President's Speeches and Remarks

August 29, 2007

Good afternoon. It is my honor to preside at the official opening of the 206th academic year of Bowdoin College.

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 2011. 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.
 
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 academic freedom at Bowdoin, our environmental initiatives, and how all the construction and renovation on campus has been in support of our academic program – the core of our mission as a college. On this last point, I am very pleased to report that, thankfully, most of these projects are complete or nearly complete, and that our central campus is almost back to the peace and tranquility that was necessarily suspended as we improved, preserved, and expanded our facilities.
 
Today, as we welcome the Class of 2011, I want to take some time to underscore a long-held belief on this campus that a Bowdoin education is, at its best, used by those who attain it in service to the common good  and to describe the ways in which this belief has evolved at our college.  
 
The origins of our common good tradition are well known to generations of Bowdoin students and will soon be familiar to the newest members of our community.

At his inauguration in 1802, Bowdoin’s first president, the Rev. Joseph Mckeen, noted 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. 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.”
 
McKeen’s expression of the common good was a well-known philosophy at the beginning of the 19th century, fully ingrained in the religious, political, and philosophical discourse of the day.

Although McKeen does not mention George Washington, the concept of the common good was an important theme in Washington’s farewell address of 1796. It was also a centerpiece of de Tocqueville’s second volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840. In fact, as Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood has noted, “…no phrase except ‘liberty’ was invoked more often by Revolutionaries than ‘the public good.’”

So while neither McKeen nor Bowdoin can claim originality, our college can and rightfully does claim a long and enduring association with the value of service to the common good. While others may have moved from one philosophy of education to another in search of an identity, Bowdoin has remained steadfast in its adherence to this fundamental principle.

This is not to say that our definition of the common good has remained as McKeen understood it in his day. Throughout our history – through wars, economic hardship, and social upheaval – Bowdoin’s leaders and our students have redefined this notion of service.

Like other early colleges, Bowdoin’s earliest mission was to produce learned clergymen and teachers. This was central to McKeen’s notion of service to the common good.

Later, for many, the common good included the preservation of the Union and the abolishment of slavery, as a larger percentage of Bowdoin alumni fought for the Union than any other northern college.

In the 20th century, our notion of the common good continued to evolve.  Bowdoin’s eighth president, Casey Sills, served from 1918 to 1952, (a prodigious tenure of 34 years that you will be relieved to know I do not care to emulate, despite my deep love for Bowdoin!).

For Sills, for the faculty, and for others of the period, the common good took the form of local leadership, with the president of the College establishing himself as a pillar of the community and a familiar moral presence in Brunswick. And for Sills it included consideration of national issues as he led this College through the period of two world wars and the Great Depression.  As Herbert Ross Brown, a well-known professor of English at Bowdoin wrote of Sills, the “public good seemed to stand cap in hand at the Kenneth Sills front door every morning.”

Later, as our nation convulsed amid the struggle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Bowdoin students took it upon themselves to educate each other and to demand action.

It was a group of students who brought Dr. Martin Luther King to campus in the spring of 1964, and it was students who organized a general strike six years later in protest over the shootings at Kent State and the continued fighting in Vietnam. I was a student here then, and I can tell you that our concept of the common good was squarely behind the challenges we issued to one another and to the conventional wisdom of the day.  However, the words the common good were not as my classmates remember part of the Bowdoin vernacular or discussed generally as College canon.

A decade or so later, the common good would evolve further at Bowdoin. In 1985, Roy Greason – the 12th president of our College – spoke about Bowdoin and the common good in a talk delivered in Brunswick to the Newcomen Society of the United States. He described the longstanding commitment of the College to the common good and then posed questions probably on the minds of those in attendance:
 
“How does a college set about giving its students a sense of the role it envisions for them? How does it inspire concern for the common good? Certainly not by a president pontificating. It can command the ear of its students only by realizing in its own policies the values it would have students realize in their lives.”   
 
To further illustrate his point, President Greason described Bowdoin’s commitment to Upward Bound and student aid, to the volunteer organizations on campus, and to the work of our faculty and staff as leaders in the community.

This expression by President Greason of the manifold ways this College supported the common good foreshadows where Bowdoin is today.
 
As I think about the common good at Bowdoin in 2007, I see profound evidence that the charge of our founders is alive and well.

I see it in the opportunity created at Bowdoin for talented students from all walks of life; students of great promise who would not be able to be here without our commitment to admit qualified students regardless of their economic circumstance.   Today we have more students receiving financial assistance to attend Bowdoin than at any time in our history, and we rank at the highest level of colleges in America in creating opportunity for talented students from the lowest economic brackets in America, far exceeding much wealthier universities in the Ivy League and wealthier liberal arts colleges considered among our peers. This is possible only because of the shared values between faculty, staff, students, and hundreds of alumni, parents, and friends who support Bowdoin and this priority.

I also see evidence of the common good in the work of hundreds of students, faculty, and staff who have made community service locally, nationally and internationally,  the envy of colleges across America. Susie Dorn deserves enormous credit for enabling us to “supersize” these efforts. This is not service dictated by professors, presidents, or student leaders. Unlike other well-meaning colleges that are creating programs to improve local relations or to enhance their own surroundings, community service at Bowdoin bubbles up from individuals – from students, faculty, and staff who recognize a need, assume responsibility as citizens, and combine enthusiasm, imagination, and effort in service to others.

I see evidence of the common good in the lively debates that take place at Bowdoin on issues of the day, and in the positions taken by the College on matters that affect us all. Whether it be genocide in Darfur, sexual equality in Maine, or funding for local schools, members of the Bowdoin community are not shy about investigating the facts, debating different points of view, and taking a stand when it matters.

And I see evidence of the common good in the growing concern about climate change and in our work together within the academic program and within our operations to establish Bowdoin as an institutional leader in efforts to protect our environment. At Commencement in May, we announced Bowdoin’s participation in the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging to reduce sharply and eventually eliminate all of our global warming emissions. This fall, we will begin planning for this effort with leadership, engagement and ideas from across our campus.

So, we have much to say about the common good at Bowdoin today. And yet, despite all of this evidence and all of our history, there remain many among us who yearn for a clearer definition of what we intend by our often stated commitment to the common good. Some even believe that it is high time that we “brand” ourselves and the common good around some vital issue like the elimination of poverty or the preservation of our environment.

From my perspective, our history shows that Bowdoin’s commitment to the common good is much too broad to be attached to or focused on a single issue, even vitally important substantive issues like these. Rather, I believe our commitment to the common good is essentially about our shared values – the “common” part of the common good. They are values deeply rooted in education and in the primacy of our academic program.

Let’s go back to McKeen’s formulation. He had it right over 200 years ago. Our commitment to the common good is about preparing students through education to become productive members of society – as McKeen said, to improve “…their mental powers for the benefit of society.” In this sense, our most important work on behalf of the common good takes place right here – in our classrooms, labs, theaters, and studios. It exists in the work of educating our students within the liberal arts model – of shaping open and sophisticated minds capable of critical thinking, analysis, and a lifetime of learning.

Too many in our society are absolutely certain about what they believe and advocate, but often live in a fact-free zone. What we do so well here is to teach our students and ourselves how to learn, think, analyze, write, and communicate generally. We arm them and us with the tools and facts to understand science, economics, history, art, mathematics, philosophy, sociology and on and on – the tools and facts necessary to truly examine an issue and to stake out a thoughtful, educated and informed position for the common good. This is, and always has been, our fundamental strength.

And so friends, our shared enterprise of learning is at the core of our commitment to the Common Good.  And this commitment to learning is a responsibility of everyone in the hall today and throughout the Bowdoin community.  

Today – we are poised to write the newest chapter in Bowdoin’s proud common good narrative as we prepare to open the new McKeen Center for the Common Good. For future generations at Bowdoin, the establishment of this new center – which is not a building or facility, but rather an organization directly focused on this important mission of Bowdoin – will represent a new marker in the evolution of the Common Good at Bowdoin. With its creation, we will have an exceptional opportunity to refine for this generation what we mean when we talk and live the common good. As we do so, we will need to be careful to ensure that our enthusiasm for and devotion to service remains within the realm of learning and service, rather than straying into advocacy, real or perceived,  for one cause or another by the College as an institution. We must remember that the College is not a political convention; we are about education.  We are neither a social service agency nor should we seek generally to become an indispensable extension of the organizations we support through our service.

As individuals, we are and should be passionately involved in the life of our world, our country, our community, and our town. There are instances where it is entirely appropriate for the College to stake out a College position on an issue because of our commitment to values inherent in the common good – as we did recently on Darfur, or years ago on apartheid. But we must be vigilant to protect our place in society as an educational institution. To do otherwise could place at risk the academic freedom and independence we hold as another hallmark of this College.

I have no doubt that the new McKeen Center for the Common Good – to be led by Craig McEwen and Susie Dorn – will become a centerpiece of this College. We celebrate their dedication to this endeavor in support of the common good. And we celebrate all of the students, faculty, staff and alumni, parents and friends involved in this effort.

As we begin this new academic year, we can also celebrate each other. Each of us here is a participant in a noble entrerprise: we are the current guardians of the liberal arts tradition and the latest generation to take up a treasured Bowdoin obligation: our unique obligation to exert our minds and our talents in service to the common good.

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.