These have been very busy opening weeks at the College as we swing into gear for the new academic year. Nearly all of the ceremonial events of the opening of the College are behind us, our first-year students have been welcomed to Bowdoin by nearly everyone on our campus over and over again, I turned 60 (I still can’t believe it, but am nonetheless grateful to my friends at Le Pig for their birthday salute), and my Convocation speech has become a widely discussed topic on campus and around the Bowdoin community more generally.
I have received many comments on my talk-some very favorable and many others congratulating me quite carefully for my provocative talk (which, for some, is the politically correct version of outrage). Not surprisingly, most of the discussion has focused on the political diversity issue on campus. There are many who have said to me that, of course, Bowdoin is a liberal place; that it should be, and that we should not be self-conscious about this at all. Others are concerned that I really do intend for us to intentionally force more political balance on campus. I am surprised by this reaction, since I stated quite unequivocally that there is no place at Bowdoin for a political litmus test in the hiring process. However, I think that because I raised the issue, some people are skeptical of my motives.
The students of Bowdoin are fantastic-mature and responsible. I received a number of very wonderful messages from students who thanked me for recognizing them in particular-students who hold deeply held convictions that are not part of the mainstream culture of the campus. One student thanked me quite emotionally for recognizing that Bowdoin is a place for deeply religious people who are Christian conservatives. Another student thanked me for creating a conversation where gender is open for discussion. Both conversations were a reminder to me that there is real unease and insecurity among people who feel “different” on our campus.
One of the messages I received was from senior Brian Lohotsky, who happens to be a Republican on campus. Brian writes: “In my political conversations with friends here, I’ve found my opinions going through a sort of “˜what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ workout, in that being grilled has not only strengthened my skills in debating and analysis of current events, but also has partially helped me to understand why I believe some of what I believe, which is very important. With national election hysteria sweeping the country (and Bowdoin!) every two years, everyone will probably end up in a political conversation at some point or another, and they should appreciate not only that they have the opportunity to be surrounded by such intellectual discourse, but also that in this great country of ours, we are free to believe what we want to believe, and we should, individually, be proud of that freedom and our own beliefs.”
Brian reinforces my point better than I could: that a Bowdoin education is at the heart of our democracy.
On the financial aspect of my talk, which discussed the issue of college affordability, I have received a number of messages from alumni and parents. Some remind me that a Bowdoin education is worth every penny. But others thank me for recognizing the struggle that so many face as our costs escalate. On campus, the reaction has been mostly: “Really tough problem, good luck in dealing with it.” I understand that reaction, and if I were in their shoes, it is probably the reaction I might have. But these financial issues are a reality and a problem for us all to grapple with and work to resolve.
An example: over a decade ago we built at Bowdoin a software program for the maintenance of student academic records, schedules, and class lists. This website, known as “Bearings,” is available to faculty and is very useful in advising students. The software does not allow our students to register on-line, so we are still an old-fashioned place where students turn in class schedules to the registrar on registration cards. This system is obviously “old school,” and Bearings crashed this fall when so many folks tried to get on the system at the same time. Over the past five years, I have been lobbied by many on campus to buy a state-of-the-art software package similar to what many schools use today. People are interested in integrated packages that will not only allow students to register on-line, but will keep all kinds of information in one place and eliminate duplication and paper (the equivalent of electronic medical records).
This is a great idea-except for one matter: the cost. The price tag for this software is in excess of $1 million, and by the time we get done customizing the software for Bowdoin and implementing the program over 18 months, this is more like a $2 million system. Some will say this is certainly worth the expense. But this is the classic example of a choice we must consider when we are trying to cut costs to moderate our fees.
Many will look back at what we have done over the past 10 years and ask, “Why question this project but not some others that we have done?” Fair point, but those questions are bygones (as Rachel Connelly educated us in economics a few years ago). The issue now is to determine what is really important for us to do as we face up to the hard choice of what is central and what justifies added expense for the College, and ultimately for our parents and alumni.
Over the next few weeks, we will evaluate whether we can fix the old Bearings software and what that will cost, and we will investigate the new software and make a decision. But, welcome to the new “new” for Bowdoin and for others colleges and universities in America. We will all have to make choices that reflect our new economy.
In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org