President's Speeches and Remarks

October 30, 2009

Good afternoon. I'm Barry Mills, president of the College. It's a pleasure to welcome faculty, staff, students, parents, family members, and friends to these exercises where we will recognize students who have distinguished themselves as Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars and have earned other important academic distinction over the past year. I offer a special welcome to those of you who have earned these important distinctions. All of us are proud of you and your achievements, and I look forward to congratulating each of you.

Our recognition of Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars goes back more than sixty years to 1941. The College was all men in those days and that this day was originally named exclusively for James Bowdoin III. In 1997, the College, by faculty vote, determined that it was appropriate to reestablish this tradition in the name of James Bowdoin and Sarah, his wife, certainly partially in recognition of the fact that the College is a place where men and women from across the United States and the world come as students and faculty to study, teach, and learn.

A brief history lesson (with apologies to repeat participants in this ceremony):

The Honorable James Bowdoin III lived from 1752 until 1811. He was the son of James Bowdoin II, for whom the College is named. The father—James II—was a Revolutionary War hero well remembered for his role in putting down Shay's Rebellion who was later twice elected governor of Massachusetts. He was a very successful entrepreneur, especially in maritime business dealings and as a member of the elite business society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—which, in those days, included the District of Maine.  James II—who along with John Adams, John Hancock, and others founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—was also a man with a profound interest in learning. When visiting Boston, you can find Governor Bowdoin’s grave in the Granary cemetery on Tremont Street near the Parker House Hotel.

Let's just say that his son, James III, known as Jemmy, was—as sons can sometimes be—more of a free spirit than his father. Less the serious student and businessman and more one of America’s first connoisseurs of life, culture, and politics, both in the Americas and abroad. During his lifetime, he acquired a substantial library, a significant art collection, and an impressive array of scientific materials, for which we at the College are the inheritors. His art collection was the genesis of the art treasures still accessible to us all within the walls of our glorious Walker Art Building. In 1794, it was $1,000 and 1,000 acres of land from this generous diplomat, agriculturist, and art collector that started us off on our noble mission.

Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn traveled to London and Paris from 1805 and 1808 with James III when James served with President Jefferson in Europe. The Bowdoins operated out of Paris, and Sarah kept a journal (which can be found in Special Collections here at Bowdoin) documenting the daily life of the family. Sarah and James, it appears, flourished in this community, entertaining Americans living in Paris and important friends of America. Sarah's journal indicates that she was very much involved in the collecting life of the couple and we therefore also owe her a deep debt of gratitude for the treasures we have inherited at the College. In fact, one of the deeds transferring the lands of the College from the Bowdoin family to the president and trustees of the College, dated January 7, 1795, was signed by both James and Sarah Bowdoin.

So, today we remember our founders and meet to celebrate and congratulate the Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars sitting among us. The scholars among us are Bowdoin students who, in the prior academic year, achieved a grade point average in their course of study that places them in the top 20% of the class. That's not an easy thing to accomplish. It takes hard work and dedication, for which each of these students and each parent and family member can and should be particularly proud.

This sense of pride is shared by the College because these young men and women represent what Bowdoin is all about.  The College has been blessed with a talented faculty and the resources to provide an enormous range of learning opportunities for our students, whether in the classroom, residence hall, athletic field, studio, laboratory, or library. But we intentionally make relatively few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. Our students are eager participants in this College’s great liberal arts tradition and the students among us today are intentional and purposeful in the pursuit of academic excellence that is at our core.

Achievement of good grades at Bowdoin is the metric we have used to identify our Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars for many years. It is a worthwhile metric, and you should be proud of your achievements. But the metric of good grades alone does not tell the whole story about the talented men and women we celebrate today—these students are much more than their grade point averages.

Over the past year I corresponded with a student who remarked that these exercises miss the point of Bowdoin because we are here recognizing students who merely have received good grades at the College. And, she remarked that there are hundreds of talented students doing impressive work on campus who are not recognized today. I am sympathetic to this perspective. Achievement at Bowdoin is not only about GPA, nor should it be. Bowdoin is a great college and there are so many students in our community who are doing impressive work in the studio, in the field, on the dance floor, in our labs, in Studs Hall, in the library, and throughout our community in its entire sense. We take pride in all who achieve at Bowdoin.

Nonetheless, I continue to believe that these exercises are important for Bowdoin. For it must be the case at Bowdoin that good grades mean more than a reward for hard work. This achievement represents recognition by our faculty that the students sitting among us understand and analyze their studies in complex, serious, and rigorous ways. Our recognition today is premised on the assumption that the students sitting among us did not achieve these grades cynically just to get grades for the next step in life. This is recognition that good grades at Bowdoin reflect a seriousness of purpose, a commitment to learn, a subtlety of mind, and the tenacity to achieve.

 I recently had the pleasure of visiting with an accomplished scientist at a research university and we spoke about the importance of a liberal arts education. We talked about what our goals should be for our students. We agreed that the defining characteristic of our best students is that through their education at Bowdoin they become “fearless” learners—learners who are fearless and unafraid of new ideas and new concepts; learners who are unafraid of questioning “conventional wisdom;” learners who are fearless in the face of complex technology; learners who are fearless when they listen to a symphony, or enter the Bowdoin Museum of Art.  

And as I mention the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, I invite you all to visit this museum this weekend—it restores the soul.

Thank you, and congratulations to the students for their accomplishments we celebrate today.