May 25, 2007
We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to begin officially our Commencement activities – the time when we honor and prepare to say farewell to the members of our senior class who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.
It is a time for celebrating all that you – our seniors – have accomplished, and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on Bowdoin’s proud traditions, particularly our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education and our commitment to serving the common good.
There are few academic institutions in this country with the long history of Bowdoin. Ours is a history that dates back to the American Revolution. The strength of this College is in its resolute commitment to the fundamental principles of a liberal arts model of education and our commitment as an institution and as people to the common good. It is our responsibility to adhere to these strengths as stewards of this historic College.
We take seriously this responsibility to maintain and enhance our College. This year we completed the reaccreditation of the College by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. This reaccreditation takes place every ten years and allows the College an opportunity to look back at our successes and to assess our current position. At the very end of the process the reaccreditation board asked me the following question: “In ten years what will the College be focused on? What is the most important long term challenge for Bowdoin?”
I answered without hesitation; it is all about access and affordability. Access and affordability.
Let me give you some facts and connect some dots. The Bowdoin comprehensive fee for next year will be $46,260. I can hear a collective sigh of relief from the parents in the room – thank God this is over and that they are graduating! However, I know there are some in the room with younger sons and daughters who face this reality again at Bowdoin, and we appreciate your commitment to their education. It may not be much comfort, but you should know that our fee is not out of line with the other colleges and universities in our cohort – the Williams, Amhersts, Middleburys, Dartmouths, and Browns of the world. We are all very expensive institutions.
Despite the cost of Bowdoin, this year over 6,000 students applied for admission to the class of 2011, and we were able to accept only 18 percent of these applicants. Our competition for these students were the finest colleges and universities in America: the Ivy League and liberal arts colleges like Williams and Amherst.
So – at these price points and with admissions statistics such as these – what is going on?
Clearly, there is a strong recognition, especially on both coasts of the United States, that a residential liberal arts college provides a fantastic education of the mind and a superb community for young people to mature as one leaves home and before entering the “real world.” A quote from a student at Harvard published recently in The New York Times summed it up: “…if you want great teachers – go to a liberal arts college.” And I would add that these great teachers are also great scholars. At Bowdoin, they are the very same people.
And it is about the American Dream – that hard work and merit will lead to success. There are many financially successful families living the American Dream that want their sons and daughters to come to Bowdoin or other “elite” colleges and universities. Some will say cynically that their goal is to preserve and reinforce privilege for the few in America, or at least for their sons and daughters. Maybe so, for some. But few take their continued success for granted. My experience at Bowdoin tells me that these very fortunate families have important and sensitive aspirations for their children. They want their children to learn and mature in a community of scholars dedicated to teaching and research and in a community of students who are fundamentally good and humble people. I find few who take for granted that their sons and daughters will continue to prosper without hard work and a commitment to the values at Bowdoin that we hold dear. These families create the opportunity for their children to continue the American Dream – but they understand that their sons and daughters must be prepared to apply their talents and every effort to realize that dream. So for these parents in a very uncertain world, Bowdoin is a way for them to help their children on the path for continued success.
And then we have the families who struggle, and struggle mightily, with the cost of education. For these families, creating opportunity means sacrifice, and Bowdoin must do what it can to ease that burden.
As I have said many times, what we seek at Bowdoin are students of talent and promise, and this requires that we have a community here that is diverse in the broadest sense of the word. One would not be able to honor Geoff Canada as we do today – nor would Geoff accept that honor– if we as a community did not work to create opportunity for all who ought to be at Bowdoin, regardless of their family economic circumstance. Bowdoin is a college that creates opportunity, and we have been doing so for more than two centuries. So for these parents and families, Bowdoin is about getting on the pathway for success in our society.
But let’s not delude ourselves, ours is a challenging society. The American Dream has us believing that our children will do better than we have done if they work hard and if we, as parents and family, create opportunity for them. But we know that too often our society fails to create opportunity for all families – especially for the poor and, increasingly, for the “squeezed” middle class. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Clive Crook speaks to this issue and the sad reality that in America, too often poor children stay poor. “Before the 1990’s, he reports, researchers found that 80 percent of children were making more than their parents had made a generation earlier. In the 1990’s, he reports, based on better techniques and data, experts tended to put that figure at about 60 percent, and today estimates run as low as 40 percent.” What that means is that the American Dream has stalled for more than half of the people in America. Whether the trend line is worse, or “the techniques of measurement are just better, Crook’s point is that the American Dream is simply not a given for everyone in America.” As a college committed to the common good, we must do all we can to change this.
As I have said many times there is no more important example of our commitment to the common good than our efforts to create opportunity for talented students regardless of their economic circumstances. At too many elite colleges and universities, first-generation college students, and students from families with lesser financial resources, are viewed as “a risk.” At Bowdoin, we intentionally seek out these students to join us here. Some of you may fit that model, as I did when I came to Bowdoin as a student in the late 1960s.
We understand our capacity to not only change and improve the lives of these students. We also understand that a Bowdoin education can change the lives of these students, and then their families and their entire communities.
The amplification of the common good from this small school in Maine is profound – demonstrated vividly by our honorand Geoff Canada and countless other Bowdoin graduates who through their life’s work – profit or non-profit – have changed so many lives for the better.
So, at Bowdoin, creating opportunity for all talented students regardless of their economic means is our responsibility. I spoke at the outset of our long history and of this commitment that has been our canon since the beginnings of this College. As our first president, Joseph McKeen, said in 1802, “If it be true no man should live for himself alone, 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.”
So we speak at Bowdon of opportunity, but we also continue at Bowdoin in the 21st century to recognize our responsibilities.
Our mission of education is at the heart of opportunity. David Shipler, at the conclusion of his book The Working Poor, writes “Opportunity and poverty in this country cannot be explained by either the American Myth that hard work is a panacea or by the Anti-Myth that the system imprisons the poor. Relief will come, if at all, in an amalgam that recognizes both the society’s obligation through government and business, and the individual’s obligation through labor and family – and the commitment of both society and individual through education.”
And in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois: “there could be no education that was not at once for use in earning a living and for use in living a life.”
To our graduating seniors and to the parents, family, friends and alumni among us, you are here today to celebrate Bowdoin, a college that understands and respects its responsibility to educate and to prepare our so very talented students from across America and the world for “living a life” – living a life committed to learning, wise and thoughtful judgment, and to participation in the life of our society. This is our enduring responsibility: to create opportunity for all through our residential liberal arts education in support of the common good.
Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty. Thank you all for your dedication to your students, to your scholarship, and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the Fall.
To our dedicated and fantastic staff: thank you!
To our graduating seniors, I wish you all the best as you leave Brunswick to begin the next phase of your promising lives. Some of you may not yet know what you’ll be doing next month or next year. But rest assured that in earning a Bowdoin degree you are well prepared for whatever comes next, and for what comes after that.
The only certainty is that your lives will change and then change again. I stand before you as a college president who used to be a corporate lawyer, and before that a biologist.
No one, especially me, could have predicted such a course when I sat where you sit thirty-five years ago. And I am by no means alone. Bowdoin’s alumni rolls are full of people who have moved successfully from one field of endeavor to another as the world has revealed new opportunities and offered new challenges. Each of you is prepared to succeed in the way they have succeeded. We are proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you on the quad tomorrow morning.
Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with “The Offer of the College,” those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:
“……to make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends.”
To the Class of 2007 – you future artists, leaders, statesmen, and stateswomen – to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come, I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.