Timothy Foster: ‘Voices From the Past,’ Convocation 2013

Timothy Foster, Convocation 2013Bowdoin College’s 212th Convocation was held Wednesday, September 4, 2013, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall. Following is the text of Dean of Student Affairs Timothy Foster’s “Voices from the Past” address.

Fifty years ago next month, a group of Bowdoin students set out to establish an honor system for the College.

Six months later, in April 1964, their work was approved by the faculty and then by fellow students, and adopted officially as a means for developing quote “a spirit of honor, an awareness of the need for personal responsibility in academic conduct, and an atmosphere of adult learning.”

With revisions in 1977 and again in 1993, this Academic Honor Code and the parallel Social Code are still in place today. These codes underscore the vital need for uncompromised intellectual inquiry, integrity, and standards of behavior that ensure that the Bowdoin campus remains a center of intellectual engagement.

Now, I know some of you are doing the math. Bowdoin was founded in 1794 and opened in 1802, yet it took more than 160 years to establish an honor system?! Were the early 1960s really so bad that we needed to establish some rules for the first time?  Well, maybe.

Seriously, the facts are these: college honor systems have been around for a long time. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first one in America at the College of William and Mary. The early 1960s saw a proliferation of formal systems, and Bowdoin was a part of that push.But that’s not to say that there was no sense of responsibility, no sense of honor and character, or no rules in the previous century and a half. Quite the contrary!

In fact, to the Class of 2017 and other students in the audience, I can say with certainty: You’re getting off easy!

For example, if you think that today’s criteria for admission are tough, consider item number one in The Rules of Bowdoin College, a 28-page document published in 1802:

“No person shall be admitted a member of this College, unless, upon examination by the President…he shall be found acquainted with the fundamental rules of arithmetic, and able to read, construe and parse Cicero’s select orations, Virgil’s Aeneid and Greek testament, and to write Latin grammatically, and shall also produce satisfactory credentials of his good moral character.” Oy!

For those who got past these initial hurdles, there were more rules to come:

“If any student shall…be absent from his chamber in the hours of study [and if the student is] often absent by frequenting the chambers of his fellow students, and in an idle and wanton manner interrupting their studies, he shall render himself a burden to the institution, (and) he may be publicly or privately admonished, suspended, or rusticated.”

Noise and even singing were really not okay:

“If any student shall by singing, playing on any instrument, or by any noise or tumult in study hours, disturb the studies of any person in the college, he may be fined, not exceeding twenty cents, admonished, or suspended, according to the degree and repetitions of the offense.”

By the way, adjusted for inflation, that’s a fine of about $3.20, so they really weren’t all that harsh back in 1802. A $50 parking ticket today is more likely to get your attention!

The world is a different place today, and so is Bowdoin. Residential life will be a huge part of your experience here, and we will encourage you to join in activities, and to get to know this community and the great state of Maine. Not so much in 1802. In fact, there were all kinds of things that could lead to “admonition, suspension, or rustication.”

You couldn’t throw a ball near a building.  (Lax players, that means no wall ball!) You couldn’t go out of Brunswick except to Topsham without the president’s permission.  (Can you imagine the explosion of requests to President Mills’ e-mail account?)

There were no cards, billiards, or any game of hazard (which, these days would probably include video games and pepper flip in our dining halls). Eating or drinking in a Brunswick or Topsham tavern without a parent or guardian was verboten.  (Where would Joshua’s be?) “Nor shall any student go a gunning or fishing” without permission from the College.  (This is not true today but please don’t go fishing and certainly don’t go “a gunning” for the goldfish in the retaining pond down at Watson.) And there were no guns or gunpowder allowed in college buildings (we’ve held on to this rule!!).

The other thing we’ve hung on to is the expectation that your experience here will be guided by “a spirit of honor, an awareness of the need for personal responsibility” and by character.

You will learn an enormous amount in these classrooms, laboratories, galleries, and performance spaces, and the Bowdoin faculty will be with you every step of the way as teachers and as mentors.

And you will also learn a lot about character in your time here because character development is a fundamental part of this education and a fundamental part of Bowdoin’s mission.

In May 1910, Joseph Curtis White—a member of the junior class at the time—addressed his fellow students and the faculty assembled in the Chapel for Ivy Day. His talk was titled “Character in College.” White’s message that day is still relevant a century later: “It is character that secures success.” And this is work that begins now. “It is never too early to begin to shape one’s character,” said White. “For character is really a matter of habit.”

“The period of college life is the time when our characters are molded.”

Now, some of you might say this is all a bit intense; that college is a time of freedom and experimentation, and that there will be time for all this character development later on. That was also an argument familiar in White’s day, and one he rejected. “It is true that college conditions are not those of [life afterward],” he said. “There is a certain artificiality about this life here but still there’s much in common between the conditions here and the conditions after commencement.”

“Just as we conduct ourselves in our little world, so will we behave in a larger world. The [person] who shirks…responsibilities in college will shirk them after college and the [person] who succeeds here is pretty sure to succeed hereafter.”

“…here we are developing those qualities and characteristics that will distinguish us through life. Bowdoin has work for all…undergraduates, and those who faithfully and honestly accept this work will be [those] who in future years will be doing the work of the world…”

So, my message this afternoon mirrors that of Joseph Curtis White of the Class of 1911: Start now. Don’t wait. Though we will no longer “rusticate” you for wearing a hat when speaking to a professor or trustee, we continue to maintain the highest expectations for integrity, character, and personal responsibility.

It is a privilege to be a part of this community—a privilege each of you has earned. We look forward to your contributions and to your embrace of the standards that have defined Bowdoin College for all these years. Thank you for listening.