Barry Mills: Words Matter

Barry Mills reflects on King, Kennedy, LePage, and the power of words.

Monday and Thursday represent important milestones in our country’s history, and for someone of my generation, a reminder of past inspiration that inspires us to this day. Monday was the 25th anniversary of this country’s celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thursday, January 20, is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States. These two men, in so many ways, defined a generation of Americans and their hopes and dreams. The words of both men inspired many of us on a personal level and led generations of Americans to service and action in support of a better America and a better society. These anniversaries remind us just how quickly time rushes by—it really is a half-century since the inauguration of President Kennedy!

King and Kennedy were men of principle. I suppose history will tell us that they were also pragmatic leaders who understood full well the path to progress and the risks inherent in driving for change. Neither was a perfect human being—none of us are. But the leadership that Kennedy and King exhibited in those important days of the 1960s was brave, skillful, and inspirational, and we are all better for their leadership.

Words matter. That is certainly a lesson we can take away from the leadership examples of Kennedy and King. Both men understood that words can move people to change, give people the courage to take risks, and help them see hope and optimism in the face of despair and uncertainty.

I am by no means or in any respect a leader in the realm of these important Americans. But it was clear to me when I came to Bowdoin as president that words do matter, and that expressing one’s vision for our community in words that seek to inspire and create a call to action is critically important to the leadership role. This is especially true in a community with as many constituencies as one finds on a college campus. I leave to it others to judge, and to history to reflect, whether this or any other time in Bowdoin’s history has been inspirational, but I am hopeful that we have at least been consistent in message and goal.

It is in this context that I feel compelled to respond to the remarks of our new governor, Paul LePage, who said last week that the NAACP could “kiss my butt.” Clearly, this comment reinforces the image that Governor LePage is his own man—but I wonder if it creates for him and for our state the message he seeks as we commence a new administration in Maine. I suspect the message was not well thought out. It was the reaction of a new governor who finds himself pushed and pulled in so many directions just days after taking office. Certainly, the support he has garnered from his friends and those who know him well suggest that assertions of bigotry or bias are unfounded.

However, words do matter. In a state that may be the “whitest” in America or nearly so, the shock value of his statement cannot help but reinforce a negative stereotype of our state that is not warranted. Over the past few days, I have received numerous messages from alumni that can best be summed up by the message: we have come so far, yet we have so far to go.

Karen and I are proud to call Maine our home. We find Maine to be a place where people respect the values and life choices of neighbors and where folks withhold judgment and permit others the liberty to make their own choices. We at Bowdoin understand that is it our responsibility to educate students from across America, bringing to our campus a diversity of background and experiences that enrich our campus and create opportunity for students regardless of economic means or background.

Most importantly for the health and vitality of our state, we recognize that talent and expertise is best recruited and retained by bringing to our campus and the state of Maine people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Our leaders must understand that words matter to these folks and that this state will be disadvantaged if we are unable to attract the best and brightest to our communities. Ours is a country that has prospered because we have welcomed to our shores and our states people with the drive and energy to improve their lot and the lives of their communities. We do ourselves no good by closing our minds or our borders to those seeking the American dream.

And so the message to our Bowdoin community, and to our students especially, is to remember that words do matter, symbols do matter. It is our responsibility to lead in ways that are inspirational, not in ways that divide or diminish members of our community. This will make for a better Bowdoin, a better Maine, and beyond.


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

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available on here or on the Bowdoin website.


  1. stuart shapiro says:

    Words do matter and you do not need to be famous or lead a nation to find fulfillment in doing your work thoughtfully, honestly and well. A beautiful bowl made by an artist or a college transformed into such a positive place that the overwhelming majority of those who work or attend there have a positive feeling about their experience are achievements as worthy of admiration as a famous, inspirational speech by a national leader. They set an example that is worthy of emulation–and in the end acts may be more powerful teachers than words though inspired by them.

  2. Your are right words do matter. The offer of the college is a perfect example. Thank you for your leadersghip Ted Fuller

  3. Bob Delaney '55 says:

    Barry, You are right on and written very appropriately. I was shocked and very disappointed when I read of these remarks. I assume that he was elected as part of the anti-Democrat wave that swept the Nation, because his words do not reflect anyone that I know from Maine. I spent four very enjoyable years in Brunswick and many visits since and I can not fathom where an individual like that comes from.

  4. Virginia Clarke says:

    Res ipsa loquitur. Most artfully conveyed, Barry – Thank you.

  5. Anne Crane says:

    Truth be told, I find your words now and in the past, as well as the writings of various Bowdoin professors, very inspiring, right on, well-said and from the heart. Makes me feel so grateful that my son is a Bowdoin student.

  6. Thank You, Barry
    Beautifully, thoughtfully written
    Mary Herman

  7. Kathy Winters says:

    Well said; thanks for taking the time to so thoughtfully respond. So important to do so, as unfortunately words such as these often reflect negatively on an entire constituency and not just the speaker. We are so appreciative of the gracious and welcoming climate you strive for on Bowdoin’s campus.

  8. La'Shaye Ervin '12 says:

    Thank you for your message, President Mills. I really appreciate your words. There are times when students feel uncomfortable, as “outsiders”, in Maine. Sometimes I feel that it is clear that I am an “outsider.” Mr. LePage’s words will probably aid in some students discomfort. However, your words are comforting and will serve as a reminder that there are some people welcoming “outsiders” to Maine. In my humble opinion, I think that your words will stick more!

  9. Robert Patterson says:

    Barry Mills does a great service to the college, the town and state and, through the Daily Sun, he brings to a broad public his wisdom, clarity of thought and deep convictions. His humanity shines through in the recent article where he shared the painful experience he and Karen have in dealing with their son’s health. From the Bowdoin platform of “the common good”, Barry makes such a goal accessible, inviting and compelling. Thank you, Barry, for being an inspiritng leader.

  10. Mark Lesser says:

    Sure words matter, both the words stated and the words omitted. LePage’s words are in the context of an infantile outburst, and it is not his first. This is the current style of the Republican party: “fightin” words with little attention to the grammar or the consequences. Paul Krugman expresses this in two of his latest NY Times Op-Eds: ‘Climate of Hate’ and ‘The War On Logic’.
    You “…wonder if it creates for him [LePage] and for our state the message he seeks…”. Perhaps this is exactly the message he intends. If the audience is the right wing tea party leaning part of the electorate in Maine, the same minority that voted for LePage, then the message is well suited.
    I am more and more convinced that what is NOT being stated is the real message. That is, an attack on reason, contemplation, civil discourse, and facts. Denial of global warming and evolution is all part of the same pattern, and this is not just a slip of the tongue for Mr. LePage.

  11. Ann Hennessey '87 says:

    Fantastic piece! And the the words from the governor of Alabama…..

  12. Missy Holland says:

    Congratulations Barry. This is a wonderful piece and in itself reflects the power of words. Your writings are such a good use of the “bully pulpit” you hold.

  13. President Mills, I enjoy every idea I have ever heard you express. You are thoughtful, intelligent and inspirational;true gifts, which unfortunately not everyone, especially politicians possess. My family has been enjoying the state of Maine for more than 50 years and I have yet to meet anyone who has not welcomed us. The governor’s words were ill chosen and certainly not politically correct. It would be unfortunate for anyone to judge the people of Maine by a phrase, uttered by one individual.

  14. I’m not sure how to interpret this: “In a state that may be the “whitest” in America or nearly so, the shock value of his statement cannot help but reinforce a negative stereotype of our state that is not warranted…” The president seems to be saying that being “white” reinforces a negative stereotype that Maine must overcome. He can’t possibly mean that. It would be racist. But what does he mean?

  15. Bridget Spaeth says:

    Thank you for your direct comment on this.

    In a climate of public discourse where we have also been weighing words and their caliber, I have taken solace in the more positive and inspired imagery of a Hatian proverb recently quoted by Edwidge Danticat, “Words have feet, Words have wings”.

    Bridget Spaeth’86

  16. Patricia Barry says:

    As a resident and teacher in New Hampshire, I understand the sentiment Mr. Mills is expressing about the “whiteness” of our states. We must strive continuously to expose our students to as many cultures, ethnicities,religions and socio-economic differences as possible, so they can go forth into a world they are comfortable with. Bowdoin does this well and I am so glad my daughter has the opportunity to access her “well-rounded” education in an atmosphere of tolerance and grace. What we say, how we say it and to whom and when we say it, is of the utmost importance. The power of words has never been greater, since they are often transmitted instantaneously and without regard to context. The greatest challenge for all of us is to instill in this generation a veneration for the spoken word so that they may learn how to use language for good. Thank you Mr. Mills for such a genuine and thoughtful piece!

  17. Governor LePage’s recent comment about the science surrounding the chemical additive BPA (“…The worst case scenario is that some women will have little beards”) indicates we’ll be learning this lesson often during his administration. I’m still hopeful our new governor will succeed in reducing the burden and changing the culture of state government. But LePage’s propensity for offending constituencies and antagonizing opponents does not grease the wheels of his agenda. His ham-fisted rhetoric is not the mark of a clever politician. For chief executives ignorance is never bliss.

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