Convocation 2012 Address

August 29, 2012

Good afternoon. It is my honor to preside at the official opening of the 211th 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 2016. I am delighted that so many members of our impressive first-year class have come to celebrate with us. During the past couple of days, I have had the opportunity to greet and chat briefly with each of you, and to watch you join the generations of students before you who have begun their Bowdoin careers by signing our Matriculation Book. I can confidently say to our faculty and staff that the Class of 2016 is energetic, serious, and talented, and that its members are clearly ready for all that Bowdoin has to offer. I know they will make important and lasting contributions to the College 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 past, I have used this forum to discuss the centrality of the arts in the liberal arts, academic freedom, sustainability, the fundamental importance of financial aid, issues of race and socioeconomic class, and the role of technology in education, among other issues.

Today, as we begin this new academic year, I will address a growing debate about our form of education in a society clamoring for innovation and entrepreneurial training.

My wife, Karen, who is the Administrator of the Small Business Administration for the United States, appeared on CNBC this summer as part of a panel that included venture capital entrepreneurs and other impressive people who have started successful businesses. Karen was fantastic in her support of small business and had a number of valuable things to say about how we can invigorate this innovative sector of our economy, but the conversation turned energetically to one important theme: the failure of our educational system to adequately prepare students to be entrepreneurs and to innovate.

The sentiment expressed that day—a sentiment that challenges the relevance of our educational institutions—is not an isolated incident, nor should it be. College is expensive. In many cases, students and families take on enormous debt. And the job market is, at best, difficult. Although Bowdoin students are graduating with no debt or in some cases, reasonable debt, and much better job prospects, we are still subject to this skepticism, and we must be able to explain and enthusiastically promote our model of education.

On Saturday, from the steps of the Walker Art Building, Dean Lohman, Dean Meiklejohn, and I welcomed the Class of 2016 to Bowdoin. Dean Meiklejohn used the occasion to remark on the exceptional talent, accomplishments, and diversity of this impressive class. But he failed to identify the three students who were offered $100,000 each NOT to attend college because of their groundbreaking business ideas and entrepreneurial promise. No, I am only kidding to make a point—there aren’t any students in the class who received that offer, but there are some students in the Class of 2016 with that level of entrepreneurial promise—students who made the right decision to attend Bowdoin.

The media publicizes a “twenty-under-twenty” list of young people who will change America, and then asks why any of these students would ever waste their time going to college—what could higher education possibly offer them, given all their talent and promise? My answer is that we can educate these people to be more than entrepreneurs. We can educate them for a life of learning and we can allow them to experience the Offer of the College. What we face is a relatively new angle on the debate over the relevance and importance of education: that we aren’t ensuring higher education’s place as an important driver of our economy or our society because what happens on college campuses today doesn’t prepare students to be important participants in the imperative our Country faces to innovate.

Colleges and universities across America are responding aggressively to what is described as a new challenge for education: to train and graduate a new generation of successful entrepreneurs. Many are meeting this challenge in ways that are appropriate for their institutions. Curricular-based programs focus on innovation and entrepreneurial skills. Extracurricular programs are created allowing students to put their enthusiasm for new ideas and business to practical effect. There are so many centers of entrepreneurial studies at universities today that it is hard to exaggerate how widely this theme has been adopted throughout the educational landscape. There are leading universities in America that are actually in the process of redefining their mission in order to adopt the goal of creating entrepreneurs and innovators as their “brand.” And it probably won’t surprise you that alumni of these colleges and universities are supporting these efforts very generously.

So, the obvious question for us today is to ask what all of this mean to the liberal arts sector? And even more relevant, what does it mean for Bowdoin?

These new initiatives have been “incubating” (an innovation term) at colleges and universities for a number of years. I have raised the issue often with the President’s Visiting Committee—a group of alumni and parents with whom I meet annually and who are deeply connected and committed to the College. I find it interesting that every time I raise this specific issue with this group— a group whose composition has changed often over the past 11 years —nearly everyone has been skeptical of these new initiatives as applied to Bowdoin and confident in the value and relevance of our form of liberal arts education.

Last winter, at a retreat held by the Bowdoin Board of Trustees, we discussed in some detail the changes going on at other institutions around entrepreneurial curriculum and extracurricular initiatives. The discussion was largely focused on sharing information, rather than a call to action, and while the trustees may have been enthusiastic about the activity at some colleges and universities, the group as a whole expressed confidence in our form of liberal arts education as the very best way for us to educate in the broadest sense a new generation of innovative leaders. And this conclusion—by the way—comes from a group of women and men that includes a significant number of highly successful entrepreneurs and innovators.

I have now had the opportunity to reflect on these conversations and I would like to share some thoughts with you today. I have concluded that—with perhaps one important shift in focus that I will describe in a moment—for generations of Bowdoin students, what we teach and stand for as a liberal arts institution, and particularly as a residential liberal arts college, can be fundamental to a person who seeks to become a successful innovator.

So what does it take to innovate and why does a liberal arts education at Bowdoin matter in this context. First, to innovate and build something new or different, one actually needs to know something substantive. By emphasizing knowledge, I do not merely refer to the facts or formulas. Rather, I mean to underscore underlying concepts and the ability to manipulate them. This knowledge comes from a solid grounding in substance, but equally important, it comes from questioning, challenging, defending, writing, and articulating your own ideas while challenging and questioning the ideas of others. This is at the heart of what we do throughout our disciplines and programs. Our faculty can certainly teach you the facts and figures, but you will not have actually learned unless you spend time rigorously and intentionally challenging your teachers, your fellow students, and yourself in those laboratories, dance studios, art and music classes, and in each and every classroom at Bowdoin. This opportunity to challenge is also at the heart of why we must continue to diversify our faculty and our curriculum so that different approaches and viewpoints are alive and encouraged here at Bowdoin.

So, for example, why do the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences matter in this race toward innovation? They matter because in order to imagine what might be, successful entrepreneurs need to understand the world as it once was and how it is today. They need to understand art, form and function. We know—as do our most successful alumni—that knowledge about the human condition and the human environment is fundamental. It is difficult to imagine and lead—and being an entrepreneur requires an ability to imagine and lead—without understanding where we have been and why. Moreover, as the world has become global, we will all be required to work with and live among people who are different from us. That’s why Bowdoin’s commitment to understanding social difference is fundamental to success. A hallmark of our entrepreneurial nation has been and will continue to be grounded in the diversity of folks leading innovation.

Success as an entrepreneur requires the ability to work with others, to lead, inspire, empathize, exhibit compassion, and when necessary, demonstrate toughness and the ability to make a decision. These skills are developed in the classrooms throughout our College, but also on the playing fields (entrepreneurship also involves wanting and knowing how to compete and to win), and in each and every student-led club and activity here on this campus. The entrepreneurial spirit must also experience failure and the ability to readjust, and these are lessons we teach here at Bowdoin (although, hopefully, not too often on the playing fields). Innovation is often as much about failure as it about brilliant success.

One would hope that there is also an important association between innovation, entrepreneurship, and the Common Good. In fact, four years at Bowdoin learning and living this shared value is, in my view, critically important for the future of our Country and for our economy. Clearly, shareholder value is fundamentally important when considering the success of a venture, but how that venture interacts with its customers, employees, and competitors is also recognized today as vital to the success of the venture and to our success nationally. The entrepreneurial efforts of our students in their actions through the Center for the Common Good demonstrate on a daily basis a deep and resolute commitment to social entrepreneurship. These same skills in the future will be invaluable in whatever career these students choose.

So, the message I wish to leave you with today is that the residential liberal arts model of education represented here at Bowdoin is specially suited and appropriate for the growth of young entrepreneurs and innovators—as it has been for a very long time. We at Bowdoin should resist those who suggest our form of education is obsolete and not responsive to the needs of our students or society. From my perspective, what we teach and how we teach it is entirely appropriate to meet the challenges facing both.

Our students are here to take full advantage of all that Bowdoin has to offer. In doing so, you will gain much of the knowledge and life experience necessary at a young age to embark on the life of an entrepreneur. And don’t be fooled. Even if you have no intention of becoming an entrepreneur, you will benefit as an innovator from the depth and scope of what Bowdoin has to offer. For every doctor, lawyer, accountant, investment banker, hedge fund investor, artist, environmentalist, or policy wonk—in any and every field that requires excellence for success at the highest levels in today’s society—you must be able to innovate.

And so, my advice is to get your education at Bowdoin. It’s all well and good to start a food truck or spend your time building apps commercially during the academic year, but get your education at Bowdoin. You only go to College once. These four years are the opportunity of a lifetime. Make the most of them and you will be well prepared for the future.

How do I know? I know because I know about the people who have come before you. Reed Hastings, Geoff Canada, Lilli Gordon, Gerald Chertavian, Ellen Baxter, Andy Palmer, John McQuillan, Ruthie Davis, Ken Chenault, Austin Branson and Peter Carter, Carl Barron, Peter Buck, Sara Holby, Peter Eichlaey, Thomas Hubbard and countless others. These are men and women who earned degrees from this residential liberal arts college and who exemplify the entrepreneurial spirit born from an education of breadth and substance, not narrow specialization. There are thousands of alumni who have created businesses and been important innovators—the idea that this concept is foreign or new to Bowdoin is fundamentally misplaced.

All that being said, we can always do more and be better. I mentioned earlier that there is at least one area where an important shift in focus could strengthen Bowdoin and the preparation of our students. An essential component of the entrepreneurial spirit is developing the ability and the “stomach” to take risk. And, as an institution we could do much more to create the aspirations for our graduates to take jobs and opportunities on a path that is not so well travelled and to understand that innovators from Bowdoin have made those choices in the past and are out there to support them. Our students need to understand the value in taking risk and we must do more to catalyze their aspirations to take risk at Bowdoin and when they leave for their working lives.

For students while at Bowdoin, that can mean taking courses in areas of interest even if there’s no guarantee that you’ll get an A. It might also mean diving into an extracurricular activity that is unfamiliar or even completely foreign. Who knows, you might just discover a new passion.

For faculty, it means trying new means of pedagogy or thinking about your discipline in different ways.

For administrators and staff, it means experimenting to make the College operate even better and more efficiently. Innovation is about risk, and by nature, ours is not a community steeped in risk.

To get better, we must be willing to fail and we must be able to adjust. Educational institutions are not good at recognizing, or maybe, admitting failure. Failing is not what we aspire to, but sometimes it can help us get better if we are willing to face up to the reality of the situation. Real success from innovation is grounded in one’s ability to deal with failure and to learn from it; to turn failure and risk from something to be feared into an experience one is willing to internalize and then use toward improvement.

So how do we proceed? I believe we must be prepared to take our lead from students as they develop extracurricular opportunities. We have to allow them to lead this effort and we have to support them. We should also be sure that our students recognize and are familiar with all of the success stories out there represented by the Bowdoin alumni and parent network. That network of successful entrepreneurs should be visiting campus to educate our students about the myriad opportunities available to them—not just the technology folks, but all of our alumni who have created businesses or nonprofits, or who changed the way traditional business or nonprofits go about their work, for that is innovation too.

We should work to create more internships during the summer and during college breaks, so that students are able to find work in places that foster innovation and develop their spirit. And we should create a network of alumni parents and friends who would be willing to work as advisors and maybe “angels” (a venture capital term) both for our students and for our graduates who are out there struggling with the next best idea.

All of these folks should be involved in creating aspirations and opportunity for our students, but at the same time these folks should have the confidence in Bowdoin, our liberal arts tradition, and the results we have produced for generations to allow our students to get the most out of Bowdoin during their four years on this campus.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows us that the Mills family believes fervently in the power of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit. I am the son of a consummate entrepreneur who had little high school and no college education, but who built a number of small businesses during his career. Karen is the granddaughter of two people who built substantial companies from small businesses and whose family has continued this tradition. Karen has spent the last three-and-a-half years committed to helping small business thrive in America. And in my time at Bowdoin, we have all participated in the power of innovation and entrepreneurial risk as we have made significant improvements at the College.

Candidly, nothing could have been more risky and innovative for Bowdoin then when I was installed as president of this College eleven years ago (as some of the faculty sitting before you can attest). The College took a risk on a corporate lawyer—a person devoted to Bowdoin, but with no experience as a college administrator. History will determine whether it was successful, but no one can deny that Bowdoin stands today in a very good place. The point is that while I believe in my bones in the power of innovation, I also believe passionately in the value of a Bowdoin education. These are four years that prepare young men and women to be leaders in all walks of life—it is an experience that develops lifelong learners in a rapidly changing world, a world that includes innovators and entrepreneurs of the highest order. As we open our 211th academic year, let us resolve to innovate right here at Bowdoin and to improve the education we provide for this generation and the many generations to come. Let us also remain confident in our College and our form of education and steadfastly work together to preserve and enhance this education for our students today and into the future.

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.