The College’s annual Convocation ceremony, marking the official opening of its 214th academic year, was held Wednesday, Sept. 2, in Pickard Theater of Memorial Hall.
In his “Opening of the College” address, President Clayton Rose focused first on the issue of race, referring to a series of jarring and distressing racial incidents over the past year as evidence that much work remains to be done in the United States. “These events are stark reminders that race can create different opportunities and experiences for those of color, different from those of white Americans,” he said. “Closer to home,” he continued, “we understand that the events of the last year and summer can make more raw this differing experience for our students, faculty and staff of color as they go about their work and lives at Bowdoin.”
In the past few decades, Bowdoin has made great progress in creating a more diverse campus, Rose noted, and the College is in a position to make a difference in the struggle to eliminate the effects of racial difference in determining opportunities in American society. “We can make a difference with our academic mission, ” he said. “As a faculty we can continue to rigorously and thoroughly prepare our students to engage the issues of race and generate scholarship that addresses the most important questions, from a moral, cultural, literary, political, economic, historical and psychological perspective, among others.”
By confronting hard questions, undertaking rigorous analysis and tackling complex problems, Rose said Bowdoin students will be prepared to effectively engage with “the social discourse and political decision making around race, because they will have command of the issues and the data, and they will be analytical, persuasive and courageous.”
Rose also addressed Bowdoin’s future, calling upon trustees, alumni, staff, students and faculty to ask “essential questions of ourselves, even if they’re unsettling,” such as what makes Bowdoin a unique liberal arts college, and how should that be sustained or enhanced? What should a Bowdoin liberal arts curriculum look like in five years, for the next 10 or 15? What is great teaching, what is profound learning, and what makes both possible? What role should athletics, the arts and service play in complementing intellectual engagement here?
“We are not interested in change for change’s sake, but rather to be bold and deeply ambitious, and to grasp the opportunity we have to reimagine and strengthen the things we do and to do new things,” Rose said.
Dean of Student Affairs Timothy Foster, in his annual address “Voices from the Past,” took a personal approach. He spoke about his friend and colleague, Wil Smith, who graduated from Bowdoin in 2000, worked two different times at the College, and died from cancer earlier this year at the age of 46.
Wil Smith came to study at Bowdoin when was 27 and while raising his daughter, Olivia, as a single parent. “Wil Smith’s story is about taking risks, overcoming adversity, prioritizing that which matters most, living a principled life, and giving back — always giving back — in ways that put others before oneself,” Foster said. He quoted Smith, who once said, “I’m best as a human being when I have others besides myself to focus on.”
After a full day of of classes, basketball practice and his multiple responsibilities as a campus leader, Smith would take Olivia back to their small apartment, bathe her, put her to bed and try to sleep a bit himself before waking up early to study.
A sociology major with a minor in economics, Smith continued to serve in the Navy during his student years. On campus, he was part of a group tasked by President Edwards with improving diversity at the College. In the summer, Smith worked as a counselor at Seeds of Peace International in Otisfield, Maine, where young people from areas of conflict around the world come together to forge relationships and to learn from one another. He later worked for the camp as associate director.
Foster repeated his memory of the time when Smith earned his diploma in 2000. The new graduate said it wasn’t a heroic feat. Rather, as Olivia’s father, he said it was “the right thing to do.”
Smith went on to earn a law degree, and in 2006, returned to Bowdoin as assistant dean to help the College expand access and opportunities to students of color. “I feel like I have an obligation to every young person I come in contact with,” Smith said. In 2010, he became the dean of community and multicultural affairs at the Berkshire School.
Foster concluded his tribute by repeating another quote from Smith, who explained that doing what’s right meant doing “whatever you can, with whatever you have, wherever you are.”
Professor of Religion Robert Morrison delivered the annual Convocation Address, which he titled “Uncomfortable Voices.” Morrison spoke about how discomfort can be — while unpleasant — also quite productive. He recalled the time he spent in Syria as a graduate student. “Discomfort heightened my self-awareness and awareness of my surroundings,” he said, adding, “My own discomfort in Syria made that six-month stretch both exhausting and transformative.”
He then reflected on a time when a student requested he not use the pronouns “he” or “she” when referring to that student in class. Morrison thought about the request in terms of a book he was teaching that semester, Martin Buber’s I And Thou, which argues that the only way to understand oneself, and to undergo transformation, is to be fully open to ‘you.’ “Without the ‘you,’ there is no ‘I'” Morrison said. “If ‘she’ and ‘he’ are no longer in play with my student, then my own identity as a ‘he’ must become something other than not-she….In terms of being an uncomfortable voice that challenges the status quo, my student was running a marathon.”
Morrison also spoke about a student group’s referendum last year to have Bowdoin adopt an academic boycott of Israel to restrict the College’s interactions with Israeli universities. This move was intended to call attention to Israeli universities’ role in the occupation of Palestinian lands. About 85 percent of students voted in the referendum, a figure that Morrison said impressed him.
The group’s tactics came off as confrontational on a campus that prides itself on civility, Morrison said. “At Bowdoin, SJP’s advocacy for people barely represented on campus was extremely brave and a positive move,” he continued. “Listening in good faith to their uncomfortable voices, as so many Bowdoin students did, was important and difficult.”
Later, he added, “Certain voices make us uncomfortable and those voices are themselves uncomfortable speaking, but those voices will help us all shape the future in ways we don’t yet fully understand.”
Morrison urged the students to “think about whether you’re talking to another student as an ‘it’, which would be a means to your own ends, or a ‘you,’ which is better, and whether you’re actually open to be changed by that you.”
The musical interlude was performed by violinist Hanna Renedo ’18, who played “Méditation” from Thaïs, by Jules Massenet. Renedo was accompanied by Beckwith Artist-in-Residence George Lopez on piano. Lopez also performed the academic recessional, Allegretto from Sonata No. 10 in C Major, K. 330 by Mozart, and the academic processional, which this year was Bach’s Overture in D Major.