President Mills Delivers Remarks at LEGO Conference

President Barry Mills was asked to deliver remarks at a meeting of 280 employees of The LEGO Group June 2, 2014, in Stowe, Vermont. Joining a panel of guest speakers that also included Toys R Us President Hank Mullany and Kerry Phelan, former executive vice president of consumer products for Dreamworks, President Mills was invited to inspire LEGO’s sales, marketing and operations personnel on a strategic and emotional level and to help celebrate the broader value of the toymaker’s work.

Good afternoon. I want to thank you for the invitation to speak with you today. LEGO is a fantastic company and we are proud of the relationship that Bowdoin College is creating with LEGO. Mike Moynihan is a very proud Bowdoin alumnus and an even more proud LEGO veteran leader. Mike has been instrumental in creating a stronger relationship between his two passions — Bowdoin and LEGO — and we are very grateful.

 

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A plaque with the Bowdoin wordmark in LEGO bricks, in gratitude for President Barry Mills’ inspiring remarks.

I remember well being a very young boy when my parents bought me my first set of LEGOs in the mid 1950s. I think the LEGOs were packaged in a cylindrical box, and I remember to this day the very colorful blocks piled high on the floor of our living room in Warwick, Rhode Island, as my dad and I started to play. In those days, I don’t remember a lot of directions included with the pieces in the box. It was all up to our imaginations as to what we would build. I remember I was very partial to the windows — those intricate white windows that opened so elegantly. I have two brothers and we played together with the LEGOs and built stuff while sometimes throwing the LEGOs at each other for fun. We weren’t the most talented LEGO builders — not so highly spatial in my capacities, which is probably why I gravitated in my career to a desk as a corporate lawyer for over 20 years and as a college president now for 13 years.

But, I do remember the feeling of both limitless opportunity and the challenge of being creative every time we sat down to play. And, I remember the toys as a chance to bond with my father on the living room floor and to hang with my brothers. While I’m sure for many others playing with LEGOs is remembered as a time of personal exploration and imagination, for me, the LEGO experience brings back a warm sense of family and great memories.

Fast forward a lot of years and then I am a dad myself of three boys. Living in New York City in a Manhattan apartment, there I was with my young boys on the floor of their bedrooms opening the box of LEGOs. This was in the late 80s and early 90s and it is great to be a dad because it gives you an excuse as an adult to play with LEGOs again.

I admit to being surprised when I went to the store to buy the LEGOs for my boys. This time the boxes weren’t simple tubs of LEGOs. They were huge and were decorated with castles and space shuttles and I was surprised to be buying what seemed to me more like a kit to build a specific project. My kids were attracted to the pictures on the box because they wanted the castle or the rocket ship — a different experience from what I had remembered. But once we unloaded the packages and started to build, the LEGO experience returned to me emotionally — there I was on the floor recreating with my sons what I had with my dad. We seemed to follow directions more closely than I remember as a boy and we had a project goal — which, for a spatially challenged dad like me, was a good thing until, of course, a few days later when the boys got bored with the castle. And then they stormed the castle, smashing it into pieces and we were then ready to build whatever they could imagine, freestyle.

What I remember most from those days with the boys was a family experience and the opportunity for me to spend time with them. But I won’t exaggerate. My wife, Karen, is much better at LEGOs and the boys very quickly recognized her abilities and my shortcomings, and I was replaced.

So — to state the obvious — you have an iconic product and an iconic brand. And despite the bumps in the road you faced a number of years ago that are well documented, you as leaders and as a company know what you are and you understand your product.

I have watched your CEO on the web and listened to Soren’s presentation today and I am impressed with your focus every day on the question of why your company exists and your collective focus on LEGO’s clearly defined mission. I am also impressed with your company’s equally important focus on execution, because a focus on mission without execution is ineffective.  I am impressed in part because your CEO expresses exactly the way I think about the iconic brand that I have the honor to lead: Bowdoin College. You are a company with a mission to “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow,” a mission that is quite similar to our mission at Bowdoin of educating people who will be “leaders in all walks of life.”

Bowdoin College was founded in 1794 when Maine was still a part of Massachusetts. Our long history imparts on us a special responsibility to be true to our mission and values. Today we are a College of about 1,800 students and one of the truly excellent liberal arts colleges in America. Our students come from all over the United States and the world. Approximately ten percent of our students are from Maine, and about thirty-five percent are from New England — including Maine. New York and California are two of the states many of our students call home, but today Bowdoin is a national and international college with students from nearly every state and from more than fifty countries. Ours is a broad-based liberal arts curriculum with heavy emphasis on the sciences, the humanities and social sciences, and the arts. One cannot graduate from Bowdoin without taking courses in all of the disciplines, and there is a requirement that students take a course that involves quantitative reasoning — numbers. Students must also take a course in the arts.

At Bowdoin, we take very seriously our responsibility to create access and opportunity for students — an issue at the forefront of the national discussion today. Nearly forty-five percent of our students receive financial aid, with an average grant of approximately $40,000 per year. Students whose families make less than $70,000 per year receive full support from the College. Our financial aid is awarded solely on the basis of family need, and we admit our students on a need-blind basis, which means we don’t look to see how much money a family needs when we consider a student’s application. Nearly fourteen percent of our students are first-generation college students and a little more than fourteen percent of our students are recipients of Pell Grants, awarded to students from the lowest income brackets. We believe in providing access and opportunity to every student who, through their achievements, hard work, and talent has earned the right to be at Bowdoin, regardless of their economic circumstances. We know from experience that students come to Bowdoin to make a better life for themselves, to participate in the American dream, but also to make a better life for their families and for their communities.

In addition to Mike Moynihan, we have had our share of very famous graduates — quite a remarkable list of people at a school as small as ours. Hawthorne and Longfellow; U.S. President Franklin Pierce; U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Melville Weston Fuller; Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain; and in more recent history, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen; diplomats Thomas Pickering and Christopher Hill; Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson; Geoff Canada of the Harlem Children Zone; Ken Chenault, CEO and chairman of American Express, investor and philanthropist Stan Druckenmiller; Cynthia McFadden of NBC News; Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix; Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco, and on and on. We have an accomplished group of alumni.

Lego Polar Bear

Nearly sixty percent of our alumni contribute to the College every year, and our endowment stands at nearly $1.2 billion. Our alumni, parents, and friends are extremely loyal to Bowdoin — the place is not a cult, but it sometimes feels like one. Bowdoin is a place that values and nurtures enduring personal friendships. I just finished Reunion Weekend at Bowdoin where over half of the people who graduated in 2009 were back in person and where over 2,000 people celebrated together.

We educate our students in the liberal arts tradition — our students learn how to write, speak, communicate, think critically, analyze and manipulate data, hone their research and artistic talents, and develop judgment and perspective. At their best, our students are fearless learners, but when they arrive in Brunswick, many are still “undecided” about their major. They see Bowdoin as that box of LEGOs of years gone by — lots of building blocks and unlimited possibilities all left to imagination, the ability to create something, and the focus and commitment necessary to achieve at the highest levels. Four years later, when they leave, these young men and women have learned broadly in the liberal arts tradition with a deep concentration on one or two majors, often at the level of graduate education at other institutions.

The relevance of liberal arts education has been questioned for a long time, certainly for all my years at Bowdoin. But, even more so in the last few years as the job market as become so tough and the world is so focused on innovation and technology. It feels as if the world is looking for a form of education more like the LEGO box I bought my boys — the one with the specific directions. If you study the building blocks in this box, you will be ready to be the accountant, or banker, or lawyer, or marketing person, or whatever job is illustrated on the cover. Now more than ever, families thinking about college are focused on immediate outcomes; “Can my son or daughter get a job?” And, that makes sense given the state of our economy and how much it costs to go to a college like Bowdoin.

In my view, we need to think more broadly about education and the opportunities for lifelong learning and achievement that it can provide. Bowdoin is a residential liberal arts college where for four years students are allowed to hone all of their skills, to develop their interests, and to acquire new interests.  Much like building with LEGOs, ours is an education about creativity and critical analysis — thinking about what I want to create and figuring out how to fit it all together. It is also about the ability to adapt. When the pieces of life come apart, how do I take those building blocks and put them back together in another great form of life or career — a skill very important in today’s world.

Our students are broadly educated to be creative and engaged and fearless. They also live in a diverse community where they are encouraged to be leaders. In all of their experiences at the College, whether it is athletics, the newspaper, dorm life, the judiciary board, a cappella groups, student government, as student reps to college and trustee committees, our students are encouraged to be leaders — leaders with a sense of humility and a reliance on teamwork and fair play; leaders who leave their ego at the door and who strive to be principled leaders in all that they do.

At Bowdoin, another basic part of our mission is a commitment to the common good. This commitment goes all the way back to the opening of the College in 1802 when our first president, Joseph McKeen, said that “literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.” McKeen said that anyone “aided by a public institution to acquire an education” is obligated to “exert [their] talents for the public good.”

This commitment to the common good is lived out every day by our students through their work in Brunswick and mid-coast Maine, across the United States, and around the world. We are particularly proud because this is work that our students choose to do; it is not something dictated by the College. Our goal is to educate students in the tradition of the common good, and if they live this tradition by choice, it is much more likely to become part of their lives.

Put it all together, and Bowdoin is graduating highly educated young men and women who are well-prepared to lead, well prepared to adapt, and motivated to use their skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world. And, for the parents and families who have helped to make it possible, the good news is that they do get jobs. Nearly 75 percent of the seniors who graduated from Bowdoin a week ago had jobs lined up or had plans for further education when they leave Bowdoin. We know that by the time Homecoming comes along in the fall, nearly all the members of the Class of 2014 will be well committed to jobs or graduate or professional school. This is impressive for Bowdoin and critical to our future as students and families focus on outcomes.

Why are we so successful? Our students are well educated and extremely talented. They have excellent judgment and understand teamwork. They are humble but extremely ambitious and they are ready to work hard with a commitment to the common good. And, the Bowdoin network of alumni, parents, and friends are ready to help these young people find jobs and to serve as mentors. It is a great formula that works.

But let me talk for a moment about a challenge both LEGO and Bowdoin face in today’s world and then I will come back to jobs. Technology must be a challenge for LEGO. Our young people, including very young people, are spending much of their time on computers, phones, PDAs, tablets, etc., playing games, watching video (maybe the awesome “LEGO Movie”), and this has to be very tough competition for the LEGO brand. I was on a plane the other week and watched parents entertain their baby with an iPAD as they moved the apps around on the screen — the baby was doing it himself. Will that kid want to play with LEGOs? Let’s hope so. And, technology certainly has changed the way you do business, from manufacturing, the supply chain, administration, and marketing — all aspects of your business.

At Bowdoin we face similar challenges from technology. In years gone by, we had buildings and people. Today, we have all the technology necessary to operate those buildings and allow people to do their jobs and be entertained. The cost of this technology, which does not create a lot of efficiencies, is the undiscussed driver of much of the cost of education today. The per-square-foot-cost of our buildings and the cost of our employees is much higher today because of the technology we must provide as a cost of doing business.

And, technology challenges the basic model of education. Our students come to college gathering information from libraries online. They surf the Google-driven web for information. They don’t have time to read books, so will they have time for four years of college?

Distance learning and MOOCs are said to be the future of an efficient and economic mode of delivering education. And, for large masses of folks and certain kinds of education I believe this is absolutely the case. As MOOCs improve, there should be great optimism that this form of education will help educate large numbers of people and bend the cost curve. And, for places like Bowdoin located in more remote areas, the ability to get information delivered from sophisticated places and from faculty located far from our campus is quite exciting if we can link this form of delivery to the modes of personal education we deliver.

So, at Bowdoin this year we had students taking a graduate course online in math, but we had the students meet with one of our faculty often throughout the semester to make sure they were learning the information and to allow the students personal attention to help them process the material. The ability for us to import this education to Bowdoin will allow us to be even more sophisticated in the information we can deliver to our students. This is a great opportunity for Bowdoin and one that we must pay attention to. It is critical to our future and our prosperity that we remain a highly effective institution that delivers sophisticated and complex education to the most talented students.

We cannot afford to stand still, and Bowdoin never has. And, as we think about the importance of liberal education in this age of information, it is important to remind ourselves about how our mode of thinking, inquiry and expression has evolved and continued to evolve.

We tend to think our form of liberal arts education has remained mostly static in the 220 years since our founding. At our beginnings, our mode of education was liberally grounded in concepts linked to religion, with a heavy dose of the classics  —  Latin, Greek and Hebrew. This model of education was heavily reliant on rote memorization, and it sustained generations of Bowdoin students all the way through the late 1800s.

The fundamental model of liberal education has remained the same these two centuries, even as new disciplines have arisen with every generation.

When I was a student at Bowdoin more than 40 years ago, I graduated with the first classes of biochemistry majors.

In our relatively recent history, we have seen new disciplines arise in Africana Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, Environmental Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Neuroscience, Earth and Oceanographic Science and many more. This past year, we added a program in Digital and Computational Studies aimed at helping our students understand the power and prevalence of “big data” in everything we do today — in science and technology, surely, but also in the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and many other areas.

Our curriculum has clearly expanded, but in large measure, the variety of modes of inquiry among the disciplines has remained relatively static along with our concept of what it means to study in the liberal arts tradition. Like LEGO, we know who we are and what we stand for, but we also know that we must continue to adapt and evolve if we are to remain as relevant and important in the future as we have been in the past.

Colleges and universities are different from businesses in many fundamental ways, but it is essential that we avoid complacency in our success. Our business model is very expensive and students and faculty must be able to understand why the cost of the education makes sense for them and how the value equation, beyond just a job, justifies the time spent and the expense. These are complicated issues that will only get more complex.  It will take focused and ambitious leadership for all these institutions to chart their future courses, but the lessons of remembering who you are and why you exist are fundamental.

Finally, let me return to jobs. I want to thank the LEGO organization for making jobs available to Bowdoin students. I understand that the profile of our students is a risk for you because they haven’t studied specifically some of what you expect them to do on day one. But, I also suspect that once you hire our students and see them on the job, you recognize much of what I have described. These are very intelligent, highly motivated, and team-oriented young people who are quick studies and genuinely fun folks to be around. So, I encourage you to continue to take these “risks” and provide more internships to liberal arts college graduates. Please talk with your business colleagues at other places to let them know of your experiences and encourage them also. These are the kind of young people who played with LEGOs as kids — they are creative, imaginative, intelligent builders who will be leaders in all walks of life.

I also noticed that your participants here today are quite young– you are a young company.  And so, my message to you employees is that in getting the opportunity to work at LEGO you have a responsibility.  The narrative about your generation is that you aren’t so committed to work and that work/life balance is the most important value to you in your work lives.  From my own experience, I can confirm the importance of work/life balance, but I can also confirm that hard work is the best way to develop your careers, attract mentors, and be happy and successful in your job.  The only way to develop good experience and capacity is through sustained focus and hard work.  So, please be enthusiastic about your work.

Your product has endured and your business has thrived because LEGO has provided generations of people the ability to imagine, create, and discover. Bowdoin and the liberal arts have endured and thrived in America because we provide the foundation necessary for lifelong learning and the ability to adapt to a changing world. We may do it at a different stage of life, but both LEGO and Bowdoin teach creative and critical thinking, problem solving, and sound judgment. And when things don’t go exactly according to plan, we teach people how to deal with ambiguity and how to adjust. As long as we remember our core values, continue to evolve, and encourage unbounded creativity and imagination, I have confidence that Bowdoin graduates will continue to succeed and that families will be building with LEGOs for generations to come.

Thank you.

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