Convocation 2009 Welcome: President Barry Mills

Story posted September 03, 2009

September 2, 2009

Bowdoin College's 208th Convocation was held Wednesday, September 2, 2009, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following is the text of President Barry Mills' welcoming remarks.

Good afternoon. It is my honor to preside at the official opening of the 208th academic year of Bowdoin College.

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President Barry Mills '72

Today, I am very pleased to welcome our faculty, staff, students and friends to this traditional ceremony, and to offer a particular welcome to the members of the Class of 2013. We are delighted that so many members of our impressive first-year class have come to celebrate with us.

I have met all of you now as we gathered for matriculation in my office over these past couple of days. I am delighted to report to you and to our faculty and staff that the Class of 2013 is an energetic and talented group ready for Bowdoin and all that it has to offer. We know you will make important and lasting contributions to Bowdoin over the next four years and beyond.

It is my practice to focus my remarks at Convocation, as well as those delivered during Baccalaureate in the spring, on issues and ideas of importance to the College.

In the recent past I have discussed the centrality of the arts in the liberal arts, academic freedom at Bowdoin, our sustainability initiatives, the fundamental importance of our financial aid program to the future of the College, the issues of race and socioeconomic class in our country and at Bowdoin, and how construction and renovation on campus have been in support of our academic program — the core of our mission as a college.

Today as we begin this new academic year, I would like to speak to you about Perspectives from a Point. I spent these past summer months with my family away from Federal Street commuting to campus from our house on a point of land in Cundy's Harbor in Harpswell. For those of you "from away," this is about a 20-minute drive from the campus, but it feels quite far away and is a perfect place for perspective and reflection. The house sits on a point of land at the junction of the New Meadows River as it flows into the ocean. Across is Bear Island and to the south is the open ocean guarded by Small Point. Around to the other side of the point is Cundy's Harbor, which even today is a working harbor for lobster workers and fishing boats — one of the few remaining in Maine. I spent many an hour watching the ocean and the boats from the deck at the point, hence the color on my face that many have noticed as me appearing fit and healthy; which I am pleased to report I am, with maybe too much exposure to the sun when it finally came to Maine in August.

As I sat on the deck and looked out at the ocean and the islands across from the point, one could not help but gaze with amazement and appreciation at the shear beauty of our Maine environment. The smell of the air, the wildlife, the power of the oceans and the tides were daily my solace. Truly, the way life should be. The short story writer and novelist Anne Beattie writes in the book Maine: The Seasons by Terrell S. Lester:

[Maine] is a world that is beautiful, colorful, drenched in an indescribable light; a world that could easily be unreal, except it is not. Maine is just far away — in distance and spirit — from other places. It is a place we stop imagining to look, and look to imagine.

The idea of romance, I think, is not the first thing people associate with Maine. With Venice, perhaps. Or Paris. But Maine? Feisty, frugal Maine, with that frigid water and those fearsome seagulls? I'm not much of a romantic, but part of the reason I'm seduced by the state is the fact that you have to search a little, you have to stay a while, to discover the romance. It isn't apparent on the surface. Sure, any place with moonlight on the water is romantic; but there's a certain mystery to the way Maine metamorphoses from a daytime playground to a quieter, more enigmatic, more spacious place at night.

This sense of Maine epitomizes my place of repose on the deck at Cundy's.

So as I sat appreciating the romance of Maine , as the ever-practical president of the College , I began to think about what I and the College are doing constructively and genuinely to preserve this environment for future generations — clearly one of the dominant social, economic and political issues of our time. Many years ago, members of our faculty and their predecessors created for Bowdoin an environmental studies focus and major that has evolved over the years into a powerful and important course of study at Bowdoin. In recent years we have expanded that program significantly in terms of resource and faculty. Today our environmental studies program is a first-rate program that involves many faculty from a variety of disciplines, staff and students in active participation.

Our students, faculty and staff are engaged with the issues of our environment as the preeminent issue of our day. Our students have led this campus in sustainability efforts and awareness in energetic and substantive ways that have affected the life of Bowdoin. In all of the vast construction of facility over the past few years at Bowdoin, the sustainability issues have been at the forefront of consideration with our LEED-certified buildings, including our new Watson Hockey Arena.

Last year we reinforced and reminded our community of our commitment to the environment and sustainability with our "We're Committed" week of events. Faculty, staff and students led discussions and organized events around these issues. The week culminated with an important talk by Ms. Majora Carter speaking about the social and political aspects of environmental activism and all that focused work can achieve.

And, very significantly, we developed last year as a community a mission statement for Bowdoin that commits this College as one of its core concepts to the issue of our work to preserve the environment — this mission statement along with the Offer of the College now constituting the mission of this great college.

Two years ago we signed on with hundreds of other colleges and universities to The American College and Presidents University Climate Commitment. This document, among others things, committed us to the development of a plan to reach "carbon neutrality" in some period of time to be identified by us. Many in our community have been working, particularly over the summer, on this important plan — faculty, staff, alumni, students and consultants of the College. This plan is in process of being drafted and will be circulated and refined over the next few weeks and months and then periodically refined and revised in the future as we implement its recommendations.

What is clear in considering carbon neutrality for Bowdoin is that there is much we all can do in this effort personally. Turning off computers at night, changing out light bulbs, driving more energy-efficient cars, eliminating first- year cars, purchasing wind power and hosts of other efforts identified by students, faculty and staff will be effective. Personal responsibility and commitment matters and will make a very big difference.

The way we construct and operate our buildings will also have a profound impact on our sustainability efforts. Of course, we must be mindful of the technology we use and its reliability as we have learned in our expensive and not entirely effective efforts with geothermal technology at the Walker Art Building. I am assured that we are about to finally solve this geologic and technologic conundrum and restore the Quad.

The reality is that given where we live in the Northeast and our location in midcoast Maine — our new students "from away" will soon learn that we have to heat our buildings. There is not at this time for the College given our location an effective alternative to fossil fuel that will effectively heat the campus.

The research and current thinking is that the path to 50 percent carbon neutrality is achievable in some reasonable period, but thereafter we may be forced to look at energy credits and the like to close the gap to find carbon neutrality. But, I am more confident than most that other solutions will become available.

The true solution to our energy issues nationally, internationally and locally on the Bowdoin campus, which will allow us to reach genuine carbon neutrality, therefore relies on the enduring strength of our nation and its people. To my mind, that is simply the power of innovation. Technological innovation that will lead to new solutions that are effective and economic. Our government and other nations can do more to promote energy innovation (whether through a carbon tax, cap and trade or other incentives when they make economic sense) that will drive business and non-profit organizations to be creative. However, there must be the people in our country and community with the education and spirit to innovate who are committed to these issues.

Bowdoin College and all colleges and universities, but particularly Bowdoin, are essential in the development of that innovation spirit and capacity. Innovation is driven by educated citizens who are fearless learners — often people who understand issues from a variety of perspectives, who are committed to a cause and who are not afraid to take risk and to fail. In my view it is people educated in our model of disciplinary and interdisciplinary liberal arts education that are the best suited to be the future innovators of America. Innovation is the work of "big thinkers" and "big doers" and thinking big in and around issues from a variety of perspectives is what we are about. And, this is a challenge to us all for this is a challenge to be met by not only those who study environmental matters or who are scientists — this challenge of innovation is the life challenge to all of us who and think deeply about a problem in our chosen discipline and can bring perspective, rigor, expertise and big ideas to the solutions for a problem that affects us all and future generations.

And, so my point is that we at Bowdoin in our educational enterprise are at the core of that innovation cycle — educating students and supporting faculty in our liberal arts tradition with an understanding that our environment and sustainability are among the most important issues of our time and for future generations. Our most important contribution then to the Climate Commitment is first and foremost our commitment to education and the infinite possibilities of innovation.

So, now back to the point — sitting on the deck and looking northwest — I watch the boats in the harbor at Cundy's Harbor — not the Maine pleasure boats, but serious lobster boats owned and operated by local Maine people who depend on the seas and the lobsters for their livelihood. It is well documented that these Maine people have had a tough year with the price of lobsters affected by abundant supply and the economy. Now it is Maine lore that every year Maine lobstermen lament in sincere tones that this year was the worst and no money was made; but this year is no joke, and the economic hardship is real and it is serious. Speaking with the workers in that harbor you hear about the sacrifices they are making personally and the difficulties they are having make ends meet. But, of course the lobstermen of Maine are not alone. These economic times continue to be difficult for many.

Of course sitting on that point thinking of the economic times brings me back to Bowdoin. Last year we as a community faced up to the tremors caused by the financial recession in America. The College as a community subscribed to some hard choices as we came together as a community to chart our course for the future — freezing faculty and staff salaries for this academic year and next and taking a variety of other measures. These were not easy choices and the reality of their impact is about to be realized.

Over the past year we have successfully completed our capital campaign raising over $290 million, much of it endowment for faculty support and financial aid. And, our endowment performed we believe (the final numbers are not in) better than we expected — but we still lost considerable principal that will affect operating revenues in the future in significant ways. Our alumni participation in the alumni fund was strong — but it was the most difficult year we have seen in recent memory. The stock market is up — the financial leaders, our government and the press all tell us that the worst is behind us and that the recession is over, and yet we observed more families requesting financial aid this year as they face the realities of the recession. There are positive trends, but the baseline is low and the fault lines are real.

This is not the forum for an exhaustive discussion of our financial situation — that will happen again this fall. In the main — our position is strong and the choices we made last year should be sufficient to allow us to prosper and remain strong and true to our principles. I continue to believe that the choices we made last year were correct and appropriate when we made them. Moreover, these choices and plans continue to be appropriate and necessary given the economic conditions generally in the nation and at Bowdoin in particular, even taking account of the more positive perspective of our financial leaders.

Last year we charted a course that would require commitment by all in order to ensure community at the College — a course predicated on the retention of jobs for faculty and staff. This program presumed that we would be able to continue to hire and to support our academic program. And, the program was based on our continued support of our financial aid program. The strength of the Bowdoin community exhibited last year was impressive and admired by the entire Bowdoin community in our residential setting and beyond.

This year we will begin in earnest to experience the financial decisions we set in place — and our sense of community will be tested as we live through the consequences and impacts of these decisions. It is one thing to chart the course and it is very much another to live through the consequences, and these consequences will be real and will test our sense of community, which will stand in some instances in stark opposition to our personal sense of self interest. It is my sense that our community of faculty and staff is strong and committed to each other and to Bowdoin as an institution. Our students understand the tough times we all face and that their families face at home. As the Orient stated last year, it is time for the students to face up to the realities of our economy and ask for and expect less from the College. And so I am optimistic that we will endure these difficult times in the Bowdoin way with a strong sense of community and care for one another.

The trust that is required in order to maintain the bonds of community require more than ever a true sense of transparency regarding our economic situation and our decision making — a transparency evident last year that we will endeavor to continue this year in order that the bonds of trust that allow us to rely on each other are grounded in facts and good faith.

I look forward to working with you all this year once again as we with optimism, confidence, good faith and sound judgment chart of course for Bowdoin that insures the strength and vitality of the College — focused on its academic program and the quality and diversity of its students from across America and the world.

And so, as I return from that point of land in Cundy's Harbor ready to begin enthusiastically a new year at the College, I hope that all of you had a summer of good works and time to restore your spirit. Ours is a great College because it is a place of talented and engaged individuals — faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends, all of whom are committed to the liberal arts, the Common Good and to each other working together for common ends.

I now declare the College to be in session. May it be a year of peace, health, success, and inspiration for us all, and a recommitment to our most important tradition — teaching and learning together.

Thank you.

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