President Safa Zaki Inauguration Address, October 14, 2023.
It is wonderful to be with all of you today.
I am beyond honored to be serving as Bowdoin’s sixteenth president. Beginning with my conversations with the search committee, I have learned again and again that Bowdoin is a very special place. It is special in large part because of the open-hearted people who make up this community. So many of you sitting here today have welcomed and helped me these last few months, and I am so grateful for that. I want to thank a few people in particular.
Governor Mills, thank you for coming. It means a lot.
Scott Perper, thank you for your enthusiasm about my appointment, and for your wisdom, insight, and support.
Clayton and Julianne Rose, thank you for such a warm welcome and your generous partnership in this transition.
I am so grateful to the members of the search committee and to the board of trustees for your trust in me. You have handed me the keys to a college that could not be stronger, more vital, or better positioned for even greater things ahead.
The foundation we stand on today at Bowdoin has been built by so many people, including Clayton Rose and Juliane Rose as well as Barry Mills and Karen Gordon Mills, all of whom are here today, and by Bob and Blythe Edwards who had hoped to be with us. I am grateful to all of them.
Thanks also to those of you who have welcomed me today with your greetings.
Maud Mandel, your words mean so much to me. You are a friend and a mentor for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Not only are you a champion athlete, you are also a champion for Maine. Thank you for so eloquently connecting our college and its values to this beautiful state and its extraordinary people.
And thank you Abby King for your warm welcome on behalf of our town. In our short time here, Huff and I have marveled at the vitality of Brunswick, the friendliness of our neighbors, and the powerful connections between our town and our college.
Paul Wang, thank you for your kind words, and your leadership. You and your fellow students are why we are all here. I’ve loved talking with so many of you, and look forward to so many more conversations.
And Danielle Dube, thank you for representing the faculty today with these thoughtful remarks. I am honored to join your ranks.
Awa Diaw, our grand marshal, I so appreciate that you have traveled all the way from France to participate in these exercises and I am so glad you are here.
Oliver Goodrich, your invocation was beautiful and so moving. Thank you.
And thank you to Vin Shende and the other wonderful musicians, and to our other marshals.
I am also so grateful to the delegates who have joined us from colleges and universities across the country—to my colleagues from Williams, and to all the alumni, community members, mentors, family, and friends who are here today or watching online.
I am so grateful to my family, including my mother, father, sister, and brother, who are no longer with us. And thank you to Huff, Adly, Sabrina, and Dorreya—you’ve always believed in me, and I want you to know that I am stronger for it and that I believe in you.
Finally, thank you to the Bowdoin staff who work so incredibly hard and with so much heart every day on behalf of the College. Thank you in particular to the members of the Inauguration Planning Committee and all of the staff who have organized this weekend’s events—those who arranged for this gigantic tent, set up all the chairs, manicured the grounds, polished our buildings, prepared the delicious meals, and worked through so many other details, demonstrating once again why this is such an extraordinary community. (Please join me in a round of applause for all they have done.)
I know that many people have opened doors for me, some of whom are here today— Rob Nosofsky, my mentor and collaborator, you are one of those people. As president, I am deeply committed to finding ways to continue to open doors—both for our students who are at Bowdoin now, and for future students—students who may not see a well-trodden path to get here, but who can contribute so much to our community and to the world.
I have heard from so many of you how meaningful it is to have a woman president. Standing on this stage today, that meaning is something that I feel intensely as well.
It was eighty years ago, in the middle of World War II, that three women—Marion Holmes, Ruth Yeaton, and Marguerite Little—became the first women to teach at Bowdoin.
Fifty-one years ago, Bowdoin hired Helen Cafferty as an instructor of German, and she became the first female faculty member to go through the ranks; and I am honored that she is in the audience today.
Fifty years ago, Matilda White Riley was hired as a full professor of sociology, becoming the first female full professor on campus. Forty-two years ago, Roz Bernstein, who was then a member of the board of overseers became the first woman elected to the board of trustees. And ten years ago, Debbie Barker became the first woman to chair the board of trustees.
Women students also laid the groundwork for this moment, beginning with Susan Jacobson—a transfer student—who in 1971 was the first woman to graduate from Bowdoin, a full ninety-nine years after Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain called for coeducation in his inaugural address. That same year that Susan Jacobson graduated, Bowdoin saw the matriculation of its first coeducational class, welcoming 134 women to the class of 1975.
I know the work these women and so many other women did—and I can only imagine the courage it required. The determination and bravery of so many other women faculty, staff, students, and alumni over the years, laid the foundation for this moment, which is not mine so much as it is ours.
I describe this history at some length because it reminds us that Bowdoin is a place that is shaped both by its deep traditions and by its openness to change. It reminds us of the work that so many have done to make Bowdoin a stronger and more inclusive community, and it reminds us of all the work that lies ahead. The important work of continuing to open doors and make this place ever more accessible is work I am eager to do along with all of you.
Each of us is, of course, more than one thing. I am the first woman president of Bowdoin, but I am also the first president who was not born in the Western Hemisphere. And I am the first cognitive scientist. Each of us is more than one thing, and these different parts of my identity will undoubtedly shape my approach to this role.
I want to talk today about the work that I hope we will do together—the meaning and transformative possibilities, along with the challenges of that work.
I am going to talk about two things—I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning and value of a liberal arts education; the challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence; and the relationship between those two things.
At Convocation, I spoke about how I think of the liberal arts in terms of its sound. I talked about the ways that you can hear the richness of the full Bowdoin curriculum in every classroom, as students voice ideas in one class that they encountered in another—taking ideas from philosophy into biology; from music theory to French; from literature to psychology. The entire Bowdoin curriculum is audible in conversations across campus.
That sound—that sound of different ideas, different perspectives, different ways of knowing, different disciplinary lenses, different life experiences—that sound is the sound of the liberal arts. It is a symphony we can only make together. It is the sound of students and faculty talking about ideas and trying to solve problems from the vantage point of many different disciplinary and interdisciplinary lenses. You can hear this sound in every classroom, in dining halls and residential houses; on athletic fields and in other campus spaces.
I can tell you from my own experience teaching psychology and cognitive science classes that students approach the material with questions that come from wide-ranging fields in the classes they are taking. And their questions make every new iteration of every course different and differently illuminating. For me, these unexpected questions from students would sometimes find their way into the research in my lab.
This polyphony of perspectives in classroom conversations that I’m describing is, I know, familiar to the audience today.
That sound—the sound of the liberal arts—doesn’t just exist, it needs to be made.
It is made through practice and discipline, through slow, patient, and sometimes difficult work: the work of reading unfamiliar texts; the work of struggling through complex problem sets; the work of learning a new language; the work of data collection and analysis; the work of bench research; the work of mastering a difficult piece of music.
This sound is also made through the quiet research, scholarship, and creative work done by faculty in labs, archives, libraries, studios, and communities; it resonates in conversations among those faculty at seminars, colloquia, and workshops; and in the dissemination of that scholarship in journals, books, and classrooms.
And it is also the sound made through human connection—of one person wanting to deeply know another person, to understand another person’s point of view and life experience, no matter how different they are.
Some of you have heard me talk about my childhood, which was spent growing up in many different places. My parents encouraged us to be open to and excited about learning from the people we met and the places we lived, a value that has profoundly enriched my personal and professional life.
Ours is a community of people from many different places who have different life experiences, and who hold different beliefs and practice different traditions. It is one of the great gifts of a place like this.
Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” is a poem about the teaching of and meaning of poetry, and ends with this question: “Are we not of interest to each other?”
To me, the emphatic answer to that question is that yes, we are of interest to each other. We must be of interest to each other. A core value of a liberal arts education is that interest in each other; our communities and the world we live in. The problems that define our time, must be of interest to us.
I know that belief—and the practice of that belief—is in Bowdoin’s DNA. At the highest level, that value is expressed through our commitment to the common good, as articulated in 1802 by Bowdoin’s first president Joseph McKeen in his inauguration address. This idea is, of course, familiar to this audience, but it is worth quoting McKeen’s words:
"It ought always to be remembered, that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.
It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society."
How do we do that cultivation? At the most basic level, we do it through our curricular requirements: 32 classes; at least one major; at least one course in five distribution areas and three divisions, and a first-year writing seminar. Our students complete these requirements by taking courses in different departments and programs.
One hundred years ago, the course catalogue listed just 13 departments. Fifty years ago, the catalogue listed 23 departments and programs. Our students now take courses offered by 33 departments and programs.
This is all to say that our curriculum has evolved and expanded, as have our requirements. The catalogue 25 years from now will almost certainly include different requirements and new areas of study, ones we can’t yet identify.
These curricular changes will be led by our faculty. As we hire faculty in emerging disciplines and fields that cross disciplines, as the interests of our faculty grow and shift, and as our faculty oversee the curriculum through our model of shared governance—the sound of the curriculum will change.
What will remain constant is our commitment to ensuring that students gain a depth and breadth of knowledge and skills, that they know how to ask good questions, and that they know how to try to answer those questions. As too many colleges and universities across the country are cutting or shrinking departments and programs, I can tell you that Bowdoin remains fully committed to offering our students access to the widest range of disciplines and to the fullest scope of knowledge that we can.
The connection between those granular graduation requirements and the elevated mission of the common good is our belief that understanding the world—and thus doing good in the world—is only possible through multiple lenses, ways of knowing, and disciplinary perspectives. That multiplicity is a requisite for knowing oneself, knowing others, asking questions, and solving the most complex problems facing us today.
We are today in the midst of a technological revolution. Artificial intelligence is the kind of change that is so vast, so disruptive, so spread into every type of work and industry, in almost every facet of life, that understanding it, using it, and regulating it requires attention from thinkers in so many disciplines.
Some might argue that the proliferation of artificial intelligence will make this kind of education less relevant. I think it will make it more powerful. We need more than ever students who understand ethics, who understand complexity, contingency, who welcome and learn from multiple perspectives, who resist flattened-out explanations. AI is here to stay. It is going to be—it is already—part of society and part of educational institutions. Given that, the question I invite us to ask together is: what do recent developments in AI mean for a community that is dedicated to the liberal arts, to the common good, to asking questions and solving problems, to being of interest to each other? What does AI mean for the kind of education we practice and believe in at Bowdoin?
I strongly believe that we at Bowdoin are ideally positioned for this challenge. Because of our practice of living and learning in community, because of our deep commitment to the liberal arts, we are ideally positioned for the collaborative work of thinking about what we as humans are going to value in human cognition going forward, of appreciating what human creativity and human imagination can do that cannot be replaced by computer models, of leaning into the fact that human relationships and conversations are what generate real learning, and of puzzling through the ways that AI can serve our students and serve our mission.
More than ever we need individuals who on their feet can tell the difference between a generative question and a static question; between a good argument and a bad argument between information and misinformation. That is what we teach here, every day.
While it is true that computers can now output an essay in a matter of seconds, we know—as teachers and as scholars—that writing is not just about output. It is a tool for thinking—an expression of thinking. We know that the iterative process of thinking and writing is often more important than the final product. Or, to put it another way, the act of thinking can be the final product. We need to help our students recognize that the cost of not developing their own arguments, their own thinking, their own writing is self-knowledge. And that is a very high price—one that I really believe our students do not want to pay.
I go back to Elizabeth Alexander’s question: Are we not of interest to each other? A related question might be: are we not of interest to ourselves? Do we not want to know what we think? I believe our students want this self-knowledge, as well as the understanding of others, that can only come through slow, hard, thinking.
So I am not that worried that AI is going to replace our need to think, our desire to think.
But a different question is whether there are good and useful things that AI will allow us to do in our classes and in our research? I don’t have the answer to this question—although I do know that there is not one single answer. And I know that we have at Bowdoin faculty members and students who are going to figure this out together. Our faculty are tuned into the learning process and experience, are tuned into our students’ needs and interests, and are committed to building our students’ analytical and creative capacities—that is our comparative advantage.
This is all to say that I don’t believe AI poses a fundamental threat to what we do here, which is intensely focused on human iteration, on process, and on relationships. We know from cognitive science that processing information deeply and through multiple pathways leads to a greater ability to remember and deploy that knowledge. That idea —which cognitive scientists call depth of processing—is practiced every day in our classrooms and across the community. Ironically, it turns out that humans are the original deep learners.
But while I don’t believe that AI will undermine our core mission, I do want to address something that I see as a potential threat to what we do here: the threat of seeing a Bowdoin education—or any kind of education—as transactional rather as transformational.
Americans’ confidence in the value of higher education as a worthwhile investment has eroded despite the evidence we have about its positive impact on people’s lives. I certainly don’t want to pretend this isn’t a serious investment. Of course it is—a financial investment from students, parents and families, and from our dedicated and generous alumni. It is also, though, a personal investment of curiosity, imagination, and hard work from our students and of the passion, expertise, and hard work of our faculty and staff. That investment will—I deeply believe—prove itself worth it: in the ways we build lives full of people and full of meaning, and in the ways that we work toward the common good.
I began with thank yous, and I will end with some as well. I want to thank all of you for the warm welcome I have received since my first visit last March, and I want to thank you in advance for the conversations we will be having about the work we do here together. Some of those conversations will be challenging; we won’t always agree.
But every conversation is an opportunity to contribute to the sound of liberal arts, to embrace the challenge of being of interest to each other, and to accept the gift of learning through our differences. I am eager to do that work together.