This is the second of two installments profiling President Barry Mills. Part One
In the decade prior to President Barry Mills' arrival on campus, Bowdoin underwent a series of dizzying changes brought about by his predecessor, Bob Edwards. Edwards physically transformed the campus with a slew of building projects, which were, in the words Professor of German Steven Cerf, the product of "a wonderful edifice complex."
Thorne Hall, Druckenmiller Hall, Smith Union, Stowe Hall, Howard Hall, Chamberlain Hall and Wish Theatre were all built during Edward's tenure. Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, Memorial Hall and Searles Hall were renovated. Additionally, Edwards instituted long-needed but controversial changes to the organization of the College.
Edwards increased the size of the student body, changed the hiring process for faculty, consolidated the governing boards, and most famously, oversaw the elimination of the fraternities. Edwards' reforms, while visionary, whittled away support from the faculty and angered many students. The next president of Bowdoin was to inherit a College boasting plenty of potential, but not without some old wounds to heal.
At the head of the committee searching for that new leader was Mills, who took an unprecedented approach in his search.
"He spent days, weeks in Brunswick talking to students, faculty and townspeople," said former Chairman of the Board of Trustees Fred Thorne '57. Mills' rigorous investigation of what people wanted afforded him insight into the kind of president that would build on Edwards' work while bringing stability to the community.
A few months into the search, Mills moved from heading the committee to interviewing before it. There are varying accounts as to how this switch happened. According to Thorne, Mills expressed in a casual conversation with an outside consultant that he would enjoy working in higher education.
When Bob White '77, a trustee, member of the search committee and one of the founding partners of private equity firm Bain Capital, learned of this, he approached Mills about the prospect of interviewing for the presidency.
"You are outta your mind!" Mills remembered saying when White first popped the question. "There is no way I would do this and I'm not the right guy."
Mills said he does not recall expressing any interest in the job.
"When I became head of the search committee, I had zero intention, zero intention, of becoming president of Bowdoin," Mills said. "It was not in my wildest dreams."
Cerf, a committee member, agreed that Mills had never suggested such a desire. Former Chair of the Board of Trustees Peter Small '64 added that the idea that Mills would apply was completely foreign to him and others up until the moment it happened.
"This had never dawned on him or anyone else that he would he even consider being an applicant," said Small. "You know, here's a family living on Park Avenue in New York, kids all in school there, his wife running a private equity firm there, and him running a law firm," said Small. "What are the odds he's going to pack up and move to Brunswick and do this? It's pretty extraordinary."
Cerf said the committee found Mills to be at the top of a very qualified applicant pool; after they met with a number of inspiring candidates, Thorne and others still felt that Mills, who at this point had still not even applied, had the best potential. Mills continued to rebuff White's encouragement to apply, and it took another conversation before Mills finally did apply. Thorne took over the search, and the committee made an offer soon after.
"There were very few opportunities that could ever tempt him to leave Debevoise and the practice of law," said Rick Evans, the presiding partner at Debevoise & Plimpton LLC. "Obviously, the school meant a lot to him."
It must have, as Mills certainly did not take the job for the money. Debevoise boasts some of the highest profits per partner in the country, so leaving meant a dramatic pay cut.
His appointment was an unorthodox one. Colleges don't usually pull their leaders from outside the realm of higher education, and though he had a Ph.D., Mills' background in business and law was potentially polarizing.
"They really took a risk with me," Mills said. It was risky for him, too: uprooting his family from New York City for a town with a population that could sit on a couple of city blocks was a big adjustment. But Mills knew, even before the search committee did, that some change was necessary—he was not going to spend the rest of his career at Debevoise.
He was inaugurated as Bowdoin's 14th president on October 27, 2001.
"Barry threw himself into the job immediately," said Vice President of Planning and Development and Secretary of the College Bill Torrey. "He spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week becoming engaged in every aspect of the institution. He went to every sporting event, every arts performance. He knew the details of how many nails went into the construction of a new building."
And his attention to detail has not wavered since.
"He knows where every weed is on the playing field," said Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd.
Beyond a keen interest in the finer points of woodworking and botany, Mills demonstrated what many describe as a shrewd analytical prowess, honed by his time in corporate law. But Mills was no longer catering to clients and their problems; he was solving the problems of the College, ones he truly cared about.
His decision-making was tested about a year into his presidency when he learned that the two towers of the Chapel were on the verge of collapse. According to Small, the building was based on English churches that were not designed to weather Maine's subzero temperatures. Fixing them was going to be astronomically expensive, but the College's hands were tied.
"You couldn't just take the two steeples off the chapel and say, 'Well, that's the new look,'" said Small. Mills proposed the College seek a settlement from insurance company.
"Every one of us on the Board of Trustees said, 'No that's ridiculous; the insurance company isn't going to pay for that," said Small, who anticipated, as did others, that the company would account the damage to natural wear and tear.
Nonetheless, Mills persisted, arguing to the insurers that if the towers were not fixed soon, they could fall apart completely. The prospect of catastrophe and consequent publicity was enough to convince them. Small described the resulting settlement as "huge."
"It showed me the creative thinking and the businessman, if you will, in Barry that saved the College a tremendous amount of money," said Small.
In the beginning, Mills was transparent, sometimes to a fault. Small said that very few people in his position broach big ideas before large groups, at least without first discussing them with a couple of advisers. Mills' hyper-candidness ruffled the feathers of some older constituents of the College.
"His original approach was, 'Let's get the staff together and let's blow the place up,'" said Small of Mills' early tendency to make radical suggestions, no matter the audience. Now, "he's actually a little better at working his ideas over in private a little longer."
Mills may have curbed his habit of presenting off-the-wall ideas to unreceptive audiences, but with this newfound caution, his spontaneity and openness may also have been somewhat curtailed.
In response to an off-beat proposal, "Barry today might say, 'That would never work at Bowdoin,' but when he first got here he'd say, 'You know, why not?'" said Small.
Trustee Jeff Emerson '70 expressed that Mills carefully considers all parties when making decisions on behalf of the College.
"He is a leader; he makes clear what his leadership position is, but he's also a consensus builder and that is the defining aspect of his tenure," said Emerson. "He's very careful to balance his leadership with the building of consensus whether it's consensus with the faculty, consensus with the student body, or consensus with the trustees."
Consensus with his inner circle of senior staffers is also key, and any conversation with its members speaks to their cohesion. When it comes to discussing Mills and his tenure, the language of his senior officers is studded with Mills' own signature catchphrases.
"I'm a retailer at heart," said Mills, referring to his penchant for talking up alumni and students.
"Barry does retail really well," said Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster, referring to Mills' involvement with student activities, while Torrey called him "very retail-oriented."
Language is important to Mills' presidency, not only in the way it creates a unified front for his staff, but in terms of the widespread community cohesion it engenders. For instance, Mills is quick to say the word "Bowdoin." In formal speeches, written messages and casual conversations, Mills conveys his connection to the College through the repeated use of its name. Cerf noted that Edwards rarely ever said "Bowdoin."
Mills said effective communication was immensely important to him—he wanted alumni to feel a connection to campus. As part of the solution, Mills generated the idea for the Bowdoin Daily Sun, a blog that aggregates news from across the Internet and the Bowdoin community.
Frequent interaction with alumni taught him that the College was not always maintaining connection with its donors, and he said that the role of the blog is to maintain relationships with alumni and parents.
Mills' focus on maintaining relationships extends to his fundraising efforts.
"Raising money is the closest thing to the 'thrill of the deal' that I had as being a lawyer, and it's great fun," said Mills.
"He is a super-salesman—he sells the place very well," said Torrey. "You look at our numbers in the past 10 or 12 years, and they are among the very top of colleges in the country."
Mills' prodigious fundraising has lead him to secure gifts from Bowdoin's wealthiest alumni, including billionaires Peter Buck '52 and Stanley Druckenmiller '75.
According to Thorne, Druckenmiller recently said that Mills has "got more money out of me than any guy who's ever walked."
While Mills is a persistent fundraiser, he does not work miracles: the largest gift he says he's asked for is $70 million, while the largest gift the College has received was $25 million.
Effective at raising money, Mills has been prudent when it comes to spending it. After the financial crisis of 2008, the College instituted a salary freeze, as did peer schools. When the markets rallied this past March, many of those schools announced salary increases as high as 2.5 percent for their faculty. Bowdoin did not, and when the markets dropped in the intervening months, what originally looked like caution came to suggest wisdom.
Because Bowdoin's faculty salaries are linked to those at peer institutions, Mills expressed frustration with the short-term thinking of financial planners at those schools, noting, "You want to say, 'In a world where inflation is a half a percent, and health care costs are still going up at a dramatic rate, exactly in what business are people getting raises?'"
The challenges facing Mills have not solely been economic—they have also been personal.
On January 12, 2008 the campus received an e-mail from Mills explaining that his eldest son, William, was recently rushed into emergency surgery to remove a brain tumor doctors discovered the previous week.
"We are told his long-term prognosis is likely to be good, but a long journey lies ahead for Will," wrote Mills.
At a faculty meeting earlier this week, Mills shared the news that Will had gone into surgery again last Tuesday and that the operation went well. According to Cerf, who attended the meeting, Mills said "the prognosis for Will is still upbeat and positive." Will was even talking about plans for the summer later that week.
"When he was first ill, I was away a lot and then there was a long period where he was in Maine and getting treatment and the logistics were real complicated, but I was always around and that wasn't an issue," said Mills. Since early September, when Will's health took a turn for the worse, Mills has spent about three days of each week in Boston.
To allow the rest of the family to be nearby, he and his wife are renting an apartment near Massachusetts General Hospital.
"I think he's navigated a situation that is challenging almost beyond imagination," said Judd. "As a parent, it's hard to imagine anything more frightening than the issues of health for our children."
Mills has made great use of humor, said Cerf, to cope. At the faculty meeting, he quipped that he, Karen and Will have been to every floor of the hospital except obstetrics, which he hoped wouldn't be necessary.
Staff and faculty members praised Mills' ability to stay connected to the College while coping with tremendous personal strain. Despite his absences from campus, faculty and staff members said they have not heard complaints that Mills is neglecting his work.
"What Barry's been remarkably able to do is to be fully engaged with Will's issues and to be fully engaged with Bowdoin," said Judd.
"I don't think that people should have any sense that he's somehow less at the helm," she added.
Cerf and Small agreed, adding that they never wait more than four hours for a response to an e-mail. Often, it only takes four minutes.
"I am, I think my colleagues would tell you, closely connected to what's going on through e-mail, so I know what's happening at the College and I'm very involved day to day," said Mills.
Most people would become more detached from their work in the face of such hardship, but for Mills, Bowdoin seems to be a lifeline.
Mills said he misses face time with his colleagues and added that it is difficult to get a pulse on the school when he isn't running into people on the Quad.
"It's only going to be for a while," Mills sighed. "This will resolve itself, and I'm going to be back."
One is hard-pressed to find critics of Mills. Faculty members have on occasion complained that Mills is bursting with ideas, not all of them good, which he admits is sometimes the case. But when asked to elaborate, faculty members were short on details.
"There are people who have difficulties with his appointments," one professor noted. "There was some grumbling about the fitness center, whether we should have spent that much money. Some people have a sense about Bowdoin, that it is a training place for lawyers and investment bankers more than for academics. Yes, that is a reality. But I don't know how much a president can change that."
"Certainly there is less grumbling about Barry than there was about Bob," the professor added.
Another professor said that Mills' decision-making was perplexing in the early years of his presidency, but that communications between him and the faculty has improved with time.
In a recent survey of 388 students posted on the Orient Express, Mills received a 94 percent approval rating.
Perhaps this improvement is due to what many of Mills' colleagues call his relentless forward thinking.
"No grass grows under his feet," said Judd.
"He is always going to be wondering if there's something else he could be doing," said Small. "There's no sense of 'I've arrived; I've figured out this job.' He's just always looking for the next way to improve the place, the next challenge, next danger and believe me, there's a lot of dangers out there."
And what does Barry see when he looks to the future? An unclear path, one that might wind around the campus for a long time yet.
"I know this is the question that lots of people [are] talking about," said Mills. "Obviously George has graduated from high school; my wife is in DC; I've been here 10 years, and so everybody wants to figure out: 'What's he going to do?'
Mills said that he would not presume that the decision to stay is entirely his choice. But those who would have a say in it, the board members, have expressed their support of his ongoing tenure.
"Personally, I hope he stays a while," said Thorne. Thorne is not alone. Several colleagues expressed, whether solicited for comment on the subject or not, their hope is that Mills remains at Bowdoin.
Mills vacillated on whether he and Karen would return to New York. While he first said a move back to the big city was unlikely, he quickly added that it wasn't impossible. One culinary offering of the city is certainly missed.
"With all due respect to China Rose, I would love it if there were a great Chinese restaurant in Brunswick—or in Maine!" said Mills.
For the time being, plans for the future are on the back burner. Mills said that with the state of his son's health, now is not the time to make career decisions. However, several trustees noted that he has been approached with leadership positions at other institutions, though they would not specify which ones.
Mills expressed characteristic excitement regarding the challenges, not the comforts, of continuing to lead Bowdoin. The economic climate is far from stable, and should the economy fail to bounce back, fundamental changes would be required across the board. The newly-acquired land from Naval Air Station Brunswick is a blank slate waiting to be shaped.
These hurdles, among many others, may keep Mills at Bowdoin for some time yet. It would appear that, for now, China Rose will have to do.