President's Speeches and Remarks

August 29, 2001

Thank you Craig.  I’m happy that we are all here together today — faculty, staff, students.  Again ⎯ a special welcome to the first year students and our new faculty and staff.   

I am very privileged to be here to address you today.  A year ago at this time, I was working in New York, and leading a committee in a search for Bowdoin’s 14th president. It was, of course, beyond my wildest dreams that I would be addressing the Bowdoin community as your new president at the start of Bowdoin’s 200th academic year.  I was honored when the search committee asked that I consider accepting the presidency of Bowdoin.  I stand before you today humbled to be your president ⎯ in the footsteps of such Bowdoin legends as Joseph McKeen, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, William DeWitt Hyde, Casey Sills, Roger Howell, Roy Greason and Robert Edwards.  

We celebrated our 200th anniversary back in 1994, the 200th anniversary of the formal and legal creation of the College.  We at Bowdoin to this point have chosen not to celebrate in any public fashion this year’s 200th anniversary of our academic program.  In a way this is a bit surprising since this 200th anniversary is what we are really about.  Our 200th year of educating students.

It is a joy for me to be back at Bowdoin and I am wholly optimistic about our future.  Though I’m new in this position, I’m not new to Bowdoin, nor is it new to me.  I graduated from Bowdoin in 1972 as a government and biochemistry major.  Bowdoin was, for me, as for many of its sons and daughters, a transforming event.  I have returned to visit over the years many times in various capacities.  Many of my closest friends in this world, I met as a Bowdoin student.  I truly love this place and have watched and participated in its progress with pride.  My hopes and dreams for Bowdoin are not, however, burdened with nostalgia for a past Bowdoin, but with a steady and ambitious eye for the future of this College.

Through the presidential search process I had the opportunity to get to know Bowdoin ⎯ its faculty, staff and students.  I listened carefully to your concerns, hopes and dreams.  Over the spring semester after I accepted the role of president, I spent much more time on campus learning and listening.  The transition from President Edwards to me was efficient and entirely amiable.  President Edwards accomplished much that was great for Bowdoin and his integrity in our transition was at the highest level.  I will forever be grateful to President Edwards for the grace and kindness he showed me.    

Since I arrived on July 1, I have been going to summer school while most students were away from campus.  I have adjusted my perspective from that of an interested periodic participant to one of the president actively engaged in leading this college.  My teachers this summer have been members of the Bowdoin faculty ⎯ many of whom have given their time to lunch or coffee with me on the porch at Cleaveland House.  I thank all of you who have shared your thoughts so openly and honestly and look forward to more tutorials as I meet with many more faculty this academic year.  So these robes that I wear today may not be as rumpled or frayed as the robes worn by those who sit before me, nor are they as well worn as the pinstripe suits that hang retired in my closet, but I have great confidence in my ability to listen, to learn quickly, to synthesize and, with you, to make good judgments for Bowdoin.  In time I hope that through my actions, rather than merely through my words, you will agree with my confidence in the good decisions we will make for the College in the years ahead.

One of my tutors this summer, a Bowdoin history professor, not surprisingly, suggested to me that Bowdoin cannot escape its history, both from a positive and negative perspective.  That comment rang true to me and started me thinking about the values that will guide us as we consider Bowdoin today and into the future.

Now, I recognize that a discussion of core values runs the risk of falling squarely into a philosophical or sociological, political or psychological debate about what constitute “values”.  Although this is an interesting discussion, it is not for today.  So today, I would prefer to think about the guideposts, the markers, that we use to think about our College.

As a starting point, we should return to first principles and reexamine our origins ⎯ Bowdoin as a residential liberal arts college was founded based on, and consistent with, certain religious beliefs.   That religious core (and parenthetically, cultural core) lived on for many years ⎯ even through the years when a shy boy from Rhode Island with different roots entered Bowdoin in 1968.  The Bowdoin Handbook sent to me the summer before I arrived in Brunswick said:
“Make it a regular practice to go to church.  A list of churches has been included in this Handbook for your convenience.  College is not a place where you neglect your moral and religious responsibilities for a year.  Sunday is one of the few times in the week that you can give serious thought to the religious needs of your life.”  

The world has changed since 1968 quite dramatically, and the religious and cultural underpinnings of Bowdoin have in many ways disappeared from this campus on a day to day basis.  In fact, according to a popular college guidebook released last week, Bowdoin is among a handful of colleges nationwide where “…students ignore God on a regular basis.”  I am not suggesting that we return to the past, but I do think it is important that each of us remember that what is special about Bowdoin, about our residential liberal arts model, is that we conduct ourselves both individually and institutionally with moral integrity.  We may not all share the same definition of virtue and morality, but we must recognize that there is a powerful moral component to the experience and education of students here at Bowdoin.  As Reverend Peter J. Gomes, of Harvard University (and a 2000 Bowdoin honorary degree recipient) advises us, quoting President Pusey of Harvard, the liberal arts experience should “instill into the minds of youth…the principles of morality and rectitude which will give them a true and happy direction in the pursuit of all public and private virtues, and by the exercise of which they may become useful to themselves, good members of society, and ornaments of their country.”  For me, this sense of virtue and integrity is a guidepost for our mission at Bowdoin and our conversation about the nature of education.

The Common Good

President McKeen, Bowdoin’s first president, started us off so many years ago with the ideal of serving the Common Good.  “Literary institutions,” he said, “are founded and endowed for the Common Good and not the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”  A century later, in his Offer of the College, President William DeWitt Hyde described the gift of the liberal education as losing oneself in “generous enthusiasms.”  These two concepts are the bedrock of this great College.

Bowdoin encouraged those ideals, and it is embodied in the lives and work of people like George Mitchell, Class of 1954, who has worked for peace in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East; like Andy Reicher, Class of 1972, Geoff Canada, Class of 1974, and Ellen Baxter, Class of 1975, who were at Bowdoin with me, and who have dedicated their lives to making a better future for the people of New York City.

We at Bowdoin have become wonderful leaders for the Common Good outside the walls of our campus.  Nearly three-quarters of Bowdoin students are involved in community service, translating last year alone to 11,000 volunteer hours.  We are justifiably proud of our achievements.  

But my friends, the Common Good starts at home.  We are a community ⎯ the Bowdoin community ⎯ and we must nurture and respect it.  Fundamental to our community is the notion of respect.  These are fast moving and changing times ⎯ community does not happen unintentionally.  A community must be nurtured⎯it is grounded on communication and respect.

At the same time we must be willing to disagree with and to challenge each other.  Ours is an intellectually charged environment and we must be willing to state and defend our views precisely, rigorously, and vigorously ⎯ we must also be willing to listen to and respect the opinions and thoughts of others that have been made in good faith.  Disagreement and debate are critical to a vibrant intellectual community ⎯ they represent for me the sign of an intellectually charged and healthy environment designed to stimulate serious education.  The critical components that at the same time bind community and permit individuality are respect and good faith.

Not only must we respect the views and thoughts of members of our community, but we also must respect the work that each of us does individually and derivatively for the collective good of Bowdoin.  We are a complicated place, and we each believe we are working in our own manner to make our Bowdoin a better place.  We should celebrate each other when we succeed and support each other when we fall short.

We will feel pressures and torment that will tug at our strength as a community, as we broaden and redefine it.  As Roger Howell stated in his inaugural address in 1969, “…we should remember that no institution can live on its past, no matter how praiseworthy that past may be.  If the study of the past leads to a stimulation of our minds for the future, then the effort is a laudable enterprise.  If it lulls us to complacent inactivity, then it is fatal.”

These are transitional times, and we are by necessity and naturally going to be required to reassess continuously what we are as a College.  Only if we stand together as a respectful community will we be able to endure that necessary, difficult self-critical reexamination.

Our Residential Life/Athletics/Extracurricular Activities

We are a residential, liberal arts college.  I mean to emphasize at this point the residential part of our mission.  For most of Bowdoin’s history the College’s residential life system was grounded in fraternity life.  For many, all life outside the classroom at Bowdoin was fraternities.  We all know well the good and important reasons why fraternities are no longer on this campus of ours.  We are committed, and I believe should remain firmly committed, to a college house system that is not based on exclusion or self-selection, but rather inclusion.  Our campus is one of engaged participants ⎯ working for the common good of one Bowdoin.

Sound mind and sound body are also fundamental to Bowdoin.  We applaud and support at Bowdoin the importance of athletics in the lives of our students, faculty and staff.  We celebrate, quite appropriately, the impressive level of participation in Bowdoin’s Outing Club.  We are blessed to be in Maine, where active involvement in the outdoors can be glorious and rewarding.  Indeed, when one reads as I have, self-studies of Bowdoin, we are a community of students who are relatively secure, leaders, and generally satisfied, happy people.  That is not all bad.  I have a sense that athletics and the outdoors is a major reason for our “well-adjusted leadership” profile.  The issue for Bowdoin, however, is one of balance, because, first and foremost, we are a College organized for, and in support of, academic and intellectual excellence.

Extracurricular activities are also a significant component of the Bowdoin education.  Our students spend significant amounts of time outside the classroom engaged passionately in theater, dance, photography, arts, the craft center and in innumerable other activities that are very valuable to their educations, some directly related to our academic program, some less so.  Our studies of ourselves show that these activities not only complement, but actually enhance the academic performance of the participating students.  This conclusion is validated by the most recent study by Richard Light’s recent book Making the Most of College.  It is those students who fail to participate in the life of the College who often find their academic experience more difficult.  The strength, and depth and variety of these extracurricular activities are therefore important reinforcements of Bowdoin’s academic strength.


Conspicuously absent in my discussion of guideposts to this point is our academic program, our intellectual life and our faculty.  This is purposeful on my part because it is the centrality of the academic and intellectual experience of the College core that is the major message of my talk today.  But first, a small detour.

Let us briefly examine the current social and historical context as well as Bowdoin’s recent history.  First, the context.  The changes occurring in our society today are fundamental and undoubtedly will change in very real ways our individual approaches to each other, to our work lives and to our quest for knowledge.

The incredibly rapid changes in our understanding of the sciences, our genome, and technology will result in adjustments in our lives that we as yet do not comprehend.  Moreover, our world has gotten smaller and more intimate each year as our societies and economies become more global and interwoven.  As Levine & Cureton write in their recent book “When Hope and Fear Collide” (A Portrait of Today’s College Student) we are surrounded by new generations that do not believe in the power of formal authority (such as government, and, maybe even college presidents) to accomplish anything to preserve or even support their basic needs, while at the same time these new generations are an optimistic generation confident in their ability in more defined and local ways to effect meaningful important action that will enhance their own lives and the lives of their immediate communities.  Add to this Bowdoin’s recent history⎯a time of rapid change in the size of the College, and the number of faculty, the expansion of the curriculum, the renovation and construction of $100 million of buildings and most importantly in many respects⎯a new residential life model.

Craig McEwen, Craig Bradley and I recently had occasion to meet with the person from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges who heads up our interim accreditation process that is due this Fall.  We in our characteristic Bowdoin fashion described the changes and accomplishments at Bowdoin over the recent past in muted tones.  Mr. Cook, a quiet and understated individual himself, immediately became ebullient, singing Bowdoin’s praises as one of the very few, maybe only, residential liberal art colleges that has made genuine and fundamental changes that could lead to substantial enhancement of their liberal arts mission.  Central on his list of accomplishments for us are the residential life system, our efforts in technology and the expansion of our faculty and curriculum.  It is instructive for us to understand, this perspective of an outside educator intimately familiar with our sector.  Our College has undergone profound changes, nearly all for the better, in these past years.  Those of us close to these changes may see them less clearly and dramatically.

I suggest that with all of this change and dislocation at Bowdoin over these past years, with the uncertainty about the future in the minds of our newest generation of students that it is not surprising that this period has been a time of particularly visible growth of administrative and student services to support our academic program.  It has also been a time when many say that faculty bonds to our systems (but never our students) have frayed a bit, maybe as a result of the subtle, and not so subtle, adjustments genuinely and in good faith intended to meet the newly identified needs of a new generation of students in an uncertain time at a College undergoing a high degree of change.

So it is time now to speak of our academic program and our faculty and their fundamental place when we consider guideposts for the College.  We at Bowdoin are blessed with a talented, devoted, accomplished faculty.  Our faculty is one of dedicated and caring teachers who are passionate about teaching our students.  It is the collective, cooperative engagement of faculty that create the academic program.  They are not only teachers, but also dedicated to their artistic work, scholarship and research, publishing books writing articles, composing music and creating art of high quality and wonderful sophistication.  In most respects, thus Bowdoin College is the faculty that sits before me.  With all of our emphasis on student life, extracurricular activities, athletics, building and student services, it is now time as we look to the future to rebalance our efforts by firmly underlining Bowdoin’s commitment to its academic mission and to the intellectual development of students as the core of our College.  For in the long run, as history tells us, it is our core value and key guidepost⎯academic excellence and intellectual rigor will make Bowdoin endure.

My central goal of rebalancing that will firmly establish our academic program at the College’s core is by no means intended as a criticism of the past.  It is meant as a reaffirmation of what Bowdoin has always fundamentally been about⎯rigorous academic and intellectual pursuit led by a dedicated, skilled faculty.  A faculty passionately committed both to developing the minds of their students and to pursuing their own scholarship and research.  For generations of students Bowdoin has been defined by the profound effect that the faculty have on the student intellectual, academic and residential life.  For generations of faculty, a major satisfaction has been instilling in their students the passion for learning.  This is what Bowdoin’s history tells us we are, and we should work together to ensure that academic excellence and rigorous intellectual pursuit remain the core guidepost for our future.

We begin our 200th academic year, then, with a healthy respect for and nod to our history.  Prepared as President Howell reminds us to avoid complacency, committed to our residential liberal arts tradition, of sound mind and body, with moral and integrity as a guidepost on our gates, and with academic excellence and intellectual rigor at the core of our being.

May Bowdoin College endure and prosper for another 200 years.

Thank you.