Message to Campus Community — October 12, 2016

To the campus community,

Welcome back from fall break.

I am writing to share with you my thoughts on a handful of matters, most of which I have been speaking about in various venues at the College recently. I welcome your thoughts and feedback on any of this.

Ambitions

After a year spent listening, learning, discussing, and thinking, it is time to talk more specifically about our ambitions. The College is strong in so many ways, and we are among a handful of colleges and universities that have the opportunity to be deeply ambitious about our future. We are confident in our mission and positioned well to think together about how we can continue to evolve—as Bowdoin has since its founding—to meet the educational needs of our students.

This is not a declaration of particular programs—that will come later. Rather, I have identified areas for us to explore together in various ways over the next year or more. These conversations and this work will allow us to determine specific programs and choices that make the most sense for us over the next decade and beyond. I am incredibly excited about this work and our opportunities.

The areas of exploration fall into four categories: purpose, culture, opportunity, and innovation.

1.) There are four areas of focus for inquiry that fall within our purpose as a leading liberal arts college:

  1.  What knowledge and skills do we believe that every student who graduates in ten years should possess?
  2. How might we enhance the “quantitative literacy” of our students, in much the same way that our curriculum is currently designed to enhance their writing skills? Critically, this is not a STEM issue, but rather is something germane to our entire curriculum.
  3. What can we be doing to turn the tide of declining enrollments in the humanities, something happening nationwide?
  4. What more can we be doing to quickly close the gaps among our students in the varied levels of preparedness for college-level material and comfort with navigating the academic environment?

2.) With respect to our culture, there are two areas of focus now. The first relates specifically to faculty, and the second is more generally for our campus. A theme from my discussions with faculty colleagues over the last year is the desire for greater engagement on intellectual and pedagogical issues with one another across the College and across disciplines. Throughout our campus, and as I have discussed since my arrival, the challenge and opportunity is to both be an even more inclusive community across many dimensions of difference (race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic class, political views, religion, and sexual orientation, among others) and to enhance a central aspect of our institutional mission: developing the ability and sensibility to discuss the hardest, most uncomfortable issues in a thoughtful, respectful, and real way. At times there is a tension between these goals, and we need to continue to build ways for them to coexist.

3.) With opportunity, we will enhance our commitment to need-blind admission and no-loan financial aid by examining the ways aid might be adjusted to allow our high-need students to have the fullest experience possible while at Bowdoin.

4.) Finally, with respect to innovation, we will examine the physical and technological flexibility of our classrooms, labs, and common spaces and seek to create physical and virtual spaces that allow us to better accomplish our intellectual mission. The program committee for the Roux Center has spent considerable time on this issue, and the new building will be something of a “test kitchen” in this regard for the rest of campus. We will also examine how we might push ourselves to the leading edge of liberal arts colleges in aspects of our technology infrastructure (specifically network capability and computing power) to allow faculty and students across the disciplines to undertake cutting-edge work.

 Budget

It is clear that we and other colleges and universities are facing new budget realities. Endowment returns for the last fiscal year were lower than in years past and are likely to remain at lower levels for the foreseeable future. We announced last week that our endowment returned -1.4 percent for the year ended June 30, 2016, compared with a ten-year average annual return of 8.5 percent. Importantly, this performance puts Bowdoin in the top quartile of all colleges and universities for the year, which speaks to the terrific work by Paula Volent, her team, and our Investment Committee in very volatile markets. These lower returns do mean that the increase in the distribution the College will receive from the endowment will be at a lower level than we have enjoyed for a number of years.

 

That said, while the senior officers and I are focused on this new reality, and it will almost certainly require a shift from “business as usual,” we have an excellent process in place for managing our budget and for maintaining financial discipline. This should allow us to avoid dramatic actions and, more importantly, to find additional resources to fund some of our aspirations.

Inclusion

As you know, the Ad Hoc Committee on Inclusion is charged with looking at the challenges of being an even more inclusive community, particularly with respect to race and ethnicity, first-generation students, and those students receiving significant financial aid. This is critical work, and I am grateful to committee members for the time, energy, and insight they are devoting to the effort. If you have thoughts for this group, please send them to adhocinc@bowdoin.edu.

The College will continue to learn, experiment, and get better at dealing with incidents of bias, which vary widely in their nature and intent. To that end, we are adding to our tools a formal process and structure (something along the lines of mediation) that we will use when appropriate. The goal is to engage with one another in a way that educates, promotes learning and change, and relieves some of the burden on those in our community who too often engage in this work. I expect that in many cases we will look first to this process and structure, rather than to a disciplinary response. To be clear, there will be moments when it will be appropriate to engage our disciplinary process. Members of the student affairs staff will develop a proposal for our process and structure, and I have asked the Bias Incident Group to work with me on reviewing it and helping to shape it prior to its adoption. We will solicit the ideas and insights of the campus community in developing this tool.

In this era of rapid and often unfettered dissemination of information, rumors, and innuendo on blogs and social media, we must also be particularly careful to uphold the confidentiality of our disciplinary process and the privacy of members of our community. Statements by the “administration” about concerns or investigations can easily be twisted into conclusions that support particular agendas and that adversely affect members of our community. We will continue to report, as appropriate, anonymous acts of bias, and the suitable campus office will employ existing policies and procedures to deal with bias when the perpetrator or perpetrators are known. But we will not automatically notify the entire campus community every time we learn of an incident. I expect there will be situations where we will make a timely notification but, in other cases, we will wait to allow an investigation to confirm the facts or for a disciplinary process to work in a way that does not prejudice the outcome.

Discourse and Debate

I am tremendously gratified and proud of our community for the work being done in all quarters to promote open dialogue, discussion, and debate on our campus on the tough and uncomfortable questions and issues, and to engage respectfully with one another when we disagree. These began with the “More than Meets the Eye” sessions during Orientation—the first of which had returning students representing a multitude of viewpoints speaking honestly about their own experiences with race and ethnicity on campus and taking questions from the entering first-year class (many of whom took the lead from the upperclass students and posed challenging and “uncomfortable” questions). The most recent example was last week’s well-attended “Patriotism and Protest” open forum focused on ongoing demonstrations across the country associated with the American flag and the national anthem. Of course, there have also been all manner of conversations on tough and important issues taking place in our classrooms and elsewhere on campus, and we continue to have lectures and discussions with a wide array of speakers representing different points of view.

Coming up on December 5—as I announced recently—the College will present a moderated discussion and debate on freedom of speech and political correctness on college campuses with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Manhattan Institute Fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley. I hope you will save the date and participate in this timely discussion. Details about the venue and tickets for the event will be circulated in the coming days.

Searches

I am pleased to report that our two national searches—for a permanent dean for academic affairs and a new senior vice president for finance and administration & treasurer—are very much on track. The strength of the applicant pool for both positions reflects Bowdoin’s reputation for excellence.

 Board of Trustees

Finally, our fall board meetings concluded on Saturday. It was a lively and productive set of meetings, during which we welcomed Shelley Hearne ’83 as a new member and said farewell and thank you to Geoff Rusack ’78, who stepped down from the board after thirteen years of service. We also elected two new trustees: Robert Friedman P’15, P’20 and Bertrand Garcia-Moreno ’81, P’17. We spent a good deal of time talking with trustees about our ambitions for the College, opportunities and challenges for fundraising, physical plant considerations, and some of the access, affordability, and demographic challenges and opportunities in admissions. The faculty, student, and staff program committee for the Roux Center met with the board over lunch on Friday to hear from Dean Jen Scanlon on the intellectual mission of the building and from lead architect Timothy Mansfield P’20 on its design. The committee and board then discussed the project. And, in what was a fascinating discussion involving trustees, faculty, staff, and students at a working dinner Friday evening, we heard from John Palfrey, head of school at Phillips Academy, an expert on social media, and coauthor of the book Born Digital. John spoke with us about the challenges of navigating the digital world.

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The opportunities for Bowdoin are tremendous, and I am excited about our future and the work ahead.

Sincerely,

Clayton