November 7, 2009
Welcome to Bowdoin.
It is a special pleasure to be with you tonight. The 40th anniversary of the African American Society, the Russwurm Center, and Africana Studies at the College dates too many of us in this room tonight because it feels like yesterday that we were on this campus together.
I see so many people from different generations of Bowdoin in the room. I encourage some of the older folks to get to know our students and recent graduates. It is too easy to project onto them your experience at Bowdoin and your perceptions of the future. As I look around the room I see a young man who wants to be the mayor of Baltimore, a young graduate eager to become the president of a historically black college, and another young graduate eager to become a dean of admissions. These recent graduates of the College have big goals and dreams, and different perceptions of Bowdoin. Get to know them.
Let me begin with a poem by Langston Hughes titled I, Too, Sing America.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
This poem says a great deal to me about our country and about Bowdoin—about our past, about today, and about our future.
We are a great College, but we have not always been great in every way. We know this, and we cannot change our history. We must admire our past when it is great—and there are so many great moments. But we must also own it when the history is less than proud. Let me say squarely that our history has been less than proud over the years when we failed to live up to our commitment to the Common Good by opening the doors of this great College to students who deserved to be here, or when we opened the doors but failed to be hospitable to black, Latino, Asian, Native American, Jewish, or poor students, or to those who were just different from the College’s traditional students. We cannot deny that history, but we can resolve not to be burdened by it in a way that limits us. Many say that history foreshadows the future—or at least that the future rhymes with the past. I am here today to commit to you on behalf of Bowdoin that we have changed, we will change, and we will always be a different place than we have been in our past. Our future will be poetic, but it will not rhyme with the past in terms of who we are.
Bowdoin is about people—not buildings, not curriculum, not even sports. We are about people. We are about the people on our faculty, the people who are our students, and the people who serve on our staff. And Bowdoin is about our alumni, including the people in this room.
We are a different place today. I could quote you all kinds of statistics about our faculty and students and staff that would make you proud of the Bowdoin of today. But I won’t do that, first, because you know these facts and figures after spending time on our campus, and because statistics aren’t what this place is about—it is about people. The people on our campus today aren’t percentages. They are individuals who we value one by one.
I came to Bowdoin in 1968 thanks to the good judgment of Dick Moll, who is here tonight. I arrived as the son of a man who dropped all of his books outside his locker during his sophomore year in high school and never returned, never graduated from high school. My mother went to high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and never dreamed of going to college. But they sent their son to Bowdoin in the fall—as the song goes—and my life was changed forever. Bowdoin is a place of opportunity—a place of privilege for those who get to be here—but not only for those privileged by birth.
Today, Bowdoin must look like America. What we are doing is changing lives of students from across the country—black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, rich, poor, and middle class. Students come to Bowdoin and their lives are changed, and then they change their families and change their communities. This small College in Maine has big effects beyond our quad. I call this the “amplification of Bowdoin,” the virtuous amplification of this great college. We simply should be educating everyone who deserves to be at this College, because it is our responsibility to educate students to change lives. We are genuinely a place that creates opportunity for students of great promise. Bowdoin should not be and cannot be a place that creates this opportunity only for its legacy. We must create a new legacy that reflects opportunity for all in our country, with a special focus on those who can use the opportunity the most and benefit most greatly from it.
What about our faculty? Why come to Bowdoin to teach and study? This question has to be especially difficult for scholars who look at our campus in midcoast Maine and wonder whether this could be the place for them and their families. Bowdoin has changed for these folks too, and midcoast Maine has also changed. At Bowdoin today, we recognize and celebrate bringing excellent faculty here who traditionally wouldn’t think about this College. This isn’t merely because we seek role models for our students, or because we need to have a community of adults to whom our students can turn for advice and trust. I say “merely” not to minimize the importance of these roles. They are critical. But fundamentally, we bring people of diverse backgrounds to Bowdoin to teach and lead because it is the intellectual talent and perspective in their scholarly work that adds to this College in extraordinary ways. And so, it is essential for the intellectual strength of this College that this knowledge be vibrant and that it dominate on our campus, for we are all about education. We would not be a complete intellectual community without that perspective.
We must also be a place where professionals and staff can come to Bowdoin and be valued and respected.
This is the College we are creating: building on our past and looking to our future. But our task is not an easy one. I am reminded of the words of my friend Michael Owens. He and I were walking around the quad together just a few years ago and I was lamenting some setback on the campus when Michael said to me wisely, “There is progress and change, but not every day will be good and there will be setbacks.” The task of leadership is to set the course and remain steadfast in your commitment. As we change Bowdoin, these words ring loudly and often in my mind. But make no mistake. This is a great College and it has never been a stronger place.
Finally, the language of the time must also change. The term, the initiative is important, but within the term there are remnants of history suggesting that there is something special about what we do. I am not a Pollyanna. I know how difficult it can be to recruit some students to come to Bowdoin; to convince some faculty and staff to come to this community. To be successful requires special effort, focus, money, and affirmative action in the most positive and proud tradition. I understand that. But as long as we have to speak about the “diversity initiative,” the target of opportunity, the percent of people of color, we reinforce that something about all of this is special and not timeless—not ordinary. Well, for this time in our history, it is special and new, and does require commitment. But for our future and for our legacy, what we are doing is creating a community where there will be a new normal for Bowdoin—a Bowdoin that represents all of America.
Now, I know that many of you have doubted, for good reason, this College’s sincerity, intentions, and goodwill. And, candidly, some of you have doubted yourselves and whether the commitment to the College was worth it. Some of you have doubted me and whether my commitment is genuine and lasting. To you I say: get committed to Bowdoin and stay committed to Bowdoin because these last nine years at the College are not a “one-time wonder.” Get committed because this is our legacy as we seek to change Bowdoin forever. What we do today is in the bones of this place. Bowdoin has changed—it will change—and the new Bowdoin will just be “our” Bowdoin if we all stay focused, committed, and thoughtful, and if we are true to our conviction: the genuine Common Good of Bowdoin.
Ours is a great College. I encourage you to work with us to ensure this greatness for all into this generation and beyond.