Good afternoon. It is good to be back with you, and to begin another year at our College.
It is a good day to remind ourselves that what we do at Bowdoin is no small thing…more on this in a moment.
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 501 first-year students—the great Class of 2021—welcome to Bowdoin. 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 2017, and a Reunion Weekend that brought nearly 2,000 alumni and guests returning to campus (a new record!) for three days of renewal and celebration.
Since then it has been a busy summer.
Faculty pursuing their research, writing, and course development. Students engaging in research, or study, or service here on campus and across the country and world, and all manner of jobs in all kinds of places.
Our Annual Fund raised the most money ever last year—a remarkable tribute to the devotion and generosity of our alumni and parents.
Tomorrow, classes begin with 50 new courses, a new theater and dance major in performance art, and a new music department minor in music performance.
Our Ad Hoc Committee on Inclusion finished their work, which was made available this morning, and we are already moving forward on a major recommendation: naming a senior vice president for inclusion and diversity who will join the senior leadership team at the College.
We learned this summer that the Whittier Field Complex, which includes Whittier Field, the Hubbard Grandstand, and the Class of 1903 Memorial Gateway, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the summer we have been able to restore the grandstand to its original condition, add artificial turf, upgrade the track, and make other improvements that allow us to better serve our athletic program and our fans.
Twenty-four members of the faculty have returned from scholarly leaves this year—a year of intense focus on scholarship, art, and performance. And we welcome thirty-five new tenure-track or visiting faculty members to this community of great teachers and scholars.
We also welcome our new dean for academic affairs, physicist Elizabeth McCormack. I could not be more excited about Liz’s arrival and the impact she will have on our college.
We also renew our focus on several ambitions for the College. These include a year-long study initiated to answer the question: “What knowledge, skills, and creative disposition do we want every student to possess upon graduation ten years from now?” A faculty-led committee, with students, staff, and trustees will over the course of the year be considering this profound question that goes to the heart of what “The Offer of the College” will mean in the future.
Immediately after Reunion Weekend, we broke ground on one of the most exciting facilities projects at Bowdoin in a long time: the Roux Center for the Environment. When it opens this time next year—weather gods permitting—the Roux Center will bring together faculty from across the disciplines to engage with students in the teaching and study of the environment. It will enhance collaboration and creativity, and stand as the physical embodiment of our longstanding commitment to serve as a leader among liberal arts colleges in the teaching and study of the environment.
There will be more work in the coming months as we think carefully about how to improve upper-class student housing and how best to enhance our teaching and learning spaces.
And as we welcome the Class of 2021 today, we are already well into the process that will bring the Class of 2022 to Bowdoin. We are working to enhance prospective students’ understandings 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.
This is an incredibly exciting time, as we continue the work of writing the next chapters in the amazing history of Bowdoin College.
It is also a moment where it is particularly useful to remind ourselves that what we do at Bowdoin is no small thing.
On any number of occasions, I have talked about what is so powerful and important about a liberal arts education. And there are three aspects to this:
– First, it is an experience and a set of skills, sensibilities, and habits that allow us to live deeper, richer lives through an ability to understand our world and one another—to grow and learn throughout life.
– Second, it allows us to engage in a thoughtful and effective way in civic life. To understand the issues, to be skeptical, to reason well, to know how to use data and fact to effect change, and to be fearless in speaking truth to power.
– Third, the skills of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and an ability to learn across domains, methods of communication, and so forth prepare us for the work we do throughout our lives.
Notwithstanding the manifest power of all of this, there are criticisms leveled at the liberal arts, largely revolving around the notion of relevance—is what we do really useful or appropriate for our world today? The most common area of focus in this regard is jobs.
The myth is that students with a liberal arts education, especially in the humanities and areas of the social sciences, are disadvantaged in the job market. This myth is pervasive, but it is just that—a myth. Last spring, I spoke about this issue as it relates to the humanities, and also the liberal arts more generally, at a meeting here on campus of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, or COFHE—an organization of about forty leading research universities and liberal arts colleges that includes Bowdoin.
I said to the group that what’s interesting and perplexing is that the data are clear: liberal arts educated students—across all disciplines—do very well. They get great jobs in every industry and field of endeavor, and they are very successful at them. And they get jobs in areas that have no direct relationship to a major. And, perhaps most importantly, they have very satisfying professional lives—the data are clear. But the negative narrative—the myth—about the liberal arts and jobs persists, and it does our students and their families a great disservice. It creates real anxiety about how to best spend four years on our campus, about whether it is wise to pursue your intellectual passion, and about how to get the most from a great liberal arts education. It can even change the direction a student takes, away from what speaks to them and who they are and want to be.
So to our students, especially our first-year students, be wary of the trap that your area of study leads directly to the work you do. They are different. A liberal arts education is not a straight line from “A” to “B,” it is a journey across the alphabet. Use these four years to explore, to taste from the amazing intellectual menu in front of you, to seek out, learn about, and pursue your intellectual passions.
The work of preparing our students for impactful and satisfying professional lives is no small thing.
But, the question of relevance is even more important and takes on even greater urgency when we pivot back to my first two reasons for why a liberal arts education is so powerful: a meaningful life, understanding ourselves and our world, and civic engagement. Consider where we are today in the worlds of politics, of government, and of the media—imperfect but essential institutions for a healthy society and democracy.
In this context, what we do at Bowdoin is more important than ever.
As I noted in my message to the campus a little more than a week ago, what we do matters very much in the face of the hate and violence on display in Charlottesville. But there is also something else going on, something quite insidious.
We have evolved to a most distressing place—I use that word, evolved, very deliberately—to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked, facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed, where data are curated or manipulated for short-term gain rather than to test or illuminate aspects of the truth, where hypocrisy runs rampant, where character appears to no longer be a requirement for leadership, where instant gratification and personal aggrandizement are the celebrated virtues rather than tackling the hard problems and serving the public interest—serving the common good. We are in a world where respectful, thoughtful discourse about tough issues and the ability to find a common language for conversation—let alone find common ground for solving problems—are among the rarest of commodities.
We have evolved to this place over a long period, and there is more than enough blame to go around to all sides. Whatever one’s political and world views, we should all be alarmed. A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect, and character are in terrifyingly short supply is a system in trouble. This is why what we do at Bowdoin matters, now more than ever.
As I have reflected on it, our essential work might be described as developing and enhancing competence, community, and character.
We develop competence through a rigorous education, one that builds and sharpens the skills of critical thinking, analysis, the ability to understand the political, social, natural, ethical, cultural, and economic aspects of the world we inhabit, the ability to continue to learn and the disposition to be intellectually nimble, to exercise judgement, and to communicate effectively.
What we do not do, contrary to some caricatures of campus life, is to tell our students what to think. We teach them how to think, give them the knowledge and skills, and help them develop the courage to think for themselves, and to shape their own principles, perspectives, beliefs, and solutions to the problems.
We are all part of this amazing Bowdoin community, a central value of which is the common good—the notion that we owe an obligation to something bigger than ourselves. And we provide seemingly endless ways for students (and the rest of us) to serve the common good, to strengthen our community, and to become part of other communities—helping us better understand what binds each of us together. We are part of this amazingly diverse campus—something you really only find at colleges and universities—with histories, experiences, and identities that cover every base.
We work hard to understand and celebrate these differences and at the same time enjoy and value the deep bonds of being a part of Bowdoin. Being part of a strong community with such diversity requires an understanding that people we respect and value may well see the world in very different ways. We develop the skills and disposition to engage with those who have these varying perspectives, and with whom we may disagree, sometimes profoundly, in thoughtful and respectful ways.
And we choose members of our community in large measure for their strength of character—a principled life, work and play that has integrity, an acknowledgement of the gifts we have been given, and respect for ourselves and others. With many chances over four years to actually engage challenges that test character, we also help to develop it further by providing opportunities to engage intellectually and to reflect deeply across all disciplines about what character means, why it matters, and how one might live it.
Competence, community, and character are powerful tools for engaging the world’s problems and for making a difference. Our graduates have been doing this for 211 years, some in very public ways and many in a quieter fashion.
Our country and world have faced difficult times before, and as we have in the past, we will figure out how to course correct. Our graduates have had a profound influence on some of the most challenging situations of the past and present—Joshua Chamberlain, Paul Douglas, Hodding Carter, Jr, George Mitchell, Bill Cohen, Geoffrey Canada, Ed Lee, Ellen Baxter, Hanley Denning, and so many others. To those of you new to the College, if you do not know who these members of our Bowdoin community are, you should learn about them.
So, having reached this very challenging moment in our society and world, it would be easy to despair. But I do not.
I am optimistic. I am optimistic because I know that what we do develops and enhances competence, community, and character, and these are three essential ingredients for fixing our problems.
I am optimistic because I see the remarkable dedication of our faculty to your work with our students, inside and outside your classrooms, labs, and performance spaces. I see the impact our staff across the campus has on the lives and education of our students. And I see how amazing our students are—wicked smart, thoughtful, kind, warm, funny, open, hardworking, and driven by a desire to help one another be better.
So, to my colleagues on the faculty and staff, as you prepare for work each day, know that what you are doing matters, now more than ever. And to our students, know that your four years on campus are preparing you to engage with some incredibly challenging issues, and that you will have amazing opportunities to make things better.
What we do here is no small thing.
As we begin our 216th 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 the College to be in session.