September 1, 2004
Good afternoon. It is my honor to preside here at the official opening of the 203rd academic year of Bowdoin College. I am pleased to welcome our faculty, staff, students, and friends to this traditional ceremony, and to offer a special welcome to the members of the Class of 2008. We are delighted that so many members of our impressive first-year class have come to celebrate with us. We know you will make important and lasting contributions to Bowdoin over the next four years and beyond.
Now, to the Class of 2008, I must apologize for missing the Convening Dinner on Monday night. As many of you know, our oldest son Will began college this week, and Karen and I were in New York in our role as anxious parents attending orientation and convocation at Columbia. It is gratifying to point out that many more Bowdoin faculty and staff regularly attend Convocation at Bowdoin than were present on a very warm day in New York City this week. Your attendance here says a great deal about this enduring Bowdoin tradition.
One night last week, as I was reading my e-mail, I received a message from a Bowdoin student whose father had attended Bowdoin about the time I did a number of years ago. I know this student. He is a very bright, serious, and thoughtful person who was writing to me because of his perception is that Bowdoin has lost or let die many of the important traditions of years past. He lamented that this loss of tradition at Bowdoin fractures our bonds with the past, imperils our current culture, and puts at risk our connections with the future.
In thinking about my response...(I have learned, by the way, that it is very important for a college president to think carefully before responding to an e-mail!)...so, in response I agreed with this student that, of course, tradition is vital to the College. But I also offered another point of view -- although not as eloquently as Mark Twain, who wrote that "...often, the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it."
This college has many valuable traditions that bind us together. Some date back to our historic beginnings in 1794. Some, like the "Bowdoin Hello," fell away and have been renewed. And others - like Common Good Day, the Fashion Show, the Vagina Monologues, Baxter Road Race, the Peter Schuh Softball Tournament, Quimby Flag Football, the Ebony Ball, Drag Ball, the Gala, Homecoming Bonfire and Chair-building Contest and on and on - are new College traditions. All are important, or at least energetic, and are reflective of our time at Bowdoin.
Other historic traditions of this college are now gone because they have not passed the test of time -- for example, traditions that reflect or continue a male-dominated culture at Bowdoin, or traditions that fail to recognize and celebrate a college that looks increasingly more like America, rather than just New England. These are traditions that have needed to end as new generations of Bowdoin students, faculty, and staff have conceived their own traditions and have added to the history of the college in ways that reflect its modern character and vitality.
Which brings me to two important surviving traditions at Bowdoin that appropriately represent to many the core values and missions of the college.
First, our commitment to serving the Common Good -- a tradition that dates back to Bowdoin's founding in 1794. This concept was cemented into the soul of this College by the very first president of Bowdoin, Joseph McKeen, who stated in his inaugural talk in 1802 that:
"It ought always to be remembered, 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."
We often stop reading there, but let me go on.
"It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good."
This call to serve the common good is alive and well at Bowdoin for all of our men and women through the work in the Brunswick community of our students, faculty, and staff. It is embodied each year by the recipients of our Common Good Award, an honor that recognizes a commitment to do good deeds with conspicuous disregard for personal gain. And, very importantly, it is reflected in the very significant work of alumni in the fields of public service, business, education, science, the arts, and in other endeavors - men and women working hard professionally and in their communities to improve our world, our environment, and the lives of others.
Very simply, serving the common good is a fundamental Bowdoin tradition that has survived throughout our long history.
Another significant part of Bowdoin's heritage is a passage eloquently authored in 1906 by Bowdoin's seventh president, William DeWitt Hyde: "The Offer of the College."
Now, history teaches us that Hyde wrote "The Offer" as preface to his book, The College Man and the College Woman. It was clearly not written exclusively about Bowdoin. But beginning sixty years ago, in 1944, Bowdoin adopted "The Offer" as its own, printing it in the catalogue, along with a detailed description of Hyde's impact on the College.
Eventually, "The Offer" was distributed to students, who were expected to commit its phrases to memory. But by the late 1960s, this requirement was dropped, and "The Offer" began to fade from view at Bowdoin.
It was resurrected a decade ago by Richard Steele, our wonderful former dean of admissions, who modestly adapted Hyde's early 20th Century prose for modern use, and directed once again that "The Offer" be printed in Bowdoin publications.
Today, "The Offer of the College" is believed by many to reflect, with simplicity and elegance, the essence of Bowdoin. It now appears prominently on the opening page of our redesigned Web site, replacing the intermittently roaring Atlantic Ocean seen on the previous design. It has also become a tradition for me to read it to first-year students when I welcome the class to Bowdoin from the steps of the Walker Art Building, as I did most recently last Saturday.
So while "The Offer" lives on at Bowdoin today, careful readers will note that the text has once again been revised to reinsert two original lines omitted when "The Offer" was resurrected in the '90's.
Since even the smallest change at Bowdoin seems to be noticed by each and everyone here, I'm sure many have already recognized the addition, but if not, let me recite these two important lines:
"To gain a standard for the appreciation of others' work
And the criticism of your own..."
There are several reasons why one could presume to omit these lines in a modern adaptation, but on reflection we have concluded that it is appropriate in this time to reinsert them to better reflect our College's historic commitments. These lines are important for our time today, and in my mind forever, because each of us must strive through life-long learning to understand and appreciate the work of others and to develop standards and principles that guide our own.
A Bowdoin education is more than merely an accumulation of facts and information. Our goal as educators must be to enable all members of our community to develop the capacity and judgment to make new discoveries and to lead in ways that will improve our world through standards grounded in reason, knowledge and principle.
These two lines not only reflect our commitment to honest and candid debate and to constructive criticism of one's own work, they also challenge us to examine views and beliefs that are passionately held while freeing ourselves from the chilling effects of prejudice and bigotry or political correctness. It is only in doing so -- in good faith and in a spirit of building knowledge -- that we learn and grow as educated women and men.
So it is with pride that we re-embrace language in "The Offer" that urges each of us to master the art of making and defending a line of reasoning based on fact and principle; a line of reasoning that may be challenged and ultimately refined through critical analysis and review.
Now, critical analysis and just plain old criticism are things I have learned a good deal about over the summer, as we have worked to refine plans for the renovation of the Walker Art Building.
The College has struggled since the early 1970s with the vexing problem of renovating that notable and beloved building. Leaving aside a discussion of financial resources, the Walker Art Building presents a number of challenges even for the most skilled architects. The building is so small -- so jewel like in appearance -- that it is difficult to conceive of changes that will allow it to house appropriately our magnificent collection of art while also serving its central role in the education of our students and its popular function as a cultural landmark for the state and community.
As the academic year ended last spring, our trustees approved a conceptual plan to renovate the museum in a manner that would have removed the front steps while creating a new entrance to the building at its lower level. This plan is an elegant solution to the functional deficiencies of the building, a building originally constructed with the intention of having it remain forever a museum on one floor. The lower entrance would have allowed for a vastly improved flow through the museum and, importantly, would have allowed for the return of the magnificent rotunda space to its original function as a gallery.
Appropriately, this plan received a great deal of public attention, in the midst of which we worked to articulate more fully the conceptual design. Time after time, we found ourselves stymied by the grace and elegance of the original architecture. Consensus on an articulation of the design was elusive even among the most ardent supporters of the concept.
As Hyde implores us to do, we paid attention to the criticism. Of course, criticism can take many forms. Much of what we heard was thoughtful, educated, certainly passionate, articulate, and well-reasoned. Other criticism -- as anyone who has had their work reviewed will understand -- was self-interested and motivated largely and quite unfortunately by other interests. The important job of a leader is to synthesize the criticism of one's work -- to respect and consider carefully criticism that makes sense, even when it may be a bit unpleasant to do so.
So, based on the problems we encountered in reaching consensus on a refinement of the approved plan, and based upon the reasoned and informed criticism we received, I announced this summer that we would take a step back to reconsider the plan for renovation of the museum.
Make no mistake, our commitment to this project remains strong. We intend to renovate the museum in the coming year, but we are working on a new concept that will preserve the front façade of the building along with the stairs and plinth.
Our "step back" has been taken not because we lack confidence. It is actually because we have great confidence in the interaction of ideas, analysis, and constructive criticism.
As Hyde suggests, Bowdoin is a place where "Art is an intimate friend" and where we are taught to "cooperate with others for common ends." It is also a place where one gains "a standard for the appreciation of others' work and the criticism of your own." I can think of no better guidelines and principles as we move forward with this long overdue project.
And so, as we begin another academic year at Bowdoin, let us resolve to honor and preserve Bowdoin's best traditions, while looking to build new ones that reflect the mission and values of this place. And let us all continue to make genuine the promise of a Bowdoin education expressed in "The Offer of the College." Through adherence to these core traditions, we build on Bowdoin's success and we enhance our reputation as an important place of learning.
I now declare the College to be in session. May it be a year of peace, successes and inspiration for us all, and a recommitment to our most important tradition, teaching and learning.