Barry Mills on the Role and Work of the Board of Trustees

In his weekly commentary, President Barry Mills discusses the role of the Board of Trustees and the important deliberations that took place at their most recent meeting.

I am honored to serve as president of Bowdoin College and to lead this great institution. I hardly do it alone. I work with a terrific group of faculty and staff, and I actually do have a boss (or bosses): our 45-person Board of Trustees. Alumni and the general Bowdoin community have limited direct contact with the Board, but our trustees are very active in the governance of the College.

Boards generally have at least two roles, beginning with oversight and compliance—duties that have become ever more important in recent years. But a board’s other responsibility is, in my view, even more important: boards help think strategically about the issues facing an institution, and they act in ways that help position the institution for future success.

The Bowdoin Board of Trustees typically meets on campus three times a year, with numerous additional committee meetings taking place by phone or in person throughout the year. These committees deal with all aspects of the College. Composed of Bowdoin alumni and parents of current and former students, the Board also has student and faculty representatives.

As reported by the Orient, the Board held an offsite retreat in February, during which we discussed the future of the College. Nowadays, most boards spend a good deal of time looking at the “tips of their skis,” trying to rightsize their economic positions. We certainly took the time necessary to carefully review Bowdoin’s finances, but most of our time was spent talking about the future and our educational mission.

We didn’t intend to—nor did we—set any grand initiatives for the College, but we did spend a significant amount of time thinking about what we should be teaching our students at this point in Bowdoin’s history. The Board reinforced its commitment to the liberal arts and continued to eschew pre-professional curricula. We reinforced our commitment to writing and analysis at a rigorous level, and we exchanged views on whether there are “life skills” Bowdoin should be teaching our students, either in or outside the classroom.

We discussed how Bowdoin can become more global—whether through admissions, programs abroad, summer internships, or merely by doing a better job of highlighting the ways Bowdoin is already a global institution. There was a lot of interest, for example, in asking our alumni to help us establish foreign internships at companies with which they have connections.

There was a valuable discussion on changing demographics and what they mean for Bowdoin. Clearly, the population of New England—our traditional region—is shrinking and aging. It is also clear that students of color will, over time, become a much more dominant segment of our applicant pool. We discussed what this means for Bowdoin and how to think about student success here. This was contextualized by recent data showing that academic performance is predicted by socioeconomic status and other factors. On this topic, I recommend reading Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities.

Finally, we talked about technology and how it will impact Bowdoin in the future. This is a huge topic, and the discussion was broad and imaginative. We announced the Bowdoin Daily Sun, and I urged every trustee to subscribe!

Bowdoin is very fortunate to have a Board of Trustees so committed to the College—exceptional people who understand our principles, our mission, and our strategy to remain a leader in American higher education.

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


  1. Missy Holland says:

    Nice presentation of an often mysterious topic!

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