Barry Mills: Imperatives for Maine

Bowdoin President Barry Mills was in Rockport, Maine, Thursday evening to address lawyers and judges assembled at the Samoset Resort for the U.S. District Court Conference. Introduced by U.S. Federal Judge John Woodcock ’72, Mills urged his audience to use their influence to support education at all levels and to help college graduates land meaningful jobs that will keep them in Maine.

I want to thank Judge Woodcock for that generous introduction. John and I go back a long way together—all the way back to the Bowdoin Class of 1972. I am grateful that John chose to focus his introduction on my work as president of Bowdoin, rather than on what he knows of those four years so long ago. I pledge to maintain a similar cone of silence about him.

I find myself with a bit of déjà vu, as I was here at the Samoset only a few weeks ago to address members of the Surgical Society of New England. At that event, I had the pleasure of speaking to a large group of surgeons from around New England. This evening, it is an honor to be among the Judicial Conference of Maine, this time surrounded by prominent and talented lawyers.

It was unusual, to say the least, for me to address the surgeons. I’m told that I was the first non-surgeon—or even non-doctor—to speak to their group in many years. It is a little less strange for me to be invited to speak to this group, given that I spent over 22 years practicing law. Even so, my experience is probably very different from most of yours. During my 22 years as a lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City, I entered a courtroom only once—as a very young associate in a bankruptcy case in Salt Lake City, where I sat like a potted plant. The only other time I have been in court was when I was summoned for jury duty in New York criminal court, only to be rejected.

I am also “from away.” I grew up in Rhode Island and lived for over 25 years in New York City before moving to Maine with our family in 2001. I was what many lawyers in Maine refer to with some sense of skepticism: one of those “New York lawyers.” As a partner at Debevoise, I practiced officially in the real estate department, but my work included mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance, private equity funds, leveraged buyouts, and all sorts of cross border transactions with a variety of international clients. It was a varied corporate transactional practice without a whole lot of bricks and mortar. I loved my work in what was then and is today one of the very best international law firms in the world. My partners and many of the former associates are my friends for life. Many of my clients were and are among my closest friends. When I left Debevoise, I missed the intellectual challenge of the work, the talent and values of my partners, and the “thrill of the deal.” Many joke with me that I must not miss the billable hours and the grind of being a lawyer. Sometimes, they’re not actually joking. Sometimes, I understand that they look wistfully at my career change.

For me, it isn’t life on a .6 hourly clock that is so different. What’s different is that I’m no longer in the service business. For the life of a lawyer is service. Service to our clients at the most devoted and most committed level is what the legal profession is about. It isn’t about the money, the competition, or our egos—it is about service. I often remarked to brilliant young associates who joined our firm that while it is important to be powerfully smart, it is more important to be a lawyer who actually calls the client back, and calls the client back very quickly. An excellent lawyer makes his or her client feel they are the only client—that their problem is your problem. For me, that meant an incredibly intense practice that was 24-7, 365 days a year, with clients in every conceivable time zone. I loved the work, but now I have different challenges as a College president and I’m often on the other side of the table. In this role reversal, I try mightily to not do to my lawyers—Jamie!—what sometimes happened to me when my clients made less than sensitive demands on my life. But, like my best clients, I do press my counsel hard for solutions, rather than more problems that don’t help us get to the proper result. For me, the best lawyers are ones who find for their clients acceptable solutions after identifying for them all of the issues and all of the risks.

So, in 2001, I moved my desk from 875 Third Avenue to Maine Street and became the president of Bowdoin College. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my life to have had three careers (counting a brief stint as a biologist), and I look forward to more years at Bowdoin and to the next chapter after that.

This evening I have been asked to talk to you generally about education—liberal arts education—and its preparation for life and work. And, I have been asked to speak more specifically about education and jobs and business in this great state of Maine.

I understand that lawyers inherently can master any subject because of their natural talent, and that by osmosis and world view, they believe they are knowledgeable about all issues. But, for the moment, bear with me while I establish some well-documented facts.

In the United States income stagnation is a reality that we have faced for a quite an extended period, and in many respects, this is unrelated to the impact of the financial crisis of 2008. David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times on Wednesday (10/24) that family income in the United States is 8 percent lower today than it was 11 years earlier. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney—writing about a project for The Hamilton Project and Brookings—tell us that median earnings for prime age working males, after adjusting for lower levels of employment, is down by 19 percent since 1970. For women, they point out that the data are better, but women started at lower levels. Even for women, median income has fallen by 6 percent since 2000. And, a startling statistic from Greenstone and Looney is that income for the median male with a high school diploma and no additional schooling fell by 41 percent from 1970 to 2010, all after adjusting for inflation.

If one looks at the facts in Maine, the data are quite startling and unfortunately trail national averages. Although the Maine high school graduation rate in 2010 was 82 percent compared with a national average of 70 percent, the percent of Mainers enrolling in college within one year was 60 percent in Maine versus 68 percent nationally. Public university graduation rates in Maine lag the national average by 51 to 55 percent. Community college graduation rates are a bit better in Maine than nationally—25 percent to 21 percent.

Is college worth it for a student in Maine? Well, the average annual income in Maine in 2009 for a person with a high school diploma only was $24,727 versus $38,653 for college graduates. The unemployment rate in 2009 was 6.3 percent for Mainers with a high school diploma only and 3.1 percent for college graduates. All of these Maine data come from the great work of the Mitchell Institute.

…the challenge for our state is to create the K-12 education that prepares our students for higher education. The additional challenge is for our communities to work together to support the aspirations of those who seek a college education, and to explain the benefits of higher education to students and parents across our state.

Nationally, and to some extent in Maine, much of the income stagnation is attributable to a number of factors, including the modern growth of globalization (which is clearly affecting Maine) and general increases in productivity and efficiency emanating from technology. But, nearly every commentator also points to our education system in the United States and the problems inherent in this system at nearly every level.

To the stated topic of my talk—liberal arts and its role of educating productive citizens in the United States—I actually think the case for the liberal arts can be seen in the success our graduates. Despite the “conventional wisdom” that the future is all about science, technology, engineering, and math, our liberal arts graduates (many of whom major in those subjects) find themselves highly sought after for excellent jobs post Bowdoin and Bates and Colby. And, the history of our institutions in preparing people for success in all walks of life is well documented. Our students are very bright, able to write, speak, and communicate their ideas. They spend four years learning at the elbow of talented faculty and develop an elasticity of mind and a fearless intellectual nature that allows them to be flexible and adept in our complex society, in their jobs, and as leaders in their communities.

I hear often that a liberal arts education is, in some respects today, a luxury item. In nearly every forum I speak, I am asked to defend the relevance of a liberal arts education and justify the cost to families. The future of our country is in so many respects linked to the entrepreneurial energy of our citizens and the liberal arts are at the heart of that energy. As I said to our Bowdoin community in a talk this fall: to innovate, one actually needs to know something substantive. Innovation requires knowledge—not only facts and formulas, but also the ability to question, defend, write and articulate your ideas while challenging and questioning others. Why do the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences matter in the race toward innovation? They matter because in order to imagine what might be, successful entrepreneurs need to understand the world as it once was and how it is today. They need to understand and appreciate art, form, and function. Success as an entrepreneur requires the ability to work with others, to inspire, empathize, exhibit compassion, and, where necessary, to demonstrate toughness and the ability to make decisions. These are the skills we emphasize and develop, not only in the classroom but also through the residential life experience we provide to our students.

And, the values of our liberal arts colleges matter. At Bowdoin we are committed to serving the common good—a commitment that dates back to the founding of our College. This sense of the common good should inform how we do business, because although your clients focus intently on shareholder value (and they should), how the venture interacts with its customers, employees, and competitors is also recognized today a vital to the success of our businesses and corporations and to our success as a nation.

As so, not surprisingly, I am convinced that the liberal arts and our model of residential liberal arts education is at the center of our nation’s future as we mold future leaders who will be principled leaders in all walks of life.

In that same talk earlier this fall, I also reminded our students and faculty that in addition to building an excellent foundation in the liberal arts, we must instill in our students the inclination, willingness, and capacity to take risk. In my experience, this is something most lawyers avoid—they know full well how to identify every potential risk, but as a group they are often lawyers because they are risk adverse personally. In our society today—where jobs change, technologies modify roles, and people must be flexible for the next challenge—the ability to take risk and develop an entrepreneurial spirit is critical. This ability to take risk requires judgment, and by the way, one’s comfort level with risk increases the more one encounters risk. It can be expensive to fail, but it is very hard to succeed without understanding how to learn from failure, how to respond, and how to reinvent. This was my message to the Bowdoin community, and one that I will continue to advocate.

As lawyers in your communities, many of you are connected to our colleges and universities. One way you can assist the Maine economy and our students is to encourage your clients to hire our students as interns during the summer, and in some cases during the academic year.

So what happens when all of these students graduate after four years of learning and personal growth in our spectacular state? Why can’t we keep them here? Obviously, it’s all about jobs. Many of our students come from away and many want to stay in Maine after four wonderful years at Bowdoin, but the job opportunities simply aren’t there. More than 10 percent of our students are from Maine, and many of these talented young women and men would love to stay, yet they come to college assuming they will have to leave. As lawyers in your communities, many of you are connected to our colleges and universities. One way you can assist the Maine economy and our students is to encourage your clients to hire our students as interns during the summer, and in some cases during the academic year. This is an opportunity not just for big companies, but for all sorts of small businesses too. Our students bring so much talent and enthusiasm to their work that all levels of companies would benefit. And it is much more likely that students would stay in Maine and more likely they will get hired if these internships are made available. My experience in Maine is that the concept of internships is acknowledged as a good idea, but there is inadequate implementation on the ground to create these internship opportunities.

I want to be clear that I am not only proposing these opportunities for Bowdoin students, or for students from Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby. While I believe passionately in the value of the liberal arts, students can get a great education through all forms of higher education. In most cases it is up to the students. Students in Maine can get a great education at a host of other great schools in our state, and they need opportunities as well. The University System has some fantastic programs, and our state is fortunate to have schools like UNE, Husson, Thomas College (now led by our graduate, Laurie LaChance), The College of the Atlantic, and on and on.

Of course, the challenge for our state is to create the K-12 education that prepares our students for higher education. The additional challenge is for our communities to work together to support the aspirations of those who seek a college education, and to explain the benefits of higher education to students and parents across our state. Then, as I’ve mentioned, we all need to do everything we can to put these young people to work in careers that are fulfilling right here in Maine.

We are also very fortunate in Maine to have a dynamic and imaginative community college system led by John Fitzsimmons. At Bowdoin, we hire people who have graduated from the community college system to work in a variety of jobs at the College. It’s a connection between our institutions that we value and one that I believe is very important to our state. Here again, you as lawyers in your communities can assist young people. I urge you to reach out to your clients to promote conversations with the community college system about the educated work force they need. I hear all the time from the expert—my wife Karen, who leads the Small Business Administration—that one of the biggest impediments to job growth is that employers can’t find the skilled workers they need. We can help to solve this problem with better coordination between educators and employers, so that the supply and demand of the marketplace in human capital can be coordinated more effectively.

Moreover, as lawyers you have a unique ability to urge your clients to consider how they could partner with the educational institutions in Maine. College administrators are not the best at imagining these partnerships, but your clients, by their very success, are entrepreneurial people. These businesses should be encouraged to approach their neighboring educational institutions to discuss ways to collaborate in order to strengthen the institutions and the businesses themselves.

Given my role as president of a liberal arts college it should be no surprise when I advocate a liberal arts education as the very best preparation for a meaningful career and for life. But it is also important for those who don’t have the opportunity or inclination to study at a Bowdoin to be educated in a way that prepares them for a good paying job that can provide a satisfying life for themselves and their families. There are many ways to get an education today that create lifelong opportunity—we know that high school is not enough and as a citizenry we must invest in education to allow our people to prosper. By its very nature, this is a long-term investment—the likelihood that we will see a short-term return should not be the focus. And because it is a long-term investment, it can be difficult to contemplate, given the competing demands for limited resources. But, the data tell the story: a college education matters for a good paying job. Businesses will not come to Maine without an educated workforce.

So, here again as leaders of your communities you have a responsibility. Our responsibility to the common good demands that we do all we can to see that all of our young people get educated in ways that will set them on a path for life. We have a responsibility to create aspirations in these young people for that education. We have a responsibility to support the institutions that provide the education and to ensure that there are excellent opportunities in all forms of post secondary education. We have a responsibility to ensure these institutions have the resources to do their work for their students. And, we have a responsibility as leaders in our state who are linked to these institutions to ensure that they focus on excellence and utilize their resources prudently and effectively.

After nearly a dozen years as president, I have seen time and time again the important differences these young people make in their communities and in the workplace. They come from every imaginable background and from different circumstances, but after four years they have one very powerful thing in common: they are well educated and prepared to do anything they set their minds to.

As lawyers in our communities we garner a fair measure of respect. We think of ourselves as leaders with a broad sense of civic engagement. There is no more important mission for our state and our society more generally than to focus intently on the education of our young people.

Thank you again for inviting me to speak here today, and thanks to all of you for listening. I remain optimistic about the challenges we face in education generally, and also about addressing the challenges for our state. I have the privilege at Bowdoin to be surrounded on a daily basis by young people full of energy, passion, and great talent, and by faculty, coaches, and staff who are devoted to their intellectual and personal growth. After nearly a dozen years as president, I have seen time and time again the important differences these young people make in their communities and in the workplace. They come from every imaginable background and from different circumstances, but after four years they have one very powerful thing in common: they are well educated and prepared to do anything they set their minds to. They are also eager to apply their talents in service to the common good. As leaders of this great state of Maine, it is our responsibility to support education at all levels and in all forms, because education is the engine that drives opportunity and delivers the future. We haven’t always done that in Maine. With your help and involvement, I am optimistic that we can build and maintain a thoughtful, innovative, and responsible education framework for all of our citizens, and we can work together to provide the meaningful jobs they seek after graduation. In my view, there are few imperatives more important or more directly linked to our future success.

Thank you, again.


  1. John P. Sheehy,MD '70 says:

    excellent overview of the importance of a Liberal Arts education. everything said could be applied to most of the 50 states

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