Campus News

Commencement 2009 Address: President Barry Mills '72

Story posted May 23, 2009

May 23, 2009

Good morning and welcome to this joyous occasion and to our beautiful campus in the glorious State of Maine. This is a special day for our graduating seniors and for their families and friends. I congratulate you all.

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President Barry Mills '72

This is the 204th Commencement of Bowdoin College — a college justifiably proud of its history, its traditions, its commitment to the liberal arts and its dedication to serving the common good.

Bowdoin College is honored to welcome representatives of the Penobscot Nation, Chief Kirk Francis and former Chief James Sappier, to our Commencement exercises.

Jim Sappier and others within the Penobscot Nation have been working closely with the College to raise the educational aspirations of Native Americans throughout Maine, and to help us make sure that Bowdoin provides a welcoming environment for Native Americans who deserve through their efforts and accomplishments to be here.

Bowdoin is one of America's oldest colleges, but long before we built Massachusetts Hall, these were the lands of the Wabanaki — the sovereign nations of Maine and the Maritimes.

Peter Small, our Board chair, and I are are honored to accept — on behalf of the College — the gift of eagle feathers we have just received. This gift, I am told, is the highest honor one chief can bestow upon another — one that offers guidance and protection.

Thank you both for being here, and for honoring our graduating seniors and this College with your presence and your prayers.

Four years ago, I greeted this exuberant first-year class from these steps promising to meet them at the same spot for Commencement four years later. And here we are today celebrating in front of our fully renovated and reopened Walker Art Building.

Today is a magnificent day filled with pride, accomplishment and celebration. To the Class of 2009 — you have achieved so much over these four years. I have been honored to be with you. I will miss you. You are a special class to me — you are the class whose first year T-shirt has a picture of me on the back that says, "Barry is my Home-boy."

Before I hand out any diplomas, I want to ask the graduating seniors to rise.

In what has become a tradition of respect and appreciation at the College, please face your parents, friends and family — those who have supported and nurtured you — and thank them with a hearty round of applause.

Now, back to that Saturday night on the quad four years ago — the night when I greeted you, and you greeted me. On that night, I challenged you as you began your Bowdoin career. That challenge was my encouragement to you to be intentional, active learners who engage in all that Bowdoin has to offer.

I am pleased to announce that you all have met that challenge with distinction, and I congratulate you and the Bowdoin faculty and staff who through their excellence, hard work and commitment to you and to this College have enabled you to meet that challenge. So, please stand again, and offer a second round of applause for the Bowdoin faculty and staff who have been committed to your pursuit of learning these past four years.

Thank you.

I would like to welcome Governor Jock McKernan, the governor of Maine from 1987 to 1995, who is with us today to deliver the traditional greeting from the State of Maine.

I also want to offer a welcome and to congratulate our honorands, each a magnificent example of what we value here at the College — commitment to excellence, to thoughtful examination, criticism and inquiry, to creativity, to principled leadership and to good deeds: Kenneth Roth, Edward Albee, Stephen Hannock '74 and Olufunmilayo Olapade and Sheila Watt-Cloutier.

And I especially want to thank the parents and families of our graduating seniors for your commitment to Bowdoin. It seems like yesterday that I greeted you as new members of the Bowdoin community. It is always a sad day to see the seniors leave our residential community, but it's a day filled with emotion as we say goodbye to the wonderful families here today — many of whom I know as good friends. I remind you that you are part of the Bowdoin family forever, and encourage you to stay close.

It has been my tradition at this commencement occasion to speak with you all briefly about leadership; to offer a challenge to leadership for our graduating seniors.

So today, as a final word of advice to you our graduating seniors as you still remain Bowdoin students, I remind you of two important components of leadership — a sense of humility and a sense of humor. We at Bowdoin understand that leadership requires empathy; it requires at its best a person who understands in their heart and in their head the issues and problems they seek to lead to solve and improve. A shining characteristic, I believe, of the Bowdoin leader is we "leave our ego at the door." And so, on this very self-important and celebratory day, I remind us all of our responsibility to lead, but also our responsibility to continue to learn and to listen.

At Bowdoin, as a residential community that is appropriately self-critical, we often lament the "Bowdoin bubble" and the perception of a dominant culture or political persuasion on campus. And yet, you haven't really seen anything yet as you leave Bowdoin and many of you will find yourselves in self-selected and self-reinforcing communities of like-minded people. You all may be surprised to learn that Bowdoin is truly a place of diversity in the broadest sense as compared to the communities you may choose to live in. You will be well served if you remember your education at Bowdoin — the liberal arts education. And, please remember the art of the "perhaps." James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth, writes, "that is why a liberal education seeks to impress upon students that one of the most important words in the English language is 'perhaps,' and that we would all do better if we prefaced our most emphatic statements with the modest qualifier. Liberal education teaches the importance of tempering profound convictions with a measure of tolerance and a judicious sense of humility." These are lessons well learned at Bowdoin and are lessons, that perhaps, you will remember as you leave the relative "safeness" of this learning and living community.

And I remind you of the most underrated component of leadership: a sense of humor. A reminder to us all that as we seek to lead through serious issues and problems, that we leave room in our sense of ourselves not to take ourselves too seriously; a sense of perspective and irony is essential. Dwight Eisenhower reminded us that " a sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done." And from T.S. Eliot: "Humor is also a way of saying something serious."

Knowing and admiring this Class of 2009 as I do, let me take a moment to compliment them on their achievements. The talents in this class of students make us proud. These students have completed their studies at Bowdoin at the highest level of achievement. We count students among us today who have completed elegant honors projects, played glorious music, created fantastic art and performed wonderful productions. I would like to congratulate and recognize a number of our students who are leaving Bowdoin directly to join or are seeking to join the United States military or enter government service. Among these students are Pack Janes, Jack Dingess, Willy Wilder, Ian Yaffe, Ian Merry, Ed Yoo, Emily Baird and Rob Halliday.

We speak often about the Common Good at Bowdoin and should not fail to acknowledge that service to our nation is among the most powerful ways in which our graduates can seek to serve the Common Good. And, while I am on government service, please join me in welcoming my wife Karen, the Administrator of the Small Business Administration, who is doing her own great work for the Common Good in Washington, D.C., while also serving the Bowdoin Common Good as the "first lady of Bowdoin."

And so, the graduates sitting before you understand leadership and achievement. They have lived it here at Bowdoin. We have every confidence and an expectation that they will continue this achievement and this leadership — this principled leadership — into the future, reflecting vividly the principles of the common good that we at Bowdoin so proudly represent. This is an opportunity created for you by Bowdoin and now your responsibility.

And now, a final word to our graduates.

Look around you. You are surrounded by people who will be your friends for your entire life — not only your classmates, but also the faculty, staff and even the president of this College. Bowdoin is grounded on yet another essential principle — the fundamental value of enduring personal friendships. My best friends in life are people who sat with me over 37 years ago right where you are sitting today. I am confident that in 37 years, when you return for Reunion, you will say the same.

Within the hour, you will become alumni of Bowdoin College. In doing so you will join the most loyal and the most enthusiastic group that any college or university would be proud to call their own. Among these fellow alumni you will find old friends, and meet new ones. You will discover mentors and supporters ready to reach out and assist you throughout your lives. I know from experience. Take advantage of these relationships and stay connected and devoted to each other and to your college.

And now, let us return to where we began — "The Offer of the College" by William DeWitt Hyde, the seventh president of Bowdoin. Hyde set our mission at this College as a liberal arts education preparing us for life for "common ends." He promised us the best four years of our lives on this College campus. As you sit together as a community of Bowdoin students — I know this was for nearly all of you a fantastic four years. But, you will only truly reach Hyde's promise for the best four years of your life if you go forth from Bowdoin and continue to learn, to listen, to lead based on the principles and mission of this great College — living a life with others for common ends. These are the best four years of your life simply because they prepare you for a life worth living in the Bowdoin tradition.

Congratulations to the Bowdoin College Class of 2009, and Godspeed to you all!

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