President's Speeches and Remarks

August 30, 2008

Hello Class of 2012!

I’m Barry Mills, Bowdoin Class of 1972, and the president of the College⎯the 14th president of Bowdoin College.  I’m thrilled to welcome you officially to Bowdoin.  You’ll spend four years on this campus, but you’ll be a member of the Bowdoin family forever.  The people sitting among you will soon become your friends for life.  When you graduate from Bowdoin (which today seems pretty far off), you’ll continue your relationship with the College through alumni club activities, student interviews, the Board of Trustees, reunions, and homecoming and like many of us you could find yourself back here again someday working for the College—who knows, you may one day return as president.  

The first few days and weeks are exciting, challenging and probably a bit scary and intimidating.  All of these emotions are predictable and correct. When I came to Bowdoin as a first year student, I lived on the second floor of Moore Hall.  My very first day I met a fellow who lived in the corner room facing what then was the “cage” and is today Smith Union.  Andy and I have been the best of friends to this day.  So take a breath now your parents are gone, take all of what’s happening in at a peaceful, comprehensible pace, you are meeting and making new friends for a lifetime.

After more than 20 years working in New York, I was drawn back to Bowdoin because of the pride I have as an alumnus; the love I have for the College, its faculty and staff; and the excitement I feel about Bowdoin’s future.  You are an important part of that future, and I look forward to sharing that future with you over the next four years and beyond.

This evening, you're sitting in front of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.    In 2012, we will be back on the Bowdoin quad sitting right where you are now, at Commencement.  You will walk up the stairs of the museum to receive your degrees, but you’ve got a lot of learning, a lot of growing and a lot of living to do in the meantime.  You’ve become a part of a wonderful institution with a great history.  You’ll be a part of its traditions, and you will also forge new ones.

In a couple of days, I’ll see each of you again —though a little closer up— as you formally matriculate at the College by signing your name in the same set of Matriculation Books signed by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Franklin Pierce, Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, George Mitchell and many others.  This will be the first of many symbolic and substantive steps that bind you to the College.

Now as a Bowdoin alum and your president, I promise not to fall into a nostalgic funk and talk about the good old days⎯as my boys would say⎯as an old geezer Bowdoin alum.  Since I’ve been back at Bowdoin, I reinvigorated a tradition that was here when I was here as a student.    Let me quote to you from the handbook⎯a little black book⎯that was sent to my entering class in the summer of 1968.
     
Bowdoin “Hello”⎯In keeping with the democratic traditions of the College, students always speak to one another on the campus and downtown.  In the passing of time, this “Hello” has developed into a genial “Hi.”

So I would this evening⎯officially, confirm the rebirth of the Bowdoin Hello.  Now I know times have changed and people might be cynical, and think this brief encounter less than sincere⎯but making eye contact as you walk across campus and a brief greeting sets the tone for the way we should all interact on this campus.  Students, faculty and staff⎯part of one community that supports and respects each other.  Civility is what we expect as the norm on this campus.  But we must strive for much more⎯we must cooperate with each other, be appreciative of what we do with and for one another and we must celebrate our individual successes and support one another when we fail.  So as of tonight for the Class of 2012⎯the Bowdoin Hello lives!

Up until now college has been your goal.  You’ve worked hard throughout high school, and now you’re finally here.  You’ve gotten great grades, scored high on your SAT’s, done important community service, excelled at athletics, been class leaders, done theater and completed important art works, performed great music.  You are an incredibly accomplished group and we are delighted that you are here.  But now what?  You are entering a new world where there are no checklists of accomplishments to be satisfied.  Not exactly⎯for academic excellence and a passion for learning is what we are about.  As one of my colleagues at the College says⎯“preparing for college is like ‘Mapquest”⎯turn right or left, take this not that subject⎯but college seems a bit like navigating by the stars.”  We are here to help you find your way through the constellations and help you to avoid meteor showers.

You’ve chosen Bowdoin⎯a residential liberal arts college and we are delighted.  Our core⎯our fundamental mission⎯is academic and intellectual excellence that is guided by our dedicated Bowdoin faculty.  Our hope is that you will venture outside of your comfort zone in what you choose to study.  So even if you’re sure you want to be an English major, try a few science courses; if you’re sure you want to study economics, try taking sociology or anthropology.  If you’ve never experienced art or music, take an art history class or a music class.  Try to learn a new foreign language or become more proficient in a foreign language you know a little.  You might find a hidden talent or even a new dream.  But even if you find that your original goals were correct for you, you will have spent some rigorous time thinking and learning in new and different ways and you will be exposed to a different vocabulary.  Understanding how others think about a problem and having a familiarity with the vocabulary is essential especially in a world where things are so rapidly changing and one cannot predict the issues of the future.

George Mitchell, Class of 1954, wanted to teach history.  Instead he is in the world making history first, as a Senator from the great State of Maine, and  as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East.  When I left here, I was going to be a biologist.  I got my Ph.D. degree in biology and then decided to change careers; I became a lawyer with the original intent to marry science and law.  I didn’t actually do that and spent many years as a corporate lawyer.  Now I'm a college president.  The point is, your aspirations may change, and this education will provide you with the analytical tools to evaluate, and the ability to communicate and interpret complicated concepts for whatever your future holds.

Once you have explored our curriculum and have identified your area or areas of interest⎯make sure you take full advantage of Bowdoin and of your own minds.  Challenge your professors, challenge yourselves, think and write about your area of interest in the most rigorous and thoughtful manner.  It is those extra moments where you rigorously and passionately attack an issue or a problem that you begin to understand what it means to critically and thoughtfully approach a topic with insight, perspective and judgment.  We strive for excellence here at Bowdoin⎯it is our gold standard!  There are many, many of us on the administrative staff at Bowdoin who are here to assist you.  Residential life leaders, student affairs deans, coaches⎯even presidents.  We can all be very helpful and are ready, willing and able to do so.

It isn’t obvious or natural to understand how and when to ask a professor or frankly, anyone for help.  Some of you may be shy, some may be afraid of admitting that you don’t understand or are merely a bit confused about something the professor said⎯some may just not know how to ask for help.  Please be assured that the professors are eager to help to clarify, to work with you as individuals and that it is much better to get on the right track early.  College is new for everyone here.  Going to a professor for advice and guidance will reward you in more ways than you know and it isn’t only about making the relationships if you are having a problem or issue.  Creating lasting relationships is an opportunity for all and is what Bowdoin is about.  You may find yourself doing better in the class, and you might find yourself with a new friend as well.

Professors are at Bowdoin because they are passionate about teaching and they care about students.  Forging friendships with professors will be one of your greatest rewards, and when you’ve found a professor you admire and topic you are passionate about—design an independent study project.  As Bowdoin students, you have the chance to perform and research and do scholarly work at the elbow of our faculty⎯it is one opportunity to do the rigorous, in depth thinking I talked about earlier.  Many students find their independent study projects to be one of the most rewarding parts of their Bowdoin experience.  Working in a lab here at Bowdoin in my senior year is what led me to graduate school in biology.

Now let’s talk a bit about our culture⎯a pluralistic environment designed to be by its nature inclusive.  Every one of you has unique talents and every one of you has a unique past. You deserve respect for your achievements, and we expect you to respect others.   Some of you are from advantaged families, others aren’t.  Some of you have relatives who went to Bowdoin, others don’t.  Some of you can paint, some can sing, some can skate, some are liberal, some conservative.  For some, English is not your first language; for others, you’ve never been outside of Maine and for some of you, this is your first time in Maine.  You share at least two important things in common which will allow you to bridge the differences in your backgrounds and interests. You can all learn from each other, and you all have something to teach.  Second, you have a shared value⎯demonstrated by being here at Bowdoin tonight⎯a desire to learn and to open your minds to the pleasure of learning.

Bowdoin is in many ways a unique experience.  In some ways, one could say that our residential liberal arts model is artificial.  Never again will you come to a place to live where someone else chose your 1700 neighbors and says live together.  If you are open minded, kind and respectful you will learn an immense amount from your new friends about their customs, the way they think, what they believe and what is important to them.

I am not a pollyanna⎯you will not always agree with everything you hear or see⎯but respectful disagreement; respectful questioning and challenging, respectful listening and communication is what we are about.  This means real engagement with each other—not “politically correct” platitudes.  You are here to become part of this community in an engaged and serious manner.

We also expect that you will respect the people who work at this College.  From the housekeeping staff, to the food service people, to the athletic trainer⎯these people care about you and have committed their working lives to serve Bowdoin and they make the place work.  They deserve our respect.

A word about the Bowdoin Honor Code and Social Code.  At Bowdoin, we don’t have many rules⎯this is a place based on developing leaders and self-reliance.  But we will expect, and demand, that you uphold our Honor Code and Social Code.  The rules are pretty simple⎯do your work on your own⎯be careful, very careful that the material you find on the internet doesn’t find its way inappropriately into your papers.  On the social code⎯respect each other⎯under no circumstances can we condone or permit violence (either verbal or physical) to another person or destruction of personal property.  Read the Honor Code and Social Code so that there is no confusion.  I wish I didn’t have to mention this tonight but every year we have a number of unfortunate incidents where a momentary lapse of judgment has lasting effects.

Finally, two ideals are at the heart and soul of Bowdoin College.  This is Bowdoin lore that I must share with you tonight.  One is the importance of the Common Good and the other is the Offer of the College.  

Bowdoin's first president, Joseph McKeen, established the ideal of service to the Common Good as a guiding principle for Bowdoin.  “Literary institutions,” he said, “are founded and endowed for the Common Good and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”  One of the best ways to live out this ideal is community service.  Nearly three-quarters of Bowdoin students are involved in community service in some way.  Each fall on Common Good Day, the entire college community is encouraged to come together to work on service projects throughout our local area.  This year Common Good Day is September 20, and I hope you'll all participate.  But don't limit your involvement with the community around you to one day a year.  The College has a limitless number of student-run volunteer programs and partnerships with more than two dozen of the nonprofit organizations in the greater Brunswick community.  Bowdoin students tutor local school children, visit with the elderly, help with local arts events.  Whatever your particular talent, there is a way you can put it to use in the Brunswick area, and there is work to do nationally and globally.  Find other ways to get to know Brunswick as well: visit local businesses and restaurants, stroll down to the mall for shopping at the farmer's market or skating on the ice rink, or be a part of the host family program.  Your time at Bowdoin will be all the more valuable if you remember that the College is a part of a town, and there is much to be learned beyond the gates of the campus.

Our other institutional canon, "The Offer of the College," is adapted from a passage written by William DeWitt Hyde, Bowdoin's seventh president.  He wrote:

TO BE AT HOME in all lands and all ages;
To count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
And Art an intimate friend;
To gain a standard for the appreciation of others’ work
And the criticism of your own;
To carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
To make hosts of friends...
Who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
To lose yourself in generous enthusiasms
And cooperate with others for common ends —
This is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.

This, my new friends, is now Bowdoin.  

Two final thoughts⎯I look forward to getting to know each of you.

Have fun!  Enjoy.  This will be a great adventure!