President's Speeches and Remarks

October 12, 2001


Good afternoon. I'm Barry Mills, president of the College. It's a pleasure to welcome faculty, students, parents, and friends to these exercises during which we will recognize students who have distinguished themselves as Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars. A special welcome to those of you out there who have earned this important distinction. All of us are proud of you and your achievements and I look forward to congratulating each of you.

Our recognition of Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars goes back sixty years to 1941. Of course, we know that the College was all men in those days and that this day was originally named exclusively for James Bowdoin III. In 1997, the College, by faculty vote, determined that it was appropriate to reestablish this tradition in the name of James Bowdoin and Sarah, his wife, certainly partially in recognition of the fact that the College was then, as now, a place where men and women come as students and faculty to study, teach, and learn.

The Honorable James Bowdoin III lived from 1752 until 1811. He was the son of James Bowdoin II for whom the College is named. The father -- James II -- was a Revolutionary War hero well remembered for his role in putting down Shay's Rebellion who was later twice elected governor of Massachusetts. He was a very successful entrepreneur, especially in maritime business dealings and as a member of the elite business society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts -- which, in those days, included the District of Maine. James II -- who along with John Adams, John Hancock, and others founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences -- was also a man with a profound interest in learning.

Let's just say that his son, James III, was -- as sons can sometimes be -- more of a free spirit than his father. Less the serious student and businessman and more one of America’s first connoisseurs of life, culture, and politics, both in the Americas and abroad. During his lifetime, he acquired a substantial library, a significant art collection, and an impressive array of scientific materials, for which we at the College are the inheritors. His art collection was the genesis of the art treasures still accessible to us all within the walls of our glorious Walker Art Building. In 1794, it was $1,000 and 1,000 acres of land from this generous diplomat, agriculturist, and art collector that started us off on our noble mission.

Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn traveled to London and Paris from 1805 and 1808 with James III when James served with President Jefferson in Europe. The Bowdoins operated out of  Paris and Sarah and kept a journal (which can be found in Special Collections here at Bowdoin) documenting the daily life of the family. Sarah and James, it appears, flourished in this community, entertaining Americans living in Paris and important friends of America. Sarah's journal indicates that she was very much involved in the collecting life of the couple and we therefore also owe her a deep debt of gratitude for the treasures we have inherited at the College. As we have been reminded from David McCullough's recent popular book on John Adams and Abigail Adams, women of this period were important participants in the creation of America. Sarah was clearly an important partner in creating what we have at Bowdoin today, and so it is right that we recognize her each year during these exercises.

It is especially important and appropriate this year to call specific attention to Sarah Bowdoin, for we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of women at Bowdoin. It was 30 years ago this year that women were first admitted to the College. Coincidentally, this is my 30th reunion year, having graduated from Bowdoin in 1972. I was a student on this campus when women were first admitted as students and I can tell you that their long overdue arrival had an immediate and immensely positive impact on the College!

So, today we remember our founders and meet to celebrate and congratulate the Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars sitting among us. How does one earn this honor? By achieving one measure of academic success here at Bowdoin measured by grade point average. The scholars sitting among us are the Bowdoin students who in the prior academic year achieved a grade point average in their course of study that places them in the top 20% of the class. That's not an easy thing to accomplish. It takes hard work and dedication, for which each of these students and each parent can and should be particularly proud.

This sense of pride is shared by the College because these young men and women represent what Bowdoin is all about. The College has been blessed with a talented faculty and the resources to provide an enormous range of learning opportunities for our students, whether in the classroom, residence hall, athletic field, studio, laboratory, or library. But we intentionally make relatively few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. I'm proud to say that there are few spectators on this campus, only participants. Participants in the great liberal arts tradition and in the rigorous pursuit of academic excellence that is at our core.

But beyond promoting scholarship and rewarding academic achievement, we must remember that a college like Bowdoin exists also to open young minds to a world that grows more complicated and more confusing each year, and at a far more rapid pace than what many of us have known before. The education we seek to provide is more than information. It is also fostering a subtlety of mind and spirit firmly grounded in intellectual reasoning and ethical conduct. As each of us considers the difficult and confusing times we face as a nation and as a society, it is this ability to consider other points of view, to understand and embrace differences, and to seek constructive change that builds confidence and offers the best hope for our future. These young men and women -- and many alumni who have come before them -- are the embodiment of that hope.

And so, to these students, I offer my congratulations but also, I urge you to recommit yourselves to another year of academic achievement. I encourage you to sit elbow to elbow with your professors doing independent studies, honors projects and the like, to sharpen your powers of analysis, critical reasoning, and ability to communicate while you learn the content, imagery, and subtlety of academic disciplines in the most creative, imaginative, critical, and passionate way possible. In doing so, you not only strengthen your minds and your abilities. You also strengthen your ties to this College, underscore its mission, and join a proud inheritance that runs 207 years from Sarah and James Bowdoin to today.

Thank you and congratulations.