Jes Staley ’79: Lessons From a Search (Bowdoin Magazine)

Jes Staley '79

Jes Staley ’79

Chair of the Presidential Search Committee Jes Staley ’79 reflects on the nine-month search for Bowdoin’s next president and where it led him.

It took our search committee close to nine months to select Clayton Rose as the candidate to be Bowdoin’s next president. We couldn’t be prouder of the result of that long search, and I know our whole committee is excited to share Clayton with the campus.

But Clayton isn’t the only thing I found in this process. Many people have asked me what I learned through the search.

The answer is: I learned a lot. I spent hours with faculty, staff, students, parents, and alumni talking about Bowdoin. And, in the selection process itself, I talked to some of the most fascinating people in the world about higher education, the liberal arts, today’s social issues, and perhaps the greatest challenge of our time: economic inequality. It turns out that picking a presidential candidate was, for me, an education.

Jes Staley '79, P'11 (far right) talks with Debbie Barker '80, P'16, President Barry Mills and President-elect Clayton Rose in Morrell Lounge, Smith Union.

Jes Staley ’79, P’11 (far right) talks with Debbie Barker ’80, P’16, President Barry Mills and President-elect Clayton Rose in Morrell Lounge, Smith Union.

What struck me early, and put the fear of God into me, was how much Bowdoin is loved. I was particularly struck by the affection the alumni have for this college. Why would people, decades removed from a four-year stint in Brunswick, Maine, love the College so much? They’ve had careers, families, churches, hometowns—so many things to turn Bowdoin into a distant memory. But Bowdoin sticks deeply in the hearts of most people who spent four years crossing the campus.

The answer for why Bowdoin is so loved, for me, is found in the values that Bowdoin represents, and in the unifying community that Bowdoin creates around those values. The Common Good, the search for critical thinking, the knowledge learned over four years so that we can go out and help the broader society—these bind us together. The authenticity of Bowdoin, influenced by the state of Maine, and the quiet determination forged while leaning against a cold snow, crossing the most beautiful quad of any college, bring us closer together. Shared values may be the most unifying glue to mankind. And Bowdoin has exemplary values. Ours is truly a virtuous college.

One of the most notable statistics about Bowdoin is that we have the fourth-highest alumni participation rate in annual giving of any college or university in the entire country. Think about that. This point led every candidate to appreciate the power of Bowdoin’s “Offer” and the strength of the Bowdoin community.

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The next thing I learned in the search is why Bowdoin is so important to sustaining the liberal arts in our country’s higher education. People are very worried that the cost of an elite education in the liberal arts is pricing the experience beyond the reach of the average American. Will parents and students continue to spend $60,000 a year for an education in a discipline like classics? The worry of many in the academy is whether a non-traditional candidate would defend the college (and the classics), or would they capitulate and allow . . . a business major?

One member of the Search Committee, at a critical moment in our consideration, made the comment that we shouldn’t discount the power of a non-traditional candidate using their experience to defend the liberal arts. That a view forged of consideration rather than self-defense might be even more persuasive in defending the liberal arts.

Another thing I learned is that we are all watching how technology changes our lives. The next president will need to think hard about how a Bowdoin education, let alone the residential life experience, will change because of technology. And we all hope Bowdoin will be in front of this learning curve.

During our search, we had two events that led to a lot of soul searching: the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia and sexual assault on college campuses. It is a healthy sign that the Bowdoin campus is spurred to action by the issues these events raised. It was moving to watch the search committee, a group of disparate people drawn from all parts of Bowdoin, talk thoughtfully and passionately about race and Title IX. The next President will have to lead the college in some critically important social discussions, and Bowdoin must remain a safe and inviting environment for everyone.

Two final thoughts. Income inequality is a profound challenge to our country and our college. It was very interesting to hear staff and students talk about differences in financial background as perhaps the biggest challenge to student life. It is not just about admitting students on a need-blind basis. It is making sure that every student is able to fully participate in and enjoy all aspects of Bowdoin College. We need a president who understands the small things that welcome students to Bowdoin. We need to make sure we have the financial resources available to ensure that every potential student has both the access to Bowdoin and the ability to get the best out of what our college has to offer. If we are successful, Bowdoin will remain a vehicle for equal opportunity, not an example of inequality.

President-elect Clayton Rose speaks to those gathered in Morrell Lounge, Smith Union, January 26, 2015.

President-elect Clayton Rose speaks to those gathered in Morrell Lounge, Smith Union, January 26, 2015.

Finally, one moment of the search can get me to tears every time I think about it. Early on in the process, I met with Bowdoin’s support staff. Sitting next to me was a middle-aged woman. Late in the session she spoke up and said that she loved working at Bowdoin College. She said she loved Bowdoin College because of Barry Mills. And she loved Barry Mills because he went out of his way, for many years, to connect with her young son. She considers Barry and her son best of friends. Her son goes to school in Brunswick, she said, and loves to tell his friends that he is best friends with the president of Bowdoin. This woman’s job at Bowdoin is to clean the first-year dorms. She is a housekeeper, and she loves our college. There was no moment that made me prouder to be a part of the Bowdoin community and no moment that made me feel more deeply the responsibility our search committee had to get it right.

Finally, I learned that Bowdoin has the humility and empathy to be a unique college for the common good. And that Bowdoin stands as a beacon, a light on the coast of Maine. We are not perfect, but we deeply care about virtue, and we deeply care about embedding values into some of the brightest young minds from all lands, so that Bowdoin can, in a small way, change the course of history.

I am proud to have led a group of committee members who took so seriously their charge, and I deeply believe that Clayton Rose will continue the legacy and values that he is inheriting from Barry Mills.

Jes Staley ’79, P’11


  1. joel b. sherman says:

    Jes: I was very moved by your article. Cleaerly, Bowdoin’s values are the glue which binds us together and creates this unique love of the College. Thank you for your strong and effective leadership and the members of the Committee for the many hours they spent in the selection process. Joel B. Sherman, Class of 1961

  2. David Williams says:


    A wonderful piece. Reading your article and expressed sentiments was akin to listening to my Father (Harry Williams, ’58) reminisce as he did throughout his life of the days spent amongst the “Whispering Pines”. There is something truly special about Bowdoin and all associated with the College should be immensely proud of that legacy. Good Luck in the future. David Williams, Boston College ’84

  3. Mike Coster says:

    A wonderful article, Jes. I now know from what you have said and the way you have said it that we have selected another great Bowdoin president.
    Thanks for the countless hours spent in this important endeavour.
    You and your committee have served Bowdoin well.
    Mike Coster “57

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