Bowdoin's 220th Academic Year
To our students, faculty, and staff,
Today, classes begin. I cannot fully express to you how great it feels to have everyone back on campus. Yesterday, at Convocation, I shared with our first-year and transfer students, and with the faculty and staff in attendance, thoughts on the idea of “the best four years of your life.”
We began and ended this festive occasion with Joyce Moulton, a member of our applied music faculty, on piano. Senior Vice President and Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann gave a powerful talk on the decision to become a coeducational college fifty years ago, and Carrie Scanga, professor of art and director of the Visual Arts Division of the Department of Art gave a wonderful presentation about what art and the creative process can teach us as we rebuild our sense of community on campus. Eduardo Pazos Palma, director of our Rachel Lord Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, delivered an inspiring invocation, and “America the Beautiful” was performed superbly on violin by Julia Duvall ’23 and Paris Wilson ’23. I hope that those of you who were not there will take the time to view the event.
I am writing to you today to share some additional thoughts as we open the year. I hope you will take a few minutes to read what follows.
I am simply awed by the dedication, sacrifice, effort, and grace that I have witnessed from everyone here over the last eighteen months. To my staff and faculty colleagues, it is because of you that we were able to deliver a great Bowdoin education to our students and keep everyone safe. Thank you!
And great thanks to our returning students, for all that you did to work with our faculty and staff and to help keep one another safe during a historically difficult year. We particularly value your commitment to learning and to helping shape dynamic and respectful classroom and campus environments.
As I have written to you previously, the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. We need to learn how to live and work with the virus as a reality, with the flexibility to adopt specific protocols at moments when the threat is more substantial and to lift those protocols when the threat subsides. We will do this imperfectly, to be sure, but we will get better at it as we learn, and we will be guided by the data and science.
Many of us have spent much of the last eighteen months “hunkered down,” and returning to many of the normal rhythms and interactions of college life will take some adjustment. Please recognize that walking back to something that is more normal will take a little time, so give yourself grace in the early days and provide that grace to others as well as they manage their own adjustments.
After two rounds of testing (antigen and PCR) for first-year students and one round of antigen tests for returning students, four of our roughly 1,900 students have tested positive so far. These four students are in isolation and are being well taken care of (recognizing that isolation is zero fun). While Maine has the lowest rate of infection of any state and a very high vaccination rate—and Brunswick and the region are in even better shape—the current level of infection is a concern. Please be wise about masking indoors when off campus and in adhering to our policies regarding guests on campus. We begin surveillance testing among students, faculty, and staff on Thursday and Friday, and we will evaluate these results and the regional infection rate data before making a decision on the indoor mask mandate currently in place through Saturday, September 4.
Throughout the semester, faculty and staff will retain the option of requiring masks in class or at other indoor gatherings where social distancing is a challenge. And we welcome and support any of us wearing a mask at any time—if you feel more comfortable with a mask on, then please wear it.
We will continue to use the Monday and Thursday Campus Update email as the primary communication channel for COVID-related information. Please make sure to read it carefully—it is our responsibility to be familiar with any information included in the update, particularly as it relates to Bowdoin’s COVID-19 policies and protocols. The COVID-19 dashboard will be reintroduced next week, and will be posted here on the Bowdoin website along with messages to campus, answers to frequently asked questions, our vaccination policy, and other COVID-19-related information.
DEI AND RACIAL JUSTICE
I communicated extensively with you last year about the need to do our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and racial justice work differently, to do better work, and to sustain this work over a long period of time. We made a good start last year, but it was simply that, a start. As you will recall, there are three broad projects that comprise this work:
Over the past year, many in our community were engaged in defining issues and suggesting work as they relate to diversity, inclusion, and racial justice on campus. We will benefit greatly from their efforts this year and far beyond. That said, I cannot emphasize strongly enough how critical it will be for everyone on our campus—all of us—to be actively committed to and engaged in this work. We must create a culture where we do not “opt in”; rather, we simply are in.
I would ask all of you, and our students in particular, to read what we have written thus far on the plans, the goals, and the work that has been done, and then to provide your thoughts and ideas about how we can do this work better. These plans and every message to the community related to this work are located here on the Bowdoin website.
Finally, our attention to the issue of racial justice does not allow us to stand down from work on other aspects of diversity and inclusion, including sexual orientation, accessibility, gender, and religious tolerance, among others. This work continues as well.
WELLNESS AND MENTAL HEALTH
Before the pandemic, mental health challenges for recent college graduates, those of college age, and K-12 students had increased substantially in comparison to those who are older. Mental health is an issue that Bowdoin has devoted significant time and resources to addressing, including through the work of Counseling and Wellness Services to enhance, increase, and broaden our campus resources over the last few years. To complement this growth in services, Counseling and Wellness Services is establishing partnerships with three organizations to offer greater access, range, and diversity of mental health care to our students.
There will be a message coming soon from the director of Counseling and Wellness Services, Roland Mendiola, providing more details on the resources we have to address these issues.
Our wellness programs are an essential and underappreciated part of our approach to mental and physical health. These efforts—including mindfulness, stress management, and group work—in addition to resources from peer health, fitness classes, athletics initiatives, Outing Club offerings, and resources at the Baldwin Center for Learning and Teaching, are all ways in which we offer students a toolbox of skills that can assist in helping address the challenges they may experience. I encourage students to be proactive in learning about these opportunities and to seek them out. Knowing how to tend to one’s wellness can offer a deep understanding and approach when demands and expectations feel difficult, here at Bowdoin and far beyond once you have graduated.
For faculty and staff, the College’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Designed to assist with issues like emotional stress, including depression and anxiety, financial issues, legal matters, childcare, caring for parents, and a host of others, it is a confidential way to connect online, in person, or by phone with trustworthy professionals.
LAST YEAR’S BUDGET
I promised I would report back on the actual budget numbers for our 2020–2021 academic year. We ran a $7.24 million deficit—the largest in our history—last year. The good news is that this deficit was significantly smaller than we initially projected because of higher enrollments, sacrifices by our faculty and staff, and unexpected cost savings, especially around health care. As we entered January 2021 and saw that enrollments would again be higher than planned, we were able to raise faculty and staff salaries and restore the reduction in retirement plan contributions that the College makes for our employees. We were one of the few colleges or universities in the country to make these midyear increases to salaries, which allowed our raises in 2021–2022 to be built on a higher base. This is what we should do, and I am grateful to everyone on the faculty and staff for their sacrifice.
As we have all seen in the news and with our own eyes, given the number of storefronts with “help wanted” or “hiring now” signs, there are currently significant labor and supply chain shortages in Maine and throughout the country. One way we are responding to these challenges is to make sure that Bowdoin remains a leader in wages and benefits in Maine. As Matt Orlando announced last week, we are now providing a minimum hourly wage of $17.00 compared with Maine’s minimum of $12.15 an hour, and we are also making compression adjustments for virtually all of the more than 330 support staff currently working at the College who will also see their paychecks increase. This increase to $17.00 from our previous minimum wage of $15.50 went into effect on Monday, August 30, ten months ahead of schedule.
This past year’s Annual Fund effort, which ended on June 30, was the most successful ever. Alumni participation grew to 49 percent from 43 percent the year before, an almost unheard-of increase, and the College raised $12.55 million in annual gifts, the second-largest dollar amount in Bowdoin’s history. Supported by thousands of alumni, families, and friends each year, Bowdoin's annual funds directly impact every aspect of the student experience.
The From Here comprehensive campaign, which launched on February 6, 2020, a matter of weeks before the pandemic hit this country, now stands at just under $387 million of our goal of raising $500 million by June 30, 2024. The staff in development and alumni relations worked with great determination throughout the year to make this happen.
I could not be more grateful to our alumni, parents, and Bowdoin friends for their great generosity. They believe deeply in our mission and ask for little beyond a thank you and the opportunity to watch Bowdoin and our students thrive in return for their investment in the future of the College and our students.
Increasing our endowment for financial aid is a critical goal for the From Here campaign. Our need-blind, no-loan/grant-only model that meets the full demonstrated need of each family is central to who we are and an essential aspect of differentiation between Bowdoin and all but a handful of other colleges and universities, and it will become even more important in the years ahead.
Since the spring of 2020 and over the course of the pandemic, we were able to provide an additional $4.85 million in extra financial aid and financial support for our students. In addition, the staffs in student affairs, student aid, and information technology spent many hundreds of hours helping students sort through issues like financial support, housing and meals, travel, technology needs, and packing and shipping their belongings, among others.
We also managed the process for students to access the three rounds of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) monies available to them, and $1.1 million has been drawn down.
We will always do our very best to provide help for our students, as well as for staff and faculty, in times of great need or tragedy. However, these past eighteen months have been a powerful reminder that Bowdoin cannot keep all the hardships at bay or create economic equality across the student body. What we can do is admit amazing students regardless of financial background and provide them with the financial resources for the opportunity for an excellent Bowdoin education and experience.
LEADERS IN ALL WALKS OF LIFE
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of coeducation at Bowdoin. Later this month, the College will host the first event in what will be a year long celebration. The September 24–25 alumnae-organized kickoff weekend will focus on the leadership and adaptability of women at the College, the experiences of women of color at Bowdoin across the decades, and other topics. There will be additional events as the year unfolds, and I invite you to visit the Leaders in All Walks of Life: 50 Years of Women at Bowdoin website and to mark your calendars as we recognize this important milestone at the College.
As I said at the outset, I could not be happier to have the campus full again and to begin another academic year. Thank you for all that you do for one another and for our College.
All the best,