President of the College Barry Mills: Opening of the College

The College’s annual Convocation ceremony, marking the official opening of the 213th academic year, was held Wednesday, Sept. 3, in Pickard Theater of Memorial Hall. President Barry Mills delivered his annual “Opening of the College” address, in which he traditionally focuses on “issues and ideas of importance to the College.”

Convocation Welcome

Good afternoon. It is my honor to preside at the official opening of the 213th academic year of Bowdoin College.

Today, I am very pleased to welcome our faculty, staff, students, and friends to this traditional ceremony, and to offer a particular welcome to my new friends, the members of the Class of 2018.I am the only person on campus who has had the pleasure of meeting every single one of you, and it has been a thrill.

I am delighted that so many of you have come to celebrate with us. During the past couple of days, I have had the opportunity to greet and chat briefly with each of you, and to watch you join the generations of students before you who have begun their Bowdoin careers by signing our Matriculation Book. I can confidently say to our faculty and staff that the Class of 2018 is able, enthusiastic, and quite serious, and that its members are clearly ready for all that Bowdoin has to offer. I know they will make important and lasting contributions to the College over the next four years and beyond. They have already created a lasting impression of me and on me, for this is definitely the generation of “selfies.”

It is my practice to focus my remarks at Convocation — as well as those delivered during Baccalaureate in the spring — on issues and ideas of importance to the College. Over the past 13 years, I have used this occasion to discuss the centrality of the arts in the liberal arts, the importance of the liberal arts, academic freedom, sustainability, the fundamental importance of financial aid, issues of race and socioeconomic class, and the role of technology in education, among other issues.

Today, as we begin this new academic year, my final year as president of Bowdoin, it is probably predictable that I have spent some time this summer looking back over these past thirteen years, as well as looking forward for the College and myself.

I think it is fair to say that Bowdoin is viewed today as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in America. We are a very “hot” college and students, faculty, and staff are all eager to be connected to Bowdoin. Our alumni are involved and supportive of the College at the highest levels of engagement. Parents and families are thrilled to be associated with Bowdoin (and this is the case despite our sticker price!). There is an enthusiasm for the place that is palpable. I often say to families and prospective students that while Bowdoin isn’t a cult, it isn’t far from being one, given the deep loyalty and affection people throughout our community have for this College. We are justifiably proud. So, what is the “special sauce” that sets Bowdoin apart — this important community of faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents and friends?

For me, it starts with our people, our commitment to excellence, and our values.

The members of our faculty sitting in the front rows before me are simply the essence of our College. Now, I suspect students in the room believe it is all about you, but colleges as institutions are really about the quality and commitment of the faculty as teachers, scholars, and people. We have at Bowdoin teachers of uncommon excellence who are here because they are committed to teaching and to their scholarship as lifelong avocations. That scholarship is vital to the institution not only because it brings luster to the College and engages students in the classroom and through research; it is important because scholarship is what attracted these men and women to the academic world in the first place, and it is scholarship that continues to engage them in lifelong careers that are rewarding and essential.

So, while our faculty are the essence of the College, it is the relationship of our students to the faculty that is so special.

Frequently, when I meet alumni of the College, they always tell me there is a particular faculty member changed their lives. These alumni are certain that the relationships they describe are individual and unique. Well, they may be “individual,” but at Bowdoin they are hardly “unique.” These relationships are formed and nurtured every year at the College — it’s what we do here. We educate our students in the formal sense, but we also inspire them in so many other ways to develop sound judgment and a confident sense of themselves.

Our staff at the College is just superb in their commitment and their level of excellence they bring to their work each day in support of our students, faculty, and alumni. It is appropriate to pay special attention to people who lead and participate in the lives of our students in our liberal arts, residential life community.

We all know we have the best dining service in America, not only because the food is so good, but because the people who work in the dining halls each day know your name and your favorite recipes.

As stewards of our historic campus, the folks in facilities improve and maintain our campus with the appropriate attention and care while also working hard to meet the needs of a 21st-century educational community.

The technology on our campus works and suits the demands of the lowest end-user all the way to the most complex “techie” on campus, with people who are there all hours of the day and night to ensure excellent and reliable service.

Our health and wellness programs are the envy of many, as evidenced by the strong sense of commitment by our students to keep our health services Bowdoin-led and operated.

And, the most popular person on campus is, of course, Randy Nichols in security, whose staff is trusted by students and focused first on safety and not solely on enforcement.

Our athletic programs are strong and are founded, in the main, on the correct principles and foundations. Our students learn from our coaches in very meaningful ways. The lessons taught are obviously very different from what happens in the classroom, but those playing fields and gyms and our rink and pool are vitally important venues for developing judgment. It is important to win and to lose (although not too often) — to feel both experiences, to learn to be resilient, and to understand what it means to be on a team working together for common ends. Of course, at all colleges and universities there is a question of balance and Bowdoin must maintain that focus into the future.

The role of the Dean of Students and his colleagues has grown quite impressively over the past years. And, to my mind it is among the most difficult jobs on our campus, day in and day out. The judgment, care, compassion, attention to detail, sensitivity to all (with an appropriate and necessary dose of resolve and rigor) exemplify this community, led expertly by our residential leaders. And, ours is a residential life system that respects and engages students in all respects — the hallmark of a program that creates an environment for our students that is alive, enthusiastic, and supportive.

Some among us lament the roles that have migrated over the years to the residential life leaders, but I believe the partnership that exists between these leaders and our faculty sets Bowdoin apart from most colleges and universities, and is a vital component of our success. There are also those who criticize Bowdoin and all colleges and universities for the growth in the staffing associated with residential life programs. I believe that criticism is misplaced as one considers realistically all of the roles we must play appropriately in a very diverse community in a very complex world. I am confident that the enthusiasm that Bowdoin parents have for this place is linked to the confidence these parents have in our College and the environment we create for their family members.

It is important to communicate well with our community, and the message does matter — and through our communications and now social media leaders and outlets— we are communicating and listening well to our Bowdoin family.

And, then of course, there is money. Our development operation is excellent and geared for future success in engaging our alumni and raising resources for the future. Our folks in finance understand how important it is to balance our checkbook, but also understand that being creative and open to new opportunities must be supported.

And, the folks who manage our endowment, led by Paula Volent and our investment committee, are nothing short of superstars creating an important resource for the College. This summer, we were proud to learn that Bowdoin’s endowment was recognized by the investment world as endowment of the year — an incredibly impressive performance. As I say often, it isn’t all about the money at a college, but without the money it is very hard to accomplish the excellence we represent.

Each year, admissions brings to us fabulous students from across America and the world, as they’ve done this year. This doesn’t just happen — it is very hard work that requires very difficult decisions. The folks in admissions are professionals who represent our College precisely and candidly. In a world of horrible admissions experiences, I am told over and over that our admissions process is candid, transparent, and human. This is tough work, especially as the quality of our applicant pool continues to increase each year. The hardest question they face is who among the many, many applicants belongs at Bowdoin. These choices get more difficult every year as the objective, empirical qualifications of the applicants get better and better. Not every student who belongs in Palo Alto, or Cambridge, or Williamstown ought to be at Bowdoin, so understanding the personal qualities of our applicants and the potential of our applicants for success at Bowdoin is an art and not exactly a science, but absolutely essential to who we are and what our future will be. For, there is something unique about our campus — and it is embodied in large part by the smarts, judgment and character of our students.

And, of course, we must recognize that our students — the fabulous Bowdoin students who are here today and have walked on this campus over the years — are a defining element of our College. These students are very bright, engaged, hardworking people from all over America and the world representing themselves and their communities. And, over their time here at Bowdoin, they grow to love this College for all that it represents. These students are committed to their studies, to the activities on campus, to each other, and to their futures. They are the other half of that dynamic student-faculty interaction, bringing — in my experience with the students — a level of commitment and engagement that is both alive and sometimes even exhausting for them and certainly, sometimes, exhausting for us. Over and over again, I am told that people admire Bowdoin because of the warmth and confident — but not arrogant — sense of itself this College presents to the world. This positive atmosphere is, to a large extent, created by our students.

Our campus is more than the “Bowdoin Bubble” popularly identified. It is much more complicated than that — something students realize in retrospect soon after they leave campus. Our students are passionately engaged in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, issues and controversies that amplify what we do at Bowdoin — activities that are geared to the entire community, our nation, and the world. We are a place that knows what it is about, and a place that is, in the most positive and most challenging sense, comfortable, “in its own skin.” That shines through and informs much of what Bowdoin is today.

Of course, our students quickly become alumni, and Bowdoin is blessed with a fiercely loyal and dedicated group of alumni who live all over America and around the world and who have become important and principled leaders in “all walks of life.” Not only do these men and women contribute financially to Bowdoin at percentages that are the envy of our peers, they also provide their ideas, a whole lot of passion, and valuable feedback that helps ground and advance our College. They stay connected to each other and to us, and through this active “Bowdoin network,” they are enthusiastic participants in helping our graduates succeed. Our alumni take great pride not only in their College and the relationships they forged here, but they also assist every new generation of graduates with advice and guidance, with internships, and with jobs. They are an essential part of the “secret sauce,” and we are very lucky to have their dedication and support.

Bowdoin’s steadfast commitment over its history — a history dating back to the creation of the American republic — has served this College well. It’s important that we continue to adhere to the principle of a liberal arts education and be confident in its value to students and faculty over generations and into the future. But we also must be mindful of the evolution of the liberal arts and new ways of thinking and approaching problems throughout the disciplines. I have discussed this in past talks relative to the importance today of different modes of inquiry, particularly around computational and digital analysis.

And, the importance of our commitment as a College to the Common Good is distinctly Bowdoin. As those of us who have been connected to Bowdoin for a long while understand, the College’s commitment to the Common Good has been steadfast, but has evolved over the years. I am confident that this commitment will endure and evolve into the future and will, combined with our liberal arts tradition, continue to set forth a value equation for Bowdoin that is clear and important.

And, finally, in my ingredients — and I am sure there are others — is place. Here, we recognize that place matters. Maine is an essential part of Bowdoin and Bowdoin is part of Maine. We must also recognize that we have one of the most beautiful college campuses in the entire world. Just outside this auditorium, the Bowdoin quad has nurtured members of our community for generations. The quad is Bowdoin. And, the entire campus bounded as it is in a residential setting is also special. After all these years, first as a student and then as president, I have to say it continues to be a thrill to walk to work every day through the historic Bowdoin quad that, at the same time for me, represents both the tranquility and the vibrant energy of Bowdoin. As we look into the future, it is important that the quad be preserved and kept alive — that it remains a place that most of us walk through at least a few times a week. For as a sense of place, it is quintessential Bowdoin.

So, with all of this success, aren’t there challenges for the present and the future? Of course there are. Bowdoin is a complicated place and more complex than I think people realize. There are all kinds of opportunities for us to consider and problems to solve that will help us move forward in good faith and with a cooperative spirit. Going forward, I see the future of Bowdoin as more complicated and more challenging than it has been even over the past 20 years. The challenges are evident in the state of our economy, both from the ability of students to afford Bowdoin and their ability to find good jobs into the future arising out of our form of education. And, as I have discussed in past talks, the information age is progressing at warp speed. One need only talk to young faculty joining our College to understand the worlds they have experienced academically in their training. And, if you have young children, you understand that the way they are learning is and will be very different into the future. Bowdoin will not have the luxury to hunker down and say that the way we do things is the only way for students to learn. There will be an economic imperative that drives change, but the real imperative will come from the realization that there are new and effective ways to teach and learn that our students will demand, our faculty will embrace, and the job market will require. And, by job market, I mean not only the prospects for our students, but also our ability to recruit and retain talented faculty. And, I am confident that the pace of this change will be much more rapid than we have seen in our recent past.

We at Bowdoin are well positioned to meet these and the other challenges out there because of our fundamental strength. But in my view, it would be foolhardy in my view to rely on this fundamental strength in a way that insulates Bowdoin from innovation and change. The strength of this College comes from the sophistication and excellence of its people and program, and we must not allow our success to cloud our ability to move forward to future success.

Finally, let me bring you back to a theme that is probably the overriding theme of my talks over the past years. In my view, Bowdoin must remain committed to opportunity and access to all students who ought to be at Bowdoin, regardless of their ability to pay our fees. Our College must enroll students and hire faculty and staff that enable our College to reflect America and the world.

I am asked continually how the cost of College can continue to escalate. The answer is that the expense to the College of delivering a Bowdoin education in the form we currently provide will likely continue to escalate because the largest shares of our expense are people and technology. That’s why the expense of a Bowdoin education will continue to rise at rates reflecting our economy, or maybe even more given the economics of the education world. Innovation in education may bend the cost curve a bit, but so far this only remains an aspiration. That doesn’t mean that the cost to families has to increase in lockstep, and in fact, it has not done so at Bowdoin over the past six years, principally because of the strength of our endowment.

We have two vital imperatives in my mind. The first is to ensure that we continue on a path where we attract, matriculate, retain, and graduate the most talented students from across America and across the world, from all walks of life and all economic circumstances. The progress we have made over these past years is, I believe, the essential component of our success. We are a College that creates opportunity for young people to learn and mature into their role as citizens who are ready, in the Bowdoin tradition, to create a lives for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.

The second imperative is to work to moderate our cost (as distinct from our expense) so that the cost to families from all circumstances may allow them to send their children to Bowdoin.

This dual set of imperatives will require the continued commitment of everyone in this auditorium and of our Bowdoin trustees, our alumni, parents and friends. Access and opportunity are simply fundamental to our sense of ourselves and to the future success of Bowdoin.

So, someone last week said to me that I must be looking forward to my next challenge, since I have this large blank slate on which to chart my “dream job.” I was sitting in my office and I was in my rocking chair — unsurprisingly — and replied, “I have my dream job; it’s being president of Bowdoin.” I have a few months left, so the dream continues. But, we have a lot of important work to do, so, let’s get at it!

I now declare the College to be in session. May it be a year of peace, health, success, and inspiration for us all, and a recommitment to our most important tradition: teaching and learning together.

Thank you very much.

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