Baccalaureate 2013 Address: President Barry Mills ’72

At Bowdoin’s Baccalaureate ceremony marking the official close of the academic year, President Barry Mills addressed access to higher education and affordability, and the value of a liberal arts education. He also shared words of wisdom with the Class of 2013, their families and the Bowdoin community in Sidney J. Watson Arena May 24, 2013.

We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to begin officially our Commencement activities — the time when we honor and say farewell to the members of the Class of 2013 who have earned the high distinction conveyed by a Bowdoin degree, and who have added so much to our community these past four years.

Barry Mills '72

Barry Mills '72

It is a time for celebrating all that you — our seniors — have accomplished, and for looking forward. It is also a time to reflect on Bowdoin’s proud traditions, particularly our steadfast adherence to the ideals of liberal education and our commitment to serving the common good.

It has been my custom at Baccalaureate to speak to important issues affecting our College generally. Today, I would like to take us back to a topic I have spoken about often at Bowdoin, but which remains among the very most important issues facing our College and our nation: access to higher education and affordability, and the undeniable value and importance of a Bowdoin education in the liberal arts.

Happiness, satisfaction and probably a bit of relief fill this arena today — happiness and satisfaction for all the accomplishments of sons, daughters and family members; relief, because those of you supporting these students have made it to graduation too. You have succeeded in providing this invaluable education, and today, you get a raise. Our fee, now approaching $60,000 a year, is now behind you — at least for this student. Congratulations!

For those with college still to come, the narrative today is not always encouraging. It goes something like this: college is too expensive; students graduate with too much debt; they don’t learn anything that will help them get a job; and even if they do, the jobs for college grads just aren’t out there.

And yet, the data confirm that while jobs are hard to come by, those without a college education face a much tougher road and income stagnation, at least under current economic conditions.

It used to be a common belief in America that each generation would build upon and often exceed the success of its elders. That optimism was often taken for granted, but today, this is not the expectation of many young people, even young people who have achieved a college degree.

We live today in a society and an economy that demand knowledge and an entrepreneurial spirit for success. A Bowdoin education provides these and many other avenues for achievement, but let’s face it, Bowdoin and our NESCAC and Ivy League peers educate a small fraction of the college-age students in America. In fact, some suggest that we simply reinforce the elite and are therefore irrelevant. I think not, but the argument has credibility with many because of the millions of other students who are denied access to adequate higher education — millions who face a much tougher road in our society.

Of course, we make choices in our country — some intentional and some unintended — when we underinvest in education. It won’t surprise you to learn that I believe we must invest more in our four-year state institutions and community colleges in order to provide an opportunity for success to all of our citizens. And, this includes an initiative that my wife, Karen in the public sector, and our trustee John Studzinski in the private sector, are working hard to achieve: providing access to education and an opportunity for success to our veterans — men and women who have sacrificed so much and who ought to be able to share in the “American Dream” that they have protected for the rest of us.

I do not suggest that the options are simple or straightforward. Over the past few years we have begun to recognize the stark reality that our country has limited financial resources and must make choices. The competing priorities of health care, national defense, social security, social welfare, the environment, and many other needs compete with education for resources at the both the state and federal level.

We are fortunate at Bowdoin to have both the resources and the continuing support of alumni, parents, friends and foundations that enable us to provide the very best education to our students. The simple fact is that anyone who has the opportunity to attend a place like Bowdoin is a person of privilege, regardless of his or her background. But not everyone can or should attend a place like Bowdoin. There are other pathways, but only if we as a nation provide access to quality, affordable education and an opportunity for success to every citizen of any age who has the drive and ambition for education.

Now, I know I’m not going out on a limb with this audience by advocating a greater national emphasis on education. You have seen the results. At Bowdoin, we believe deeply in the power of education. We know that education is among the most important priorities to ensure individual success, the success of our communities, and the success of our nation. But Bowdoin also has choices to make. We too have to focus on priorities. At nearly $60,000 a year, we have to make the case constantly that what we do here is important and responsible.

Bowdoin students are educated broadly by talented and accomplished faculty. Most graduate with no debt or with debt levels that are much less than what we read about nationally. Our students get good jobs out of school or attend the best professional or graduate schools. The senior survey this year again indicates that over 70% of the people graduating tomorrow know what they will be doing next year with a good job or school. This is an impressive accomplishment by our seniors, much better than the results at most colleges and universities. For those seniors who haven’t landed a job quite yet, I can assure you that by Homecoming in the fall, you will have found good work, especially if you take advantage of the broad and connected Bowdoin network of alumni, parents and friends eager to assist you.

Our College is about the people who make it great: our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and parents and family. In order to ensure that we are a fantastic place forever, we must be in a position to bring to this College the very best students from across America without regard to family background or economic circumstance. Our goal must be to enroll the most talented students. If our ambitions are more modest, we place the strength and vitality of our College at risk.

People often say to me that Bowdoin is too expensive. They tell me that if we cut expenses, we would become more affordable for more families.

Bowdoin is expensive. We can choose to reduce our program substantially and what we deliver to our students, and thereby reduce our costs. But as you might imagine, and probably know best, this program readjustment is really difficult, especially as we seek to maintain and enhance the sophistication of the education at Bowdoin. The seniors who graduate tomorrow have taken advantage of all that Bowdoin has to offer, and they are not eager to see us reduce what we have to offer. And, that sense of a wonderful Bowdoin education is shared by all of you.

We are a College with the resources and an endowment that allow us to provide significant support to many families. At least 46% of the students we just admitted — the Class of 2017 — will receive some measure of financial aid next year, with an average grant of approximately $36,000. But in order to remain financially stable, we must continue to have the support of the entire Bowdoin family. We must continue to build our endowment to meet our collective challenge.

I am actually highly confident in our ability to support our program and our students, and our College is redoubling its efforts and commitment to attain the resource to maintain our commitment to both. I am also proud to acknowledge that this Class of 2013 has recognized our commitment and values and has provided a class gift dedicated to making a Bowdoin education accessible and affordable to all students. Tomorrow you will hear about the impressive commitment by our graduating seniors to this effort, and it is mighty impressive. Thank you, Class of 2013.

But, why, some might ask, are we so bound to our program as it exists today and to this principle of access. Why are these principles and programs so important to us? It is because we believe fundamentally as a core value that all students of talent, without regard to financial resource ought to be at Bowdoin. Our strength is represented by the talent of our students. And, it is because we believe passionately in our mission as set forth in “The Offer of the College” and in the value and permanence of the liberal arts education in a residential setting that defines Bowdoin College.

As you seniors sit here today having spent four years on this campus living and learning — the important questions for you and your family are: “What does this Bowdoin education mean to you today? Why is it so important we continue our mission? What did you learn?”

You have learned deeply and rigorously important substance through our programs and departments. I invite you tomorrow to study the Commencement program for all of the honors projects completed by our talented students. These honors projects and the independent studies, and our curriculum studies are rigorous endeavors designed to allow our students to learn substantively throughout the disciplines and enhance lifelong learning. You have learned to think critically, carefully, and rigorously.

James Freedman, the former president of Dartmouth College wrote the following in his book, Liberal Education and the Public Interest:

“Liberal education urges upon us a reflectiveness, a humility, a hospitality to other points of view, a carefulness to be open to correction and new insight, that might mitigate these tendencies toward polarity, rigidity, and intolerance.”

In “The Offer of the College,” our own William DeWitt Hyde expressed a similar sentiment, defining liberal education as an opportunity “to gain a standard for the appreciation of other’s work and the criticism of your own.”

From our perspective, what this means is that while it is important to have beliefs and opinions, it is also important to be able to support those beliefs and opinions with fact-based analysis and critical thinking. This fact-based analysis, critical thinking, and expression are at the heart of what we do. Beliefs are only the starting point when you walk into a classroom; analysis and critical thinking are what follow, and they are what can either confirm or set those beliefs and opinions aside. This is what you have learned in the classrooms at Bowdoin.

You have also learned that we live in a complex society and global world with people of all different backgrounds, different value systems, and different perspectives. We value that complexity; you have learned to value that complexity.

Ours is a unique learning and living environment. Four years ago on the steps of our museum, I told you that we had chosen your 1,750 neighbors. Your job was to live with them. Never again in life will you live among a community chosen for you. And, from that community, you have learned from friends and acquaintances, from teammates, and from people you have observed up close. Ours is a community reflecting the American of today and one that has allowed you to gain a sense of social difference and perspective, while it has also allowed you to develop deep and enduring friendships. You have learned the importance of difference — to respect difference and to engage difference. You have learned the value and abiding importance of real friendship. The classmates sitting among you are now your friends for life.

You have learned to be serious and determined in life. Whether in the classroom, laboratory, on the playing fields, in art studios, on the dance floor or in Studs Hall — you have learned to be serious about your work. You have learned how to compete in the broadest sense; how to win and how to lose; how to do your best and what happens when your best is not good enough. You have learned the lessons of life in our community of supportive, yet challenging mentors, teachers, coaches and colleagues.

You have also learned the enduring value of serving the common good. At Bowdoin, this is our commitment to make the world around us a better place, a more equitable place, a safer and sustainable place, a place of social justice, a place of equal opportunity, and a place where people of all abilities and disabilities are respected and encouraged. Our commitment to the common good is fundamentally based on doing good work for others, but more importantly, it is about educating our students in what it means to do good work for humanity and the joy, personal satisfaction, and good will that come from this work.

And so, here, in our liberal arts tradition, we know full well who we are and why we are proud to be Bowdoin Polar Bears. As James Freedman goes on to say:

“Although liberal education is not perfect, it does have the redemptive potential to heighten the glories and exhilarations of life, as well as prepare us for its trials and anxieties. It has the capacity to enable us to see the world clearly and steadily, to be conscious of the desirability of qualifying what we say with the word ‘perhaps,’ to think deeply about the large questions of organizing our communal life, to understand the implications of scientific achievements, and to be whole and humane human beings.”

As you leave this campus to enter a very complex world, I am confident that you have gained at Bowdoin the education and life skills to be fabulously successful and, very importantly, people full of joy and optimism for life. The “Offer of the College” promises that these years now concluding are the “best four years of your life,” but don’t worry, it isn’t all downhill from here. These are the best four years not because of the great times you have had on this campus, but because they are the years that have prepared you in the very best way for your journey ahead as lifelong learners, principled leaders, and individuals committed to the common good.

Now, as we prepare to close this academic year, a word of gratitude to the Bowdoin faculty: Thank you all for your dedication to your students, to your scholarship, and to Bowdoin. I wish you all well as you continue throughout the summer months on your scholarship, research, and artistic work, and I look forward to reconvening the College with you in the fall.

To our dedicated and fantastic staff: Thank you!

To our graduating seniors we wish you all the very best as you prepare to leave Brunswick. We are proud of you and of everything you have accomplished here, and we look forward to saluting you on the Quad tomorrow morning.

Finally, let us remind ourselves of where we started four years ago with “The Offer of the College,” those words of William DeWitt Hyde from 1906:

“…to make hosts of friends who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose oneself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends.”

To the Class of 2013 — you future artists, leaders, statesmen, and stateswomen — to each of you who will bring even greater pride to Bowdoin in years to come, I wish you success and a life of learning and deeds well done.