May 30, 2009
Welcome back to Bowdoin. And to those of you "from away," welcome back to Maine.
It is really an honor for me to stand before you this morning as president of Bowdoin. Like you, I am proud to be an alumnus of this great college.
I've said it many times at these events, but I have to restate that I am enormously proud – as an alumnus who reveres the history and traditions of this college – to have the opportunity to lead Bowdoin over the past eight years. I also admit to being more than a little humbled by the responsibility I have to all of you who feel so deeply for this College and are committed to its future.
I remain confident that with the support of the enormously talented people in this room and the thousands of Bowdoin alumni and friends around the country and world, that together – during our time – we will chart and sustain a course for this college that will ensure its continued excellence.
Again this year, Bowdoin has been the beneficiary of a striking level of generous support from alumni, parents and friends – support that means a great deal financially, but also represents a gratifying level of confidence in the College by people who matter a great deal, and who know Bowdoin best. From alumni who appreciate first-hand the lasting benefits of a Bowdoin education, to friends who see this college as a beacon, to past and present parents who, in addition to meeting the significant costs of educating their daughters and sons here, step forward to do even more.
In a few moments, you will hear about the impressive level of giving by the classes represented in this room today. This is your time to take pride in all that you do for Bowdoin and, through Bowdoin, for higher education in America. And it is a time for us to thank you once again, wholeheartedly, for your vital support.
As you walk around this campus on this beautiful spring weekend in Maine, I hope you also have a sense of pride in your College. Ours is among the most beautiful and historic college campuses in the world. And I am certain that as you stand in the middle of the quad this weekend you will all remember what a special place this is and what it means to you.
What a difference a year makes! Last year we met in a time of optimism and hope. Change was in the air everywhere. Today we meet with the same optimism for the future and excitement about the direction of our country and its future. But, at the same time, we find ourselves in a vastly different economic environment that has created a sense of anxiety and uncertainty for us all.
Bowdoin has seen these times like these , and worse, before. In reading about Bowdoin's past, I encountered this passage from Sills of Bowdoin written by the noted Bowdoin professor, Herbert Ross Brown. President Casey Sills was president of this College from 1918 until 1952.
"Kenneth Sills at first was disposed to regard the market crash in October, 1929, as only another periodic crisis which would mainly affect a lunatic fringe of speculators. In the next few months, however, when every brief rally was punctuated by a violent collapse, he was not entirely reassured by those who kept insisting on the soundness of the national economy. At a faculty meeting in December, he warned of future financial stringency for the college even though Maine was suffering far less than the heavy industrialized states. Department budgets, he said, would have to be cut to the bone."(Sills of Bowdoin, p.261).
Brown continues to write:
"As the shadows of the Depression lengthened in the autumn of 1932, Kenneth Sills told alumni that the state of the nation compelled him to think more seriously than ever of the real purpose of the college. ‘Suppose,' he asked on November 5, ‘that Bowdoin's funds were so far reduced that we had to cut out everything that was unessential—what would be left? One can well imagine a college run without administrative officers, a college could certainly be run without a president…. It would still be a college if there were not athletic fields… When you come right down to the bare necessities of the college you are driven to the conclusion that the college consists of those who teach and those who study together. The essential equipment can be confined to the library and the laboratory, with a few classrooms thrown in for good measure.'"(Sills of Bowdoin, p.264).
The daunting issues facing Casey Sills and Bowdoin three quarters of a century ago help to put our time in perspective, and they remind us of the resiliency of this College. While today's recessionary times are serious, we do not yet find ourselves in the throes of an economic depression of the 1930's dimension, nor do we face the draconian measures contemplated by Sills in 1932. Bowdoin is better positioned to deal with our country's economic issues that at any time in its history. Nonetheless, I do believe we are at a point of fundamental change for colleges and universities in America.
Bowdoin is an endowment-driven school. A Bowdoin education today is expensive—next year our comprehensive fee will cross the $50,000 annual threshold. I can see you all doing the math for what Bowdoin cost when you were here. Yet, the tuition and fees collected by the College account for only 70% of the full cost of a Bowdoin education for each student. The remaining costs are covered principally by income from our endowment and from the annual gifts we receive from alumni, parents, friends, and foundations. It is this additional annual revenue that permits us to provide the full range of educational and residential experiences that our students enjoy. Without these additional funds, Bowdoin would be a significantly different place. Thank you.
For the relatively small number of colleges like Bowdoin that depend on endowment income, this last year has brought both near-term challenges and concerns about the future. Most of these endowments have lost anywhere from twenty to forty percent of their value since last June, resulting in a corresponding drop in available revenue. And while Bowdoin's endowment is, happily, better off than most(with losses at the very low end of that range), we too will see less revenue than we projected for the next two to ten years.
I have written to you all extensively over the last year describing in detail the principles we have applied in meeting these economic challenges, as well as the tactics we have employed to balance our budgets. We have frozen faculty and staff salaries at the College for the next two years, except for very modest increases to our lowest paid employees. These measures and others represent a sense of shared sacrifice among all the members of our community. They also underscore our shared commitment to maintain the excellence of our academic program, the vitality of our residential life experience, the opportunity Bowdoin provides for our faculty and staff , the essential requirement that we maintain our physical plant and the importance of providing financial aid to every student who ought to be at Bowdoin and cannot afford to be here.
The long-term challenge presented to us as leaders of this College is to define excellence for future students, for their parents, for alumni, and for ourselves in a manner somewhat different than what we have experienced in recent years. Simply- the College isn't about the buildings- it is about the people and the education that goes on here.
It is natural for visiting prospective students and their families to marvel at our facilities during campus tours. It is gratifying during Reunion Weekend to speak with alumni about how well the College is doing as they focus on our new buildings. Our renovated art museum is itself a work of art, the Studzinski Recital Hall is an elegant hall for music, our classrooms and dormitories and laboratories are outfitted for the 21st Century. This new hockey rink was opened in January-named for Sid Watson- and is a fantastic place to watch hockey and gather on a cold winters' night. And soon, our new health and fitness center will open—as the fitness center opened in the 90's was too small the day we opened it—health and fitness being important for us all, not only our varsity athletes. All around us are the physical manifestations of tangible progress, and they are easily and naturally identified during brief visits to this remarkable campus. But the essence of what Bowdoin has always done and what we must continue to do is more difficult to observe.
Make no mistake – our new facilities have been built with an eye toward program and education, and we are proud of them. Our museum and recital hall for the arts; our laboratories for the sciences; our libraries for scholarship; our residence halls for community; as well as this hockey rink and our new fitness center for health, wellness, and the lessons of competition. All are vital to our vision of educated citizens in the broadest sense and were constructed and designed intentionally to enhance the mission of this College. We did not build at Bowdoin to participate intentionally in a higher education "arms race," even if we have found ourselves to be active participants in such a race.
The truth is, we at Bowdoin had some catching up to do to meet the challenges of higher education in the 21st century. From our founding until 1990, Bowdoin constructed, acquired, or renovated about 60 projects. Since 1990, with the critical support of alumni, parents, and friends, we have added more than 80 to that number. In doing so, we have positioned Bowdoin extraordinarily well for the future, but we have also inadvertently reinforced as measures of success the addition of acres, square footage, and program.
But, the near term future is not likely to feature the construction of new buildings and magnificent renovations—our economy will not support these efforts. So- how do we as leaders of the College demonstrate to a generation of Bowdoin graduates and future alums that the College continues to aspire with ambition to maintain its place as one of the finest educational institutions in America. It is by refocusing us all on the excellence of this College at its core—the liberal arts model of education, the residential life experience of Bowdoin, the commitment to the Common Good, and the important value at Bowdoin of creating enduring friendships that support and enhance our life.
Sills had it mostly right when he asked those in 1932 to focus on the fundamentals; when he described Bowdoin as a place where the faculty teach and where students study and learn. Today Bowdoin is also a place where faculty create impressive and important scholarly work, do research and artistic work. We are a sophisticated intellectual community engaged passionately in the 21st century. This engaged intellectual community not only benefits our faculty, but directly enhances the education of our students.
In 1932, Bowdoin offered majors in 14 areas of study for approximately 550 students. Last week we awarded degrees to a senior class of 451 students, the members of which could have chosen from more than 40 majors, or may have even designed their own. Like America and the world, Bowdoin is significantly more complex today than it was during the Great Depression. There is no going back to the days of a student, a teacher, and a blackboard-although it does continue in so many ways to be the essence of what we do.
Our College extends far beyond the classroom, and the value of the Bowdoin experience is defined both by the knowledge and skills gained through study and academic exploration, as well as by the relationships created and strengthened during four years of learning and growth in our residential community. This includes everything learned and experienced in residences halls, dining halls, college houses, the myriad of extracurricular activities from the outing club to the a cappella groups and the playing fields.
Given that reality and the very real economic pressures we feel today, how do we reinforce for everyone the excellence of Bowdoin? How do we encourage visitors to notice, and society to validate, what really matters: the successful education of our students and their ability to make a difference in our society? And, the intellectual environment that allows our faculty and staff to thrive.
During the next period, successful colleges and universities will – I believe – be defined not by their architecture or by programs designed to respond to the latest educational fad. Rather, I believe, successful colleges and universities will be defined by their commitment to a central mission and by their ability to make a significant difference in solving the challenges of our world. And, to be more specific, successful colleges and universities will be defined by the people who define the institutions.
Bowdoin will be among these successful colleges and universities because we understand our place in this world—education in the liberal arts model in a residential community committed genuinely to the Common Good. We understand leadership and what it takes to make a difference. Our founders were among those who created America. Our graduates championed equal rights and helped end the Civil War. They guided America through expansion, depression, and two world wars. They have made landmark contributions in the areas of government, business, medicine, the arts, scholarship and education. They have served as leaders in all three branches of the U.S. government, won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, and have created and led innovative businesses that employ thousands.
In order to ensure our place in the world, we will continue to support and enhance our faculty in their teaching, research, scholarship and artistic work because we understand that above all else it is the quality of our faculty that defines the strength of our College.
And, if you had been here last week or if you spend time on this campus during the academic year, you would have had the privilege of experiencing our students—a diverse, talented group of engaged individuals that represent the Bowdoin of today. These students are powerfully bright, exceptionally talented, ambitious and good people. It is essential in defining our future that we all appreciate and value the strength of our students as we remain committed to bring the best, brightest and most talented to Bowdoin. Today we compete with the very best colleges and universities in America for students. The challenge for us is to find our kind of student- a Bowdoin student. They must be acadmically talented enough to go to these other colleges and universities in the Ivies and excellent NESCAC schools, but they must also must meet our standard for a Bowdoin person, possessing the Bowdoin spirit of commitment to being part of a community for four years on campus and forever, in the Bowdoin tradition. And, to ensure our strength as an institution, we must continue to have the will, commitment and resource to support all students who should be at Bowdoin regardless of financial need.
In closing, I urge each of you to put our current economic troubles in constructive perspective.
As Sills knew in his time, and as we recognize still today, it is that constant questioning of our worth that propels us forward. The strain of these economic times has a "silver lining" as it forces us to rebalance and reset our aspirations squarely focused on our mission and principle. As we move into this next period in our history, we do so with pride in our history, with confidence in our abilities and guiding principles, and with the resolve necessary to continue to provide a Bowdoin education to future generations of students and a vibrant intellectual community for our faculty and staff.
I have visited many of you and with other alumni over these past eight years, and I am proud to report that our alumni community continues to display the energy and determination that are required to achieve all that we want and expect for Bowdoin.
Colleges and universities across the country yearn to have an alumni group as talented, as generous, and as enthusiastic as this one. Bowdoin creates and nurtures special relationships with its sons and daughters. We respect and value those relationships and look forward to building even stronger ties with each of you as we advance the mission of this wonderful college.
Karen and I are delighted to have you back on campus with us today, and we look forward to speaking with as many of you as we can this weekend, and to welcoming you again as many times in the future as you are able to return.
Now, enjoy the weekend!
I hope you take time to tour the campus, visit with faculty and staff, and take pleasure in your classmates, family and friends.
I hope you'll revel in some nostalgia for Bowdoin's past, take pride in the Bowdoin of today, and recommit yourselves to our important work together to shape an even stronger Bowdoin of tomorrow.