Barry Mills: Helping Students Learn and Earn

In his latest post, Barry Mills looks at what it takes to turn out innovators and entrepreneurs.

Each year about this time many of our students write letters to Bowdoin alumni, parents, and friends who have provided funds to the College in support of financial aid. They write to their benefactors with gratitude for making their Bowdoin education possible. I created a scholarship fund myself a number of years ago in honor of my parents. My fund is designed, in the first instance, to support a student from Rhode Island, where I grew up and where my parents lived their entire lives. Just this week I received a personal letter of thanks from the Bowdoin student who benefits from my fund. For me, there is nothing more gratifying than making it possible for a student to come to Bowdoin. Over the past couple of days, I have been copied on the correspondence between students and their benefactors, and it is wonderful to share in the personal connections and joy created by these gifts of financial aid. We hold a lunch on campus each spring where the benefactors get to meet the students they support. This year, the lunch is on Thursday, May 12, and I encourage all financial aid donors to attend. It is a very powerful afternoon.

Scholarship Luncheon 2010

Of course, many of our financial aid donors develop lasting relationships with the students they support, and this translates into genuine caring about the students’ welfare, their course of study, and ultimately their career pursuits. I recently took note of one comment from a generous donor who is very proud of the student he supports. He said she is brilliant and committed, but he thought she would be better off if she studied Chinese and engineering. My job is to connect the dots, and I immediately directed the fellow to the story on our website about our seniors in computer science who are being pursued with multiple job offers.

And, on Wednesday, I did another of my town hall conference calls with nearly 120 alums from the classes of 2002-2010. Now, each Bowdoin class is my favorite, but I do have to admit a special connection to the alumni represented on the phone yesterday because they were my “classmates” during my current time at Bowdoin. Many of the questions I got on the call reflected the tough job market these recent alums face and the importance of “entrepreneurial skills.” I got many questions about what Bowdoin is doing to teach students to be entrepreneurial.

All of this makes a lot of sense in this uncertain time when many of the more conventional career paths for our students are disappearing and when people—especially young people—change jobs so often.   The importance of science, math, engineering, and innovation is reinforced for us daily in the media, by employers, and by our country’s leaders. I stopped counting the number of times President Obama referred to a formula for our “knowledge economy” in his State of the Union address in January. My rather parochial reaction to all this is: “What does this mean for the liberal arts education provided at Bowdoin College?”

…we know from example, that many, many successful innovators also have been educated broadly to think, analyze, read, compute, and synthesize.

How one teaches “entrepreneurialism” is a legitimate question. My own sense is that it is hard to teach; people either have it or they don’t. But the right formula probably includes a good education, strong skills, and hard work combined with the right spirit for taking risks. There are many elite colleges, universities, and technical schools where people can gain the skills for our current and future technological society. Bowdoin is, in fact, one of them as chronicled in the story on our website. But it has to be the case and we know from example, that many, many successful innovators also have been educated broadly to think, analyze, read, compute, and synthesize. And many of these folks have spent as much time in the studio, museum, or music practice room as they have in the laboratory. They have have spent time reading and analyzing literature, social history, and classics. And, in today’s global society, it’s hard to understand how one truly innovates without a sense of the world and an understanding of a foreign language. My point, obviously, is that a place like Bowdoin provides the education and skills to set the innovator and entrepreneur off in life to take risks and to succeed with a broad base of knowledge beyond the limits of technology.

And, if one combines a Bowdoin education with a Bowdoin sensibility of a commitment to the common good, we have the formula so necessary for our society. In sum, Bowdoin, with its commitment to liberal education and the common good, is the perfect incubator for these future innovators and leaders. If you need more proof, check out TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Our own Geoff Canada ‘74 and Reed Hastings ‘83 make the short list as true American innovators changing our society.


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. Don Prince says:

    Cudos for taking on this topic and hopefully extending the discussion of Bowdoin’s role in our ever changing society.

  2. As always well written, and thoughtfully expressed. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of connecting globally by exposure to many ideas and philosophies as experienced at Bowdoin. I am a proud parent of a student who is not getting an eduction but becoming educated at Bowdoin. We are grateful

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