Opening Of The College: Bowdoin’s 217th Convocation (text)
Good afternoon. It is good to be with you, and to begin another year at our College.
To my faculty and staff colleagues, welcome back. I hope the summer has been productive and refreshing, and that you also enjoyed time with family and friends. Thank you for everything you have done and will do for our students, for one another, and for the College.
To our returning students, welcome back. It is great to see you, and to begin a new year.
To our transfer students and exchange students, we are delighted that you will be continuing your education here, and we welcome you into the Bowdoin family.
And to our 510 first-year students—the Class of 2022—today marks the start of a remarkable journey that, at its best, will include many successes and challenges, new ideas and possibilities, engagement and discovery, and ultimately, accomplishments you likely never thought possible.
It’s been just over a dozen weeks since we closed a great academic year with two fantastic events: Commencement for the Class of 2018, and a Reunion Weekend that brought nearly 2,000 alumni and guests back to campus for three days of renewal and celebration.
Since then it has been a busy summer.
Faculty pursuing their research, writing, performance, and course development. Students engaging in research, study, or service here on campus and across the country and world, as well as all manner of jobs in all kinds of places.
Our staff was busy preparing the campus and the programs to begin this new academic year.
Tomorrow, classes begin with fifty-two new courses.
Thirty-three members of the faculty have returned from scholarly leaves this year—a period of intense focus on scholarship, art, and performance. And we welcome thirty-eight new tenure-track, visiting, or postdoc faculty members to this community of great teachers and scholars.
One year after breaking ground, the new Roux Center for the Environment is now occupied, anchored by EOS and with a group of faculty from across the disciplines. This will be our first LEED Platinum facility, which is a significant achievement for any science building. We will celebrate this building and our long commitment to the teaching and study of the environment with a dedication on October 11 that will include an academic symposium and a keynote address by noted filmmaker and explorer Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the legendary Jacques Cousteau.
We are well into the planning stages for the next chapter at the Schiller Coastal Studies Center that will include new laboratory and convening spaces. And, ground will be broken soon on four new suite-style apartment houses on Park Row that will provide housing for upperclass students. These will be the first buildings at Bowdoin to incorporate “passive house” design principles, making them more comfortable and more ecologically friendly than traditional buildings.
As we welcome the Class of 2022 today, we are already well into the process that will bring the Class of 2023 to Bowdoin. We are working to enhance prospective students’ understanding of what we are and what we offer, especially those exceptional students from areas of the country and around the world who may be less familiar with our college, with the liberal arts, and with Maine.
Last year at Convocation, I spoke about the idea that what we do is “no small thing”—that the liberal arts education and experience at Bowdoin is more important today than ever before. Ours is an education, as I said then, that builds character and competence, that provides the knowledge, the skills, and the sensibility to live lives of deeper meaning, to engage thoughtfully and with effect in civic life, and to have success and satisfaction in work. It is an education that prepares our students to make a difference in the world and to live up to President McKeen’s charge 216 years ago that we are here to serve the common good.
Today, I want to take a few minutes to talk about our future, and the work that we will do to shape our education and experience for the next ten, fifteen years and well beyond.
Last year, I discussed the study that was about to begin, a study led by faculty and that included students, staff, and trustees, to examine the question: “What knowledge, skills, and creative dispositions do we want every student to possess upon graduation ten years from now?”—a question that goes to the heart of what “The Offer of the College” will mean in the future.
This group did remarkable work throughout last year, engaging over 800 members of the community, challenging one another, and thinking deeply. They delivered their report to Dean McCormack and me in late June. It will be made available to the campus community shortly—along with our thoughts on where we will be going with the specific recommendations—once we have had the opportunity to discuss it with the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs.
I have found it to be a stellar piece of work, deeply complementary to the work and conversations that have been ongoing for the past three years. It affirms many of the best aspects of our education and experience while, at the same time, challenging us to change in important ways. Some of what the committee recommends is already underway, some we can begin soon, and other recommendations will require more work by the faculty to chart the course before we set off. I am deeply grateful to the group, led by Professor Chuck Dorn, for their effort, time, and great wisdom. Some of the changes that lie ahead, and that I will touch on in a few moments, are drawn from the work of this group.
Well beyond the confines of our Quad, we find ourselves in the midst of a new revolution. Like the Industrial Revolution that began over 200 years ago, we are in a period of unprecedented change in every aspect of life, and there is no turning back. It is an era characterized by globalization, by significant challenges to the political, economic, and social status quo in systems around the world, demographic and economic shifts not seen in generations, ever-increasing speed of change, the availability of vast amounts of data and the tools to rapidly sort and use these data, a culture of experimentation and acceptance of failure, a thirst for wisdom, judgment, and ethical perspective, and the virtual disappearance of civil discourse. It is an era of both great promise and significant concern, and much of it remains uncharted. This is the age of our students today and of generations of students to come.
To meet the challenge of preparing our students for this age, we need equal measures of confidence in the profound power and enduring relevance of our core liberal arts tradition and a commitment to build from strength to transform essential aspects of what we do.
Our liberal arts education is centered on small classes and close bonds between student and faculty. Our faculty set high expectations, and because they know our students and work closely with them, our students respond in kind with exceptional effort and great accomplishments. The culture of collaboration—with students who operate well in this environment—enhances the effort applied and the results attained. The combination of amazing students who come to do their best work and to be their best selves, talented faculty who care deeply, and close and collaborative working relationships creates a unique and powerful educational experience, one that has had a profound impact on Bowdoin students, generation after generation.
This experience develops and enhances the timeless skills of critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, and the capability to continue to learn and adapt. It also provides our students with the essential knowledge, insights, and tools that come from broad exposure to and deep inquiry within the intellectual disciplines.
We marry this profound experience to our commitment to access—the promise that if you earn a spot at Bowdoin, we will find a way for you to come here, regardless of your financial circumstances.
We will remain steadfastly committed to continuing this work, but we will also have to do some things differently. We will do what we always have—we will adapt, change, and lead.
In our curriculum, we will need to craft an intellectual experience that is substantially more problem-based and more interdisciplinary—one built on greater collaboration.
We will need to develop a way for our students—all of them—to engage in a sustained way with the challenges and imperative of exercising ethical judgment and living lives of integrity.
We will need to provide a sensibility and baseline set of skills for them to understand and work with data and quantitative concepts.
We will need to enhance their disposition to experiment and willingness to fail.
We will need to engage them more robustly in creative expression and in the challenge of “making” in the arts.
Across our campus activities—as we have discussed at great length—we need to double down on our work to develop the skills and practice engagement in the most difficult discourse, to enhance our understanding of the remarkable and varied backgrounds and identities we each bring to Bowdoin, and to underscore the imperative that we maintain and strengthen our communities. These issues of inclusion, identity, community, and discourse are deeply interwoven and are among the most pressing issues we face.
More broadly, we need to be an institution that embraces collaboration within our classrooms, across campus, and with other great institutions and organizations in this country and around the world—to share what we know and do, to learn from others, and to create and be part of something bigger.
The work that is available to graduates after they leave our campus—and the pathways to that work—are changing in this new age. Our career-planning program will engage every student early and often in their time at the College.
It will help students explore the many possibilities of what they might do; create even stronger links to our powerful alumni network for insights, advice, and opportunities; provide the training and skills to obtain a position; make available specific tools necessary for initial success on the job; and, critically, it will have the financial resources that make all of this possible, including critical unpaid summer internship opportunities.
Finally, we need to continue to deliver on the promise of access for everyone who has earned a spot at Bowdoin. A need-blind admission and no-loan, grant-only financial aid program like ours is found at only seventeen other colleges and universities in this country. This commitment is essential to attracting the best students, both those who require aid and those who do not, and the best faculty who want to teach amazing students, and it will be a central point of distinction in the years ahead between the exceptional colleges and universities and the rest. This commitment is expensive and is only possible through the amazing generosity over many years by our alumni, parents, and friends.
Is all of this ambitious? Very much so, and that’s how it should be—Bowdoin should be very bold and very ambitious. Is success a foregone conclusion? Not by any means. But with sustained effort and a willingness to continue to change, it is very much within our grasp.
So, what does it look like when we get there?
We will continue to have a campus filled with students from an amazing variety of backgrounds, experiences, and identities, who share the characteristics of being wicked smart, engaged, curious, kind, and of great character.
They will continue to develop and hone the timeless skills of the liberal arts, and develop the knowledge and insights that come from working within traditional intellectual disciplines.
From this foundation we will then build. Our students will be intellectually nimble, disposed to and skilled at collaboration, and able to evaluate and tackle meaningful, complex problems and opportunities from multiple directions.
They will think about the local and global implications of the decisions they make, and evaluate and influence those made by other leaders.
They will have the knowledge and ability to evaluate data, to understand its limits and powers, to explain what is important and what is suspect, and to develop the next questions.
They will appreciate the differences among us, will be able and motivated to engage across cultural divides, and have the skills to bridge profound differences and the ability and disposition to do so thoughtfully and with respect.
They will chart a course of study here that is not motivated by practicalities or by some notion of a future job. Rather, they will explore, experiment, and study those things of deep interest. And, at the same time, they will leave here with an understanding of the work they will find satisfying and with the skills to succeed in that work.
They will be prepared—as Bowdoin graduates have for generations—to lead and shape the world with character, integrity, and judgment. And in doing all of this, they will advance in this new age the two-centuries-old tradition of Bowdoin graduates who change the world.
As I look at our new first-year students, what lies ahead of you is incredibly exciting. Remember to explore, challenge yourselves, strive to be intellectually fearless, ask for help, and help one another.
To my colleagues on the faculty and staff, thank you for everything you do and will do to allow Bowdoin to provide an exceptional education and experience that shapes leaders, and that changes lives.
This is a great moment to be at Bowdoin, as we build on strength and success and push ahead in this remarkable new age.
I look forward to the work this community will do together in writing the next chapters in the remarkable history of our college.
As we begin our 217th academic year, I hope that for each of you it is a year filled with deeply satisfying work and continued discovery, that you enjoy good health, and that you experience the joy of family, friends, and the amazing bonds of the Bowdoin community.
I now declare our College to be in session.