The Work Ahead on Race and Racism

To the Bowdoin community,

I am writing to follow up on my message of June 11 about our work ahead on race and racism. The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23 is yet another horrible reminder of the relentless nature of racist violence and the continued necessity and urgency of this work.

The Problem

The beliefs, structures, behaviors, and practices that create and sustain substantial race-based inequalities have persisted and embedded themselves over the long arc of time, and they permeate every aspect of life—inequalities in education, housing, employment, healthcare, policing, justice, incarceration, and on and on. They are problems across our society and at virtually every institution of higher learning in this country, including Bowdoin.

Work to address this problem at our college is underway, led by Michael Reed, our senior vice president for inclusion and diversity, with assistance from Eli Orlic, vice president and special assistant to the president and secretary of the College. I am deeply involved in this work, as are many others from within our community and individuals from outside the College. Today, I am reporting back to you on where we are and what will come.

Michael Reed, Senior Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs Jennifer Scanlon, and I have each had discussions with faculty groups, students, staff, individual faculty, and alumni. I have been in conversation about the realities of racism with presidents at peer schools, including a recent virtual gathering of about twenty-five liberal arts college presidents. I have also engaged the board of trustees about the work ahead.

Our work has two main goals. The first is to make Bowdoin better, to mitigate and work toward eradicating the structures, behaviors, and practices at the heart of the problem, and to make Bowdoin a place where everyone has the opportunity for an equal experience and a robust sense of belonging. The second is to ensure that our education prepares our students to understand the problem and to make change in the world. We have done this over many generations with respect to a range of different challenges and issues, but with racism we have fallen short. This is certainly an issue that transcends Bowdoin, and it is clear from my conversations with presidents at other institutions that everyone is struggling with the same questions. However, while this points to the magnitude of the challenge, it also doesn’t really matter—our responsibility is to make Bowdoin better.


I am very aware that we are undertaking this effort as we begin a year that is unlike any other in the history of the College. There are profound demands on everyone’s time, and there is considerable stress and uncertainty from the dual pandemics of the coronavirus and racism. While mindful that the global health crisis has created unique challenges for us, it will not deter us from the work to deal with the crisis of racism. We need to address them both. Our work on race and racism has already begun, it will be sustained, and it will grow.

The Work

With all of this in mind, we will focus during this academic year on two main streams of work.

The first is to create sustained, long-term programming and training to understand better the history, context, and lived experiences of those who are of color in our community and society, beginning with anti-Black racism and racism more generally. This programming will involve everyone at the College—faculty, students, staff, and trustees—and will educate us, provide the opportunity for informed reflection and dialogue, and give us each a common understanding of the issues that must be addressed and changes that need to be made.

Michael Reed and Eli Orlic are in the process of identifying organizations that can provide this training and programming. We will involve a group of faculty, students, and staff in the discussions to craft the programming and training, as well as to be involved in providing feedback to the partner or partners working with us as this effort progresses.

The second area of work underway is taking place within each division of the College. The leaders of each division and their teams are identifying the structures, behaviors, and practices that create the persistent inequalities of opportunity, outcome, and experience that I described earlier. Each area of the College will also examine its hiring practices to ensure that when we seek to fill a position, we do so with a diverse pool of talent from which to select. We will also ensure that those on the faculty and staff who are of color receive appropriate support for professional development, including ensuring that invisible labor is accounted for in their development. Each division will set goals for their work, and we will provide the community with periodic reports on progress toward these goals.

While each division of the College will be able to identify and begin focusing on the structures, practices, and behaviors that create racial inequality now, I fully expect that, as our training and programming progresses, we will gain the skills and sensitivity to enable us to understand what else will need to be addressed; ours will be an iterative process that extends across the coming years.

The Curriculum

The faculty will soon take up the proposal to change the “Exploring Social Differences” requirement in our curriculum. This is work that has been ongoing for several years and, if it is approved, a new distribution requirement—"Difference, Power, and Identity” (DPI)—will become effective for the start of the 2021–2022 academic year. Pending approval of this change, the Office of Academic Affairs will support faculty in thinking through the requirement and in designing purposeful content and pedagogies for successful DPI courses.

In addition, many faculty across the disciplines have been enhancing their courses to more specifically and deliberately address issues of racism as they relate to the subject matter of their courses. Resources and tools in the Baldwin Center for Teaching and Learning are available to assist faculty in this effort.


As I mentioned in my June 11 message, we will provide these efforts with the resources necessary for success. In June, we announced that Benje Douglas joined the Office of Inclusion and Diversity as associate vice president, splitting his time between this work and his responsibilities as director of Title IX. Benje’s focus will be to work with the Division of Student Affairs on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition, Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Dharni Vasudevan will be joining the Office of Academic Affairs in January 2021 as an associate dean with a full-time focus on these issues as they relate to faculty (this is an increase of one half an FTE). She will work with Michael Reed on this effort. Meanwhile, we continue to evaluate whether additional personnel will be required in the Office of Inclusion and Diversity or in the divisions of the College. I will also make the necessary financial resources available for training, programming, and other useful work—ideas can be proposed by anyone from any part of the College. If you have an idea, please discuss it with Michael Reed.

The Board of Trustees

I have been discussing with the board of trustees the challenges we face and the work that we will be doing. The board’s Committee on Inclusion is designed to allow for oversight on our work on racism, anti-racism, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, with committee membership composed of members of each of the other standing committees of the board. The Committee on Inclusion will remain abreast of our work and progress both through direct engagement and through oversight of the work of each of the standing committees that are engaged with the various divisions of the College. The board’s Governance Committee will continue to make racial and ethnic diversity a critical goal for board composition. As I said earlier, the board will also take part in the programming that will be provided for the rest of the community.

In Conclusion

We should not be under any illusions—while it is essential and will be done, this work will be very challenging. Each of us needs to be engaged on a sustained basis, to be willing to reconsider our ideas of how we understand the issues and the solutions, and to be (as one of our faculty said to me) “radical listeners.” The work will make some of us, perhaps most of us, uncomfortable at times. But this work will change Bowdoin, making us stronger and better.

I would value any thoughts or ideas you have on this message and the work ahead. Thank you for everything you are doing for the College and one another, and for the work and commitment that will make Bowdoin better and more just.

Please stay safe,