Portrait of a Presidency

By Interview by Scott Hood for Bowdoin Magazine

With just a few months to go as Bowdoin’s fifteenth president, Clayton Rose reflects on eight years of growth and progress at the College, the challenges and joys of leadership in times of tumult, and why now is the time to step aside.


BOWDOIN: In your time as president, what’s changed at Bowdoin, what’s the same, and what are you most proud of?

ROSE: I’ll start with what’s the same. We deliver an outstanding liberal arts education. We prepare our students to be leaders in a changing world. Our faculty and staff are devoted to our students and dedicated to the mission of the College. Our alumni are fantastic in the way they support the College and one another. And the values of treating one another with respect, of kindness, of collaboration, of the notion that there is an obligation that extends beyond ourselves because we’re privileged to be here— all of that is the same.

For change, I think the broad Bowdoin community—alumni, parents, faculty, staff, students—has a better collective sense of the big social and cultural issues that affect the College and the world. That’s probably the biggest change. A better understanding. Not that everybody agrees. In fact, it stirs the waters more, but a more transparent understanding of the cultural and social issues as they play out on campus.

What am I most proud of? There’s a lot—it’s not about me, though, because so many people are involved. We’ve improved and expanded financial aid, strengthened the academic and curricular programs, and we’ve made real progress—with a lot more to do—on building a community where everyone has the opportunity to belong, to know they belong, and to pursue the same successes, outcomes, and lived experiences. And we’ve worked hard to advocate for and to create the opportunities for respectful engagement with ideas that challenge our own, and to have a variety of viewpoints represented on campus.

Applications are at a record high, career services for students are much stronger, and we’ve put amazing pieces together that position Bowdoin as a national leader in the teaching and study of the interconnected issues of the environment, oceans, climate, and the Arctic—something truly unique and relevant.

I’m also proud of the work we did to improve governance and restructure the board, of the work of our senior team, and the way the larger community has come together to make our campaign such a success and to support the College every year in a way that we see at few other schools. And then there’s COVID—not something any of us could have predicted, but the way the College pulled through the pandemic ought to be a point of pride for everyone.

BOWDOIN: Seems like a great time to be president of Bowdoin College. Why leave now?

ROSE: It is a great time. The College is stronger than it’s ever been across virtually every dimension. We’ve moved back into the regular rhythms of campus life, and there’s a real foundation in place from the work we’ve done over the last seven and a half years to build upon. It will take time to craft the next steps and then make them real. And that’s what makes now the time for me to step aside.

BOWDOIN: Does COVID have anything to do with it? Would you still be leaving if COVID hadn’t happened?

ROSE: It’s an impossible question to answer. Am I burnt out because of having to manage through COVID? No. It was hard, but it was hard for everybody around the world.

BOWDOIN: But the pandemic also caused a lot of people to step back and take stock of their lives and to think about where they want to be; how they want to spend their time.

ROSE: Sure, but there’s nuance to that. I do want to spend more time with my grandchildren. I have very close friends I haven’t seen for two and a half years. And this is a 24-7 job. So the recognition that the clock is ticking and that we’re not totally in control of our destiny, that’s a real part of the pandemic—a healthy part of reflecting on it.

The bigger thing for me is that there’s a great deal of work that we’re doing around the “K Report” [Report of the President’s Working Group on Knowledge, Skills, and Creative Dispositions], diversity, equity, and inclusion, the development of facilities around the oceans, Arctic, climate, and the environment, among others, that set the table for even bigger programmatic efforts. We’re at a place where we need to establish the next phase of work to take the College to the next level, and that requires another eight, ten, twelve years to really move the needle forward. So either I have to commit to be here for that time to see this work through, or I’ve got to get out of the way and let somebody else come in and do the work, but not hang around the net for another couple years just to hang around the net. That makes no sense.

COVID created a natural break point. If COVID hadn’t happened, some of this work would have been pushed to the next level naturally and it would have been a different time frame. Maybe it would have been another three or four years.

I think a president has a responsibility to know when the moment comes. This is a hard one for Julianne and me personally. We love being here and being a part of the life of the College every day, but from an institutional perspective, it’s the right time.

BOWDOIN: When people look back at your time as president, the pandemic is going to be one of the “big things.” Earlier in your career, you managed people and organizations through emergencies or crises. Good preparation for leading the College through COVID?

ROSE: Sure, but I also think we ought to acknowledge that there are lots of leaders in higher ed who didn’t have that background but who did just fine.

“You’re not going to stumble on ‘the answer.’ And there is no perfect or optimal answer. There’s just the best path you
can take at that moment.”

BOWDOIN: But you were making decisions before most of the others. Bowdoin was one of the first colleges to move to remote learning.

ROSE: The level of uncertainty is similar to what I experienced earlier in my career. There’s a lot you don’t know, but potential bad outcomes could be really bad. And so, if you have an expected outcome or the probability of a bad outcome that’s higher than you would like and a lot of uncertainty, that’s when you want to err seriously on the side of caution and not assume too much, because you just don’t know. That was also true in some of the things I did before with serious financial and economic problems that weren’t about life and death.

You just gather as much information as you can from as many people as you can. You try to listen way more than you talk. And, ultimately, you have to use judgment. You’re not going to stumble on “the answer.” And there is no perfect or optimal answer. There’s just the best path you can take at that moment.

BOWDOIN: You’re not a scientist or a physician. How did you synthesize everything?

ROSE: Lots of listening—the more the better. The more ideas, the better. It’s taking as much in as you can from people who are experienced and smart—recognizing that no one has the answer—and then making judgments.

The thing that I can do—that I have responsibility to do—is to decide how all of that matters in the context of our community and the goals we’ve set for ourselves in our community. Ultimately you make judgments. And you’re making some decisions about what you think is going to happen with the virus and where it’s going to go. The best example of that was [the] Delta [variant of SARS CoV-2]. I mean, in the summer of ’21 we had that magic three weeks where we thought everything was going to be great, and it’s all gone. And then we got whacked upside the head, and in very short order realized that we are back in it. You have to be prepared to change your mind and not let your ego get in the way.

abstract shapes

BOWDOIN: And everybody’s looking at you for reassurance.

ROSE: Sure.

BOWDOIN: So you can’t freak out.

ROSE: No. You don’t have the luxury for that. And it doesn’t do any good anyway. You have to recognize that every time you’re on a Zoom call with a group or sitting in a meeting, whether it’s with the board or the senior team or the staff, they’re looking at you and looking for leadership, looking for honesty and transparency, and looking for hope. People want to know what the truth is, and they want to know there’s a way home, and even if you don’t exactly know the way home—that somehow you’ll get home. So, those are things to always keep in mind.

BOWDOIN: Did you ever feel that you were way out on a limb with some of the decisions?

ROSE: I felt comfortable with the decisions we were making. Having an anchor is really important. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What are you aspiring to? We were anchored on two things. One was the health and safety of the community. And the second was delivering the best Bowdoin education we could.

Those kept us focused. So, with those in mind, and given the uncertainties and the risks and so forth, I was comfortable.

BOWDOIN: How did the board react when you decided the College should move to remote learning?

ROSE: They gave me full support. I’m certain that individual trustees didn’t agree with every decision I made along the way because they’re human beings with different views, but they never flagged in supporting what I was doing or in giving me the latitude to make the decisions I needed to make. Part of the bargain was that I tried to keep them as informed as I could along the way.

Mostly they would question why this way and not that way and so forth. In those moments I’m sure there were times when I thought that was irritating because I was trying to juggle forty-three things. But it was perfectly fair, perfectly appropriate, and the job that they should do, which is to ask questions and make sure I’m thinking about things in the right way and then ultimately support the president. So, they were great.

And they were also a great resource to me. There was a lot of intelligence, insight, and data-gathering that came from the board that was really helpful. That’s equally true of our faculty and staff across the College—remarkable people and truly outstanding at what they do. And, just to say it, the senior staff at Bowdoin is the best group of leaders I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with some really good ones.

BOWDOIN: Did the College succeed on the second anchor—delivering a great Bowdoin education?

ROSE: We did. Our faculty—and the staff who work with them, particularly in IT [information technology]—did an amazing job. It doesn’t mean it was the same education students would have gotten, but it was a great Bowdoin education and it pushed them forward.

Now, they didn’t have the same set of experiences that they would have otherwise had. It was brutal being in your mom’s basement or whatever version of that they were doing. And so, it had a lot of costs.

But the ability of students to come together in a class to work the knowledge and the insights and the material and achieve, that’s very real. And the feedback we got on the BCQs [Bowdoin Course Questionnaires] from students at the end of each of the semesters was very strong. The two semesters where we had students doing virtual stuff—very strong. It blew me away, actually. It wouldn’t have surprised me if we had just gotten trashed, like “Thank you for trying, but this was a horrible experience.” There was none of that.

BOWDOIN: It’s not unique to Bowdoin, but the Class of 2020, and in particular the Class of 2021, had the rug pulled out from under them by COVID. They had worked so hard to get here but were never able to have a full Bowdoin experience. Do you worry about those classes disconnecting from the College?

ROSE: A little bit. And that would be completely natural. Now, in some ways you could argue maybe they’ll bond more over time. But their experience was different. It was less fun by a long shot. Scary. Uncertain. They didn’t spend nearly as much time on campus as they wanted to or expected to. So, yeah. I think we’ll have to work harder with those classes to make sure they feel really connected to the College. That said, we were able to hold Commencement exercises for both classes—the Class of 2021 in May as usual, on what was a cool rainy day, and the Class of 2020 later that summer on a hot afternoon—and the joy and pride were amazing and palpable at both. They are great and historic Bowdoin classes.

BOWDOIN: What did you miss the most at Bowdoin during COVID?

ROSE: Oh, being in community with the students, for sure. Just being able to talk to students in a casual way or have lunch or whatever. And attend events that students created, whether it’s the art show or music or theater or sports. All of that. It all went silent. There were some creative ways to do some of it. But not most of it.

BOWDOIN: Any bright spots that came out of the pandemic?

ROSE: For one, we recognized you can get your work done from a lot of places. The whole flexible work thing has kicked in in a way that nobody anticipated. There’s the phone, there’s the meeting in person, there’s Teams, Zoom. They each have different things, but they’re all a powerful part of the toolkit, both internally and externally.

And our faculty discovered that there are some powerful lessons about how to incorporate technology into the way they teach. Many of them were just amazing in how they figured out how to adapt. I don’t think we’re ever going back on that. And that’s good.

BOWDOIN: So, COVID advanced the use of technology in the academy?

ROSE: Pushed it ahead in a way that would have taken far longer. That’s great, and I think we really have to embrace it, because if we’re going to ever get college costs down, we have to figure out how to get scale into what we do. I don’t know if technology is the only way, but it may be the only way. And if it’s not, it’s one of a handful of ways to scale a place like ours. Otherwise, we’re going to be charging $100,000 and more a year in the not-too-distant future.

BOWDOIN: Let’s talk about those costs. During your presidency, the number of students on financial aid has expanded. The College has increased its aid per student, expanded need-blind admission to international students, and is working with ATI [the American Talent Initiative] to increase the number of low-income students. We recently replaced summer work obligations with additional grants for low-income students and launched the Digital Excellence Commitment to provide equitable technology to all students. Meanwhile, the THRIVE program was established to support low-income and first-generation college students with their transition to college, and the number of first-gen students is up by 115 percent since you became president. All great but all expensive. Is this sustainable?

ROSE: It depends. If the markets have serial years of negative returns, then it will get trickier. But assuming that we have some stability and reasonable growth, not like the last twenty-five years, but something more historically normal, and we continue to get support from our alumni and parents, then yes, it’s sustainable.

Not only can we do it—we should do it. We should do it because I think we have an obligation, a societal obligation that’s core to our mission, but also because we need socioeconomic diversity as part of the educational experience.

“It wouldn’t have surprised me if we had just gotten trashed, like ‘Thank you for trying, but this was a horrible experience.’ There was none of that.”

BOWDOIN: One of the constants of your presidency, beginning with your inauguration address in 2015, has been the need for open discourse, and your charge to every class of first-year students that they embrace what you call “intellectual fearlessness.” Discourse is important, of course, especially these days, but why has that been such a big deal for you?

ROSE: I’m a true believer in the notion that the critical mission of a great college or university is being a place where we really engage with ideas, all kinds of ideas. But in particular, ideas with which we disagree or don’t understand.

BOWDOIN: It didn’t help that partisan division in society seemed to explode early in your presidency. What did you make of that, and how did it impact the College and your job?

ROSE: We found ourselves as a society having to confront this beast of hate and division driven by the real concern on the part of a large swath of people that their rights to power and privilege and resource were being deeply threatened by those who are different. That’s not something we’ve had to deal with in a long time. Then COVID came along.

That was a whole huge set of issues for any community to have to come to terms with, particularly a college community. And it created divisions within our various constituencies—faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents—that were true before, but had become even more unreconcilable. One of the things I came to terms with is that whatever decision you were going to make, it was impossible to find a place where everyone would agree. That actually became very clear to me at the end of my first year. So I had to be comfortable with the decision and learned to anticipate heat from every direction.

BOWDOIN: Some of that heat came after you spoke out on behalf of the College. Seems like a no-win proposition. You’ve got those who criticize the president for not speaking out enough on tougher controversial issues or after some tragic or alarming event. And then you’ve got people who firmly believe that it isn’t your job to weigh in on these topics. How have you navigated those competing views?

ROSE: It’s very much driven by values, at least for me. Are the issues I’m speaking about issues that are consistent with the values of the College and do they in some way matter significantly in what the College stands for, or do they have some direct impact on part of our community?

You are seen as the leader of that community. And as the leader and someone who speaks not just for the community but to them, you have a responsibility to voice the values of the College at very difficult and challenging moments. There are always going to be questions about when you do it and when you don’t, and there’s no right answer to that. You do the best you can in figuring it out.

I think, to a large extent, we’ve gotten it mostly right, but not all the time. I can think of a couple examples of that—with the Tree of Life [shooting]. I didn’t name anti-Semitism specifically. I should have done that. In my comments on the George Floyd murder, I was not fine-grained enough in how I described the police. So you learn as you go along.

Then there’s the bigger question of when you speak up on issues of values. The one that always comes to mind for me is voting rights and the work that [former American Express CEO and chairman] Ken Chenault (Class of 1973, H’96) and [former Merck CEO] Ken Frazier did around the law that was passed in Georgia. I wrote about that for two reasons. I felt that very little is more fundamental to democracy than the ability to vote. And we’re a quintessentially American institution that supports, defends, and teaches about democracy. We ought to stand up for that.

We also had a significant number of community members—Black members of our community, not just Ken [Chenault]—who were signatories to the [March 31, 2021] letter [to corporate America urging opposition to the voting legislation in Georgia]. And I thought, this is something that is really us, and we’ve got a valued group of our people [who are involved], let’s get behind them. That view wasn’t shared by everybody in our community, and I understand that.


BOWDOIN: But how do you set aside what might be a personal view and take on the voice of Bowdoin College?

ROSE: I agree that you have to set aside your personal views. But actually, you shouldn’t be in this job if your values don’t align with the values of the College. You can’t have a job like this if your own values are not tightly aligned.

BOWDOIN: Bowdoin hasn’t seen the kind of incidents over speech or “cancel culture” that have taken place at some of our peers. Is that just luck, or is the message about “intellectual fearlessness” getting through?

ROSE: I think we are lucky, and I’ll take that every day and twice on Sundays. But I think it’s more than that. There are a couple of things going on. First, I do think, interestingly, that the message is getting through. It has become an idea that people talk about. Sometimes they joke about the phrase “intellectual fearlessness,” and that means the idea is being discussed and is resonating. That’s a gigantic win. I could never have imagined that.

Second, the work we do here has also been really good. It’s the work that goes on in student affairs. It’s the work our student groups are doing—Republicans, Democrats, the Eisenhower Forum, and others. And it’s faculty bringing folks to campus for thoughtful engagement.

But it’s a difficult issue here, as it is all over the country, and there are no guarantees that things won’t boil over somewhere. I’ve invited conservative speakers to campus and certainly had pushback. That’s why we need to stay on it. I’ve been clear about that, and we’ve worked it in a whole bunch of different ways to good effect, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

BOWDOIN: Let’s talk about another big part of your presidency—the efforts at Bowdoin around diversity, equity, and inclusion. You’ve worked on diversity in the business world and you earned a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology studying issues of race in America. But even with those credentials, someone might ask what a person of your background could possibly know about any of this or add to it.

ROSE: I guess I would say a couple things. The power structures in this country are dominated by older white men. So an older white man who understands the issues, both from a practical and intellectual perspective, has the opportunity to move the needle and to call out and call upon peers in a way that might be seen or experienced differently if done by a person of color. And I think there’s a unique ability and an obligation for those of us who are white, straight, older men to do this work.

Now, a critical necessity is that we don’t confuse that with understanding the lived experience. We don’t.

BOWDOIN: What do you hope the College can achieve with this work?

ROSE: That we can create for everyone a sense of belonging. Instead of this idea that you’re being invited into somebody else’s house, it’s that this is our collective house, and we have to adjust that house to account for everybody— their backgrounds and their identities and their experiences.

We’re also trying to provide equity of opportunity—to have a great Bowdoin experience, whether you’re a student or an employee. It isn’t to provide an equality of outcome, that’s another trope that’s out there. But rather to have the equity of opportunity, to be able to participate in a way that gives you the opportunity to have as great an outcome as the person sitting next to you.

BOWDOIN: Of course, building a more inclusive community can be slow, difficult, and sometimes discouraging work. How can others stay optimistic and motivated to keep at it?

ROSE: First of all, I think there’s been enormous progress in this country and at Bowdoin over whatever measure of time you want. But let’s just take fifty years as one mark. For women, those of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, among others, in both the numbers and in the experience, the influence, the engagement, and so forth, it’s better. It doesn’t mean we’re there because we’re not. But is it better? Yes.

We’re in a period of incredible tension and divisiveness in our country. And many people are unwilling to give anybody else grace or extend the notion of gratitude or separate intent from whatever actions are being taken. They assume the intent is either malicious or self-serving. Some of that’s true. But in many ways, good people are trying to get this work done, but they find themselves being challenged and denigrated from many sides, and that makes it hard. It also puts the work at risk—stopping it until the next tragic catalyst comes along. We have to be committed to pushing this work forward in a sustained way.

BOWDOIN: You recently asked the faculty to consider credit-bearing courses for low-income and first-generation students in so-called skill-building areas. Is that because a liberal arts education isn’t preparing students as well as it once did for what comes next?

ROSE: No. We require students to have thirty-two credits to graduate. Let’s say thirty of them are for whatever it is you want to do that may have no specific relationship to a job. Let’s say you want to go into business and you also want to be a religion major. Now, majoring in religion and thirty classes that form the core of our liberal arts education are incredibly powerful tools for success in business or anything else. And we talk about them all the time: critical thinking, the ability to write, to communicate, to reason well, to collaborate, to be “intellectually fearless”—those are powerful. But what we know about the way employers are making hiring decisions, the competition that our graduates will face from their peers who are doing those jobs and the expectations of those employers mean that students must have a certain core set of skills and tools for the workplace in order to land the jobs and do well in those jobs.

And so—and I’m making this example up—using two of those courses over the four years here to give our students those workplace tools doesn’t dilute the idea or power of a liberal arts education. It recognizes that we have to find a way to get those tools and those skills into the hands of our students. And if we leave it outside of the curriculum as extra work, as we do now, it seriously disadvantages our first-gen and low-income students, who already have to deal with enough extra stuff.

BOWDOIN: Speaking of jobs, one of your responsibilities as president is to raise money for the College. Do you enjoy that?

ROSE: I do enjoy it. You’re not just walking in and grabbing somebody by the scruff of the neck off the street and saying, “Give me some money!” You’re moving along a conversation about how to help the College, and in a way that matters to somebody. They’re great conversations. It doesn’t mean that it’s the right moment in life for somebody or that they can do this or that. Not every conversation results in either the thing that we’re asking people to do—which is fine, because sometimes it leads to another conversation—or the right moment in life for somebody to provide that kind of a gift. But sometimes you get surprised on the upside as well. I’ve had a few people say, “It’s time to ask me for something.”

BOWDOIN: The ongoing From Here campaign is built on three core promises: that family income will never be a barrier to attending the College, that Bowdoin will continue to provide an enduring and transformative liberal arts education, and that we will give students the opportunities and resources to land their first great job. That last one seems like it’s long been assumed or taken for granted. You would think that if you graduate from a place like Bowdoin, you’ll get a great first job. Why so explicit on that?

ROSE: Two things have happened. The market for jobs hasn’t necessarily gotten tougher— there are moments when there are more open jobs and other moments when fewer jobs are open, depending on the economy. But over the last decade or more, the requirements for entry into those jobs have changed, and not in an insignificant way.

The second is that we have more and more students who come from family backgrounds where an understanding of the variety of employment opportunities out there and the path to those jobs are less well understood than before.

So it requires a very sophisticated career development effort, and very explicit work to be able to ensure that you can take all the great skills of a liberal arts education and the credential that comes from being at a place like Bowdoin and be able to translate that into a job.

I have to say that this is another area where we’ve made enormous progress. Where we are with that effort today is night and day from where we were before. That doesn’t mean we don’t have more work to do—because we do.

BOWDOIN: Like what?

ROSE: How we engage with employers, how we deal with the curricular skill-building issues that we’ve talked about, how we take the incredible enthusiasm and desire of our alumni to work with our students and maximize opportunities for our students. We do really strong work now, and really well-organized work, around all this.

BOWDOIN: Returning to your earlier comment about raising money for the College, just before you started as president, Dave Roux [trustee emeritus] told you that he and Barb Roux wanted to make a gift of $10 million to the College to support a priority of yours, and you suggested building a new home for environmental studies.

ROSE: Yeah. It’s a beautiful building in a prominent location with teaching spaces designed to be incredibly flexible. It’s also a physical manifestation of our commitment to environmental studies. It’s a huge winner because it makes a substantial statement to our community, to those interested in the College, and to the broader world that this is something really important to us.

BOWDOIN: The Schiller Coastal Studies Center came next.

ROSE: It did. The opportunities at the Coastal Studies Center had been present for a while. We had a wet lab, we had a barn that allowed for a few people to get together, we had a pier and a dock that gave us direct access to the Gulf of Maine and the ocean and the tidal waters there. All of that was great. And there was this opportunity to think about what could take us to the next level. How do we exploit—in the best sense of that word—our location there and its proximity to campus, to create something really great for teaching and learning, for research, and for the broader Bowdoin community to engage?

The study of the ocean is very important to [trustee] Phil and Kim [Gassett] Schiller [P’17]. And so the idea of crafting facilities out there that would really change the game on how we can use that remarkable location was a natural conversation, and they were terrific to provide us with a really generous gift to build out places to sleep, a place for gathering and teaching and engagement—the Living and Learning Center—and then a state-of-the-art dry lab to complement the wet lab, creating a true scientific hub out there.

We’ve had the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy in operation for decades, and now we have the Roux Center and the Schiller Coastal Studies Center. Next up is the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies and moving the [Peary-MacMillan Arctic] Museum to create a physical manifes- tation of our commitment to the Arctic. John [Class of 1964 and trustee emeritus] and Lile are the parents of four Bowdoin graduates who have a long history of supporting the College and our programs, deep family ties to Alaska, and a passion for the Arctic. Their gift will really transform our multidisciplinary study of that region.

We have these four physical locations that deal with issues of climate, the environment, the Arctic, and the oceans in a very powerful way. The next big project is how we connect all the intellectual projects embedded in each facility into something that, as a whole, is bigger than the sum of the parts. That will be a project that will take place after I’m gone, but we’re already beginning to think about it and what it means. And it will be something unique among liberal arts colleges, and even among most research universities.

BOWDOIN: A point of pride for you?

ROSE: You bet. It’s a big deal. We got a lot done in a COVID-interrupted period, which I am proud of. Let’s also be very clear, there were many, many people who worked on this, it is not about one person. It’s kind of obvious that we have an opportunity with these four locations to do something that nobody else does.

BOWDOIN: Any sage advice for your successor?

ROSE: You need to be careful about offering advice to somebody who doesn’t ask for it. If there is a question that’s asked, I’ll certainly answer it. If there’s something that the sixteenth president wants to know, I’ll be delighted to provide them with my insights. Always in confidence.

The one thing I tell folks is former presidents need to move on and let the new president do their job. So Julianne and I will head back to Boston and get on with the next chapter of our lives, and I will answer the phone, if and when a call comes in.

BOWDOIN: As you prepare to move into that next chapter of your life, what are the sources of gratification that accompany leadership in tumultuous times like these?

ROSE: It’s the right question, because there is so much about what goes on in this job that is incredibly gratifying.

People will ask me, “Is it a fun job?” I wouldn’t say it’s fun, but it is deeply satisfying. There are moments of great fun and great levity. Even in tough moments, we try to keep our sense of humor about us.

It is the privilege of a lifetime to be president of Bowdoin College, and there are a lot of things that are so satisfying. The first is the mission and being able to participate in and further strengthen a great liberal arts education and experience for amazing students, and to create the conditions for faculty to do their work as great teachers while also producing knowledge and art and performance and so forth. And then to think about the future and what it will take to continue to be one of the great liberal arts institutions, and to help to move the institution forward.

As I said, this isn’t about the individual, this is a collective effort. As president, you have a role to play in helping to move the institution forward, in teeing up ideas, in helping to think through ideas, in rallying others around ideas, and in finding resources for those ideas. It is a collective enterprise, and it’s an incredible opportunity and privilege to be doing that.

The second is the people. The Bowdoin community is amazing. It starts with the students. For me, the opportunity to spend time with our students is the jet fuel in everything else. They’re amazing in their thoughtfulness, their smarts, their accomplishments, and their humanity.

This is also true of our faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, and parents. Amazing, wonderful, and fun people to be around.

“The next big project is how we connect all the intellectual projects embedded in each facility into something that, as a whole, is bigger than the sum of the parts.”

And then there’s the engagement with the life of the College. Whether it’s the opportunity to teach—which I’ve had and am doing again this semester—going to concerts or performances, to dance and theater or the art show at the end of each semester. The sporting events. Going out to various clubs that students invite you to, or just simply being in the café or walking across the Quad.

Being a part of a life of the mind—all of the talks we have, the outside visitors who come in. All of them are interesting; some of them blow your mind.

I have to say—and I put this one in its own category—being in this job has given me a renewed hope. We’re in a very challenging time in the country and the world. We have a land war in Europe, hatred and division fueled by identity, the perils and reality of climate change, and a global economic model in place for at least a half a century that is under stress and attack, among other issues.

But when I look at our students and I look at the work that goes on at the College, I have real hope for where we’re headed.

Scott W. Hood, senior vice president for communications and public affairs and former public radio news director and reporter, leads the team that tells Bowdoin’s stories and advances the mission and strategic priorities of the College.

John Jay Cabuay is a Filipino-American artist and educator from New York City.



This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.