Sarah and James Bowdoin Day 2012 Welcome Address: President Barry Mills

September 28, 2012

Good afternoon. I’m Barry Mills, president of the College. It’s a pleasure to welcome faculty, staff, students, parents, family members and friends to these exercises where we will recognize students who have distinguished themselves as Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars and have earned other important academic distinction over the past year. I offer a special welcome to those of you who have earned these important distinctions. All of us are proud of you and your achievements and I look forward to congratulating each of you.

Our recognition of Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars goes back more than sixty years to 1941. The College was all men in those days and that this day was originally named exclusively for James Bowdoin III. In 1997, the College, by faculty vote, determined that it was appropriate to reestablish this tradition in the name of James Bowdoin and Sarah, his wife, certainly partially in recognition of the fact that the College is a place where men and women from across the United States and the world come as students and faculty to study, teach, and learn.

A brief history lesson.

The Honorable James Bowdoin III lived from 1752 until 1811. He was the son of James Bowdoin II for whom the College is named. The father  —  James II  —  was a Revolutionary War hero well remembered for his role in putting down Shay’s Rebellion who was later twice elected governor of Massachusetts. He was a very successful entrepreneur, especially in maritime business dealings and as a member of the elite business society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — which, in those days, included the District of Maine. James II — who along with John Adams, John Hancock, and others founded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — was also a man with a profound interest in learning. When visiting Boston, in the Granary cemetery on Tremont Street near the Parker House Hotel, you can find Governor Bowdoin’s grave.

Let’s just say that his son, James III, known as Jemmy, was — as sons can sometimes be — more of a free spirit than his father. Less the serious student and businessman and more one of America’s first connoisseurs of life, culture, and politics, both in the Americas and abroad. During his lifetime, he acquired a substantial library, a significant art collection, and an impressive array of scientific materials, for which we at the College are the inheritors. His art collection was the genesis of the art treasures still accessible to us all within the walls of our glorious Walker Art Building. In 1794, it was $1,000 and 1,000 acres of land from this generous diplomat, agriculturist, and art collector that started us off on our noble mission.

Our students will remember this lesson as we talk about James Bowdoin when students come to my office to sign the matriculation book — where a picture of James Bowdoin with globe and telescope hangs above a desk of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The globe and telescope all live in my office. Historic inspirations for the president.

This year we celebrate at Bowdoin the 41st year of women at Bowdoin — women were formally admitted to Bowdoin commencing in the 1971-1972 academic year, the year I graduated from Bowdoin. Although the 40th anniversary year was our big celebration year — at least until year 50 —  we should appropriately spend some time learning more about Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn, the wife of James Bowdoin III and also one of the founders of the College.

Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn was born in 1761 and her mother died when she was 11 and her father died when she was 12. She moved in with the family of her uncle (her father’s half-brother), the very James Bowdoin II. Sarah married her first cousin, James Bowdoin III on May 18, 1781. They did not have any children. In 1805 James and Sarah were sent to Spain on a diplomatic mission, but operated out of Paris. The family traveled to London and Paris from 1806 and 1808 and Sarah kept a journal (located in our library) that details their life.

James Bowdoin III died in 1811 and Sarah then married General Henry Dearborn in 1813, a courtship which attracted the attention of many, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as indicated in a rather risqué letter from Adams to Jefferson chronicling the relationship. Sarah was quite an advanced woman, creating a prenuptial agreement that protected her assets of all property that she brought to the marriage with General Dearborn.

Sarah’s will expressed her desire to be buried with James Bowdoin in the Old Granary burial ground in Boston. She put provisions in her will for several of her nephews to drop their last names (Winthrop, Sullivan) to take the name of Bowdoin in order to receive an inheritance from her estate. She also indicates their children must also carry the Bowdoin name.

Her obituary, in 1826 in the Boston Centinel, described Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn as “Born and educated, and living in affluence, she felt for the needy as she had at some time in her life been one of their number; she has clothed, fed and comforted the poor and the sick in both hemispheres; and if we indulged in a superstitious faith that prayers for the dead could avail the departed soul, or if could be supposed that her pure spirit could require their aid, we might be abundantly consoled with the belief that a thousand persons will ascend to Heavens in her behalf in distant lands and in different dialects; for wherever she went, wherever she dwelt, she spread around her the blessings and left behind her the remembrance of her sweet charity.” Our college ancestor and founder therefore demonstrated for us our true testament to our abiding conviction and commitment to the Common Good. Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn.

So, today we remember our founders and meet to celebrate and congratulate the Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars sitting among us. The scholars sitting among us are the Bowdoin students who in the prior academic year achieved a grade point average in their course of study that places them in the top 20 percent of the class. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. It takes hard work and dedication, for which each of these students and each parent and family member can and should be particularly proud.

This sense of pride is shared by the College because these young men and women represent what Bowdoin is all about. The College has been blessed with a talented faculty and the resources to provide an enormous range of learning opportunities for our students, whether in the classroom, residence hall, athletic field, studio, laboratory or library. But we intentionally make relatively few choices for students, instead expecting them to choose their own paths. Our students are eager participants in this College’s great liberal arts tradition and the students among us today are intentional and purposeful in the pursuit of academic excellence that is at our core.

Achievement of good grades at Bowdoin is the metric we have used to identify our Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars for many years. It is a worthwhile metric, and you should be proud of your achievements. But the metric of good grades alone does not tell the whole story about the talented men and women we celebrate today — these students are much more than their grade point averages.

Over the past number of years I corresponded with a student who remarked that these exercises miss the point of Bowdoin because we are here recognizing students who merely have received good grades at the College. And, she remarked that there are hundreds of talented students doing impressive work on campus who are not recognized today. Bowdoin students shouldn’t be competing for grades against each other. I am sympathetic to these perspectives — achievement at Bowdoin is not only about GPA, nor should it be. And competition for grades is not at the heart of our intellectual enterprise — in so many ways it runs counter to our goals. Bowdoin is a great college and there are so many students in our community who are doing impressive work in the studio, in the field, on the dance floor, in our labs, in Studs Hall, in the library and throughout our community in its entire sense. We take pride in all who achieve at Bowdoin.

Nonetheless, I continue to believe that these exercises are important for Bowdoin. For it must be the case at Bowdoin that good grades mean more than a reward for hard work — this achievement represents a recognition by our faculty that the students sitting among us understand and analyze their studies in complex, serious and rigorous ways. Our recognition today is premised on the assumption that the students sitting among us did not achieve these grades cynically just to get grades for the next step in life — this is a recognition that good grades at Bowdoin reflect a seriousness of purpose, a commitment to learn, a subtlety of mind and the tenacity to achieve.

We talk often at Bowdoin about what our goals should be for our students. We understand that the defining characteristic of our best students and our best faculty is that through their education and teaching at Bowdoin they become “fearless” learners — learners who are fearless and unafraid of new ideas and new concepts; learners who are unafraid of questioning “conventional wisdom”; learners who are fearless in the face of complex technology; learners who are fearless when they listen to a symphony, or enter the Bowdoin Museum of Art.

And so, to all those fearless learners among us, and their parents, families, friends, and admirers, thank you and congratulations to all here on the accomplishments of the students we celebrate today.