Last weekend, the Board of Trustees approved President Clayton Rose’s proposal to terminate the Jefferson Davis Award—an academic honor given to a student excelling in the study of constitutional law. In President Rose’s words, “It is inappropriate for Bowdoin College to bestow an annual award that continues to honor a man whose mission was to preserve and institutionalize slavery.” This change was a necessary one, perhaps even overdue. The Jefferson Davis Award had been given out annually since 1973, and those who saw it awarded year after year may have assumed its inevitability. In President Rose’s motion to discontinue the award, we saw for the first time the benefit of bringing in a president with no previous ties to the College. Armed with a fresh set of eyes, he saw the award as the outdated relic that it was. 

Last month, columnist Maya Reyes ’16 wrote an Op-Ed for the Orient titled “Franklin Pierce’s legacy deserves more recognition and discussion,” in which she called on the Bowdoin community to have “more conversations about the actions and products of Bowdoin that we aren’t so proud of.” Pierce—who graduated from Bowdoin in 1824—was a President guided by a troubling ideology. He ardently enforced the Fugitive Slave Act and opposed the abolitionist movement. Likewise, in a column this week about the Jefferson Davis Award, columnist Adira Polite ’18 writes, “America desperately needs to address its dark past and present in order to achieve progress. This is true in the context of Bowdoin as well.” Both Reyes and Polite are correct: the College must confront the parts of its history we might prefer to forget.

In 1858, Jefferson Davis was visiting southern Maine when the College awarded him an honorary degree at commencement. He was the lone southerner at the ceremonies, and another honorary degree recipient that afternoon was prominent Maine abolitionist William Pitt Fessenden. Every element of the event was fraught with contention. Bowdoin appeared to feel obligated to give an honorary degree to a man of Davis’ stature, but many students and local media outlets were at odds with his pro-slavery politics. And though Davis was certainly out of place on campus, he was not without a Bowdoin connection: he had served as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. 

These are rich histories, compelling simply as narratives, but they also contain lessons.  We aren’t necessarily proud of our historical associations with these men, and their stories are all the more worth telling for that fact. Seeing how representatives of Bowdoin have fallen on the wrong side of moral issues in years past helps us avoid assuming our own infallibility as an institution. Advocates for the removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol this past summer argued that the flag did not belong at a government site but rather in a museum. It is in a similar way that Bowdoin should treat the memories of men like Davis and Pierce. They may not deserve to be honored, but they certainly need to be remembered.

This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is comprised of John Branch, Sam Chase, Matthew Gutschenritter, Emma Peters and Nicole Wetsman.