described Bowdoin as a place where the faculty teach and where students study and learn. Today Bowdoin is also a place where faculty create impressive and important scholarly work, do research and artistic work. We are a sophisticated intellectual community engaged passionately in what it means to be an excellent place in the 21st century.

Our model of education extends far beyond the classroom, and the value of the Bowdoin experience is defined both by the knowledge and skills gained through study and academic exploration, as well as by the relationships created and strengthened during four years of learning and growth in our residential community.

In 1932, Bowdoin offered majors in 14 areas of study for approximately 550 students total. Tomorrow, we will graduate a senior class of 451 students, the members of which could have chosen from more than 40 majors, or may have even designed their own. Like America and the world, Bowdoin is significantly more complex today than it was during the Great Depression. There is no going back to the days of a student, a teacher, and a blackboard — although it does continue in so many ways to be the essence of what we do.

Given that reality and the very real economic pressures we feel, how do we reinforce for everyone the excellence of Bowdoin? How do we encourage visitors to notice, and society to validate, what really matters: the successful education of our students and their ability to make a difference in our society? And, the promote the intellectual environment that allows our faculty and staff to thrive.

Make no mistake — our new facilities have been built with an eye toward program and education, and we are proud of them. Our museum and recital hall for the arts; our laboratories for the sciences; our libraries for scholarship; our residence halls for community; as well as this hockey rink and our new fitness center for health, wellness and the lessons of competition. All are vital to our vision of educated citizens in the broadest sense and were constructed and designed intentionally to enhance the mission of this College. We did not build at Bowdoin to participate intentionally in a higher education "arms race," even if we have found ourselves to be active participants in such a race.

The truth is, we at Bowdoin had some catching up to do to meet the challenges of higher education in the 21st century. From our founding in 1794 until 1990, Bowdoin constructed, acquired, or renovated about 60 projects. Since 1990, with the critical support of alumni, parents and friends, we have added more than 80 to that number. In doing so, we have positioned Bowdoin extraordinarily well for the future, but we have also inadvertently reinforced as measures of success the addition of acres, square footage, architecture and program.

During the next period, successful colleges and universities will, I believe, be defined not by their architecture or by programs designed to respond to the latest educational fad. Rather, I believe, successful colleges and universities will be defined by their commitment to a central mission and by their ability to make a significant difference in solving the challenges of our world.

Bowdoin will be among these successful colleges and universities because we understand our place in this world — education in the liberal art model in a residential community committed genuinely to the Common Good. We understand leadership and what it takes to make a difference. Our founders were among those who created America. Our graduates championed equal rights and helped end the Civil War. They guided America through expansion, depression and two world wars. They have made landmark contributions in the areas of government, business, medicine, the arts, scholarship and education. They have served as leaders in all three branches of the U.S. government, won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, and have created and led innovative businesses that employ thousands.

As graduates of this college, you have worked hard, learned much and earned the degree that will be awarded to you tomorrow morning. It will come as no surprise to any of you that, as graduates of this historic college, we have expectations of you but also silent confidence in your ability to contribute a great deal to society in the years ahead. In doing so, you will help us communicate the essence and immense value of a Bowdoin education.

In closing, I urge each of you to put our current economic troubles in constructive perspective.

As Sills knew in his time, and as we recognize still today, it is that constant questioning of our worth that should propel us forward. The strain of these economic times has a "silver lining" as it forces us to rebalance and reset our aspirations squarely focused on our mission and principle. As we move into this next period in our history, we do so with pride in our history, with confidence in our abilities and in our guiding principles, and with the resolve necessary to continue to provide a Bowdoin education to future generations of students and a vibrant intellectual community for our faculty and staff.

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, as you work 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 what 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.

No one, especially me, could have predicted such a course when I attended my own Baccalaureate ceremony 37 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 proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you tomorrow on the quad.

Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with "The Offer of the College," those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906: 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 2009 — 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.

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