December 03, 2015 | Office of the President

Message to Students, Faculty, and Staff (December 3, 2015)

To students, faculty, and staff,

Race is a dividing line in our society, on campuses across our country, and at Bowdoin. Those of color in our community experience Bowdoin differently than those who are white; the difference can be profound and occurs in every aspect of our lives here: intellectual, social, cultural, and athletic. And it exists at a most basic level, with anonymous postings on social media leaving many feeling unsafe. This is not acceptable to any of us, and it is not consistent with our deeply held values.

As I have said previously, our goal is to be a college where each of our students has the opportunity for an equally robust experience; where differences are understood, where they are celebrated, and where they do not affect how students experience the College. This must be a place where all of our students feel that Bowdoin is their community, and where all of us understand and are engaged with the issues of race and difference on our campus. And, to be clear, we expect this same opportunity and community for those of color on our faculty and staff.

During this past semester, in the aftermath of campus and national events, we have built on work done in the past to address aspects of this issue for our students, faculty, and staff. This work is essential but it will not be sufficient. The issues of race that we confront are profound and have a long history in our society. As such, undertaking action that is meaningful, and redirecting or adding new resources with effect, requires that we understand better the changes that will matter. In particular, we need to examine more fully our processes and practices to reveal what we do that exacerbates this differing experience, the existing practices that have not gained traction, and where we lack practices that could help to mitigate the differing experience.

I have asked Professor Camille Charles to help us do this. Professor Charles is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology, Africana Studies & Education and the Director of the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She was the founding chair of the Department of Africana Studies. Her work will focus primarily on the student experience, but we also expect to gain a better understanding of issues that affect those of color on our faculty and staff.

In particular, she will:

  1. Develop an understanding of the differing experiences of our students of color and white students, as well as the perceptions that each group holds of the other’s experiences. These include classroom, social, extracurricular, and athletic experiences, among others.
  2. Develop an understanding of practices and policies we have (or do not have) that contribute to the differing experiences. These include programs to attract students of color; programs to recruit and retain faculty and staff of color; how we engage our white faculty, staff, and students on issues of race; and programming and resources devoted to enhancing multicultural life on campus.
  3. Develop recommendations on changes we should consider to these practices or policies, or the new practices or policies we might adopt in order to mitigate the differing experiences and perceptions.

This work will include analyses of various data, as well as interviews and meetings with students, faculty, and staff during campus visits next semester. Professor Charles’s work will be completed in early May, before the end of the academic year, and her findings and recommendations will be made available to the campus community and will be discussed with the Board of Trustees. 

Those of you present at the Inaugural Symposium in October had the opportunity to hear Professor Charles speak and to learn that she is one of the country’s leading scholars with respect to the issues of race in America, particularly in the context of higher education. She is the author of Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Race, Class, and Residence in Los Angeles, which offers class- and race-based explanations for persisting residential segregation by race. She is also coauthor of The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities. She is coauthor of the forthcoming book Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities, the second in a series based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, and Race in the American Mind: From the Moynihan Report to the Obama Candidacy. She is nearing completion of a book on black racial identity in the United States, tentatively titled The New Black: Race-Conscious or Post-Racial? She has also chaired the Faculty Senate at Penn, where she played a leading role in changing the practices for hiring faculty of color.

Professor Charles will be assisted in this work by Professor Rory Kramer, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University and a visiting scholar at the Center for Africana Studies at Penn. Professor Kramer, a graduate of Williams College, earned his PhD in sociology at Penn in 2012.

We have significant work ahead to make progress with respect to race on our campus, work that will require persistence and commitment. This project will allow us to be thoughtful and fact-based in addressing the challenge. Bowdoin is a great college, with strong values and wonderful people, and I know from my many recent conversations that there is a deep desire within our community to eliminate differing experiences based on race. I am committed to the obligation and opportunity we have to make Bowdoin better, and I am confident that, together, we will do so.