“It’s time to respond.”
So wrote President Barry Mills in “Setting the Record Straight,” a letter addressing the National Association of Scholars’ (NAS) “attack” on the College, which was posted to the Bowdoin Daily Sun (BDS) on Wednesday morning. Mills had remained conspicuously silent on the subject of “The Bowdoin Project,” a 360-page report funded by Mills’ one-time golf partner, investor Thomas Klingenstein, in the week following the report’s release last Wednesday.
Mills began his letter by explaining that it had taken him a week to respond to the report, which vehemently criticizes the College’s curriculum, student life, and diversity initiatives, because he wanted time to review the document in its entirety.
“When the report was made public last Wednesday, the College issued a statement promising to review it, ‘because we encourage open discourse on the effectiveness of American higher education and because we support academic freedom, which is the essence of a liberal arts institution,’’ Mills wrote. “A week later, that review is complete.”
The BDS post defends the College’s students, faculty and liberal arts mission on no uncertain terms, and refutes the report’s claims that “Bowdoin is somehow un-American” and does not educate its students in canonical texts.
“Let me be clear and direct: the report by the National Association of Scholars is mean-spirited and personal. It exaggerates its claims and misrepresents both what we do at Bowdoin and what we stand for,” Mills wrote.
Mills debunks several of the report’s claims in his post, but explains that he will not take the time to address all of its claims.
“Will we take the time to respond to, challenge, or debunk everything contained in this report and promoted by its authors? Probably not,” he wrote. “We are not a fragile or insecure institution, and we will not abide personal attacks and unsubstantiated tirades by those with deep pockets and a personal or political axe to grind.”
“Setting the Record Straight” has garnered over 3,275 likes on Facebook in the three days sinces its release, and attracted so many responses that moderators of the BDS had to close comments on the post.
“The Bowdoin Project” has received national attention from the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and has been the subject of articles in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Real Clear Politics, and as of last night, Gawker—which dissembled the NAS report in an article titled “Conservative Scholars’ Investigation Says Bowdoin College Is Awesome.”
Limbaugh disparaged the state of higher education in America and that “a history major coming out of Bowdoin College is not taught for one minute about the American founding.” Beck’s coverage began with a garbled pronunciation of Bowdoin, and went on to deride course offerings such as “Queer Gardens” and other courses with provocative titles.
“Queer Gardens,” which is cross-listed in the English and gay and lesbian studies departments, was to be taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Terri Nickel in the Fall of 2012, but not enough students enrolled in the course.
Klingenstein said he was “pleased” that Mills responded to report, but called parts of the BDS post “inaccurate or unresponsive.”
“He didn’t respond to the major points. There are certain things, what I would call foundational ideas, where Bowdoin is not open to competing points of view,” Klingenstein told the Orient yesterday.
These “foundational ideas” include Bowdoin’s approach to promoting racial and ethnic diversity, providing free sexual education and contraception to students, and educating its students in non-Western cultures.
Asked how he would recommend changing Bowdoin’s admissions policy, Klingenstein said, “I’m not sure that I would start with admissions—I think that’s a little too controversial, and I think it would be distracting…I’m more interested in the ways race, ethnicity, gender and all the rest influence the curriculum and student life.”
Klingenstein noted that he approaches the topic of diversity cautiously: “This word ‘diversity’ is a little slippery,” he said. “If I’m not careful, it could make it sound like I don’t want minorities on campus.” That, he said, is emphatically not the case.
In a written response to Mills’ BDS post, Peter Wood and Michael Toscano—the authors of the NAS report—reiterate Klingenstein’s claim that Mills neglected to address their larger findings. Mills, they write, “alleges that we are guilty of cherry-picking. We reject this. Our report is a cornucopia of detailed examples presented in as full a context as possible. President Mills’ answer, however, consists of a few broad-brush accusations and a handful of instances where he seems to think he has the better of the argument.”
Wood and Toscano’s response received over 65 comments, many from alumni, within 10 hours after was posted on the Orient’s website yesterday afternoon.
“Mr. Wood and Mr. Toscano: the true tragedy of your piece is that Bowdoin had previously taught me to hold scholars in the highest regard. Yet your sloppy work at the behest of a well-heeled donor with an obvious grudge has confirmed for me that human error in academia exceeds what I initially feared,” wrote Zachary Perez ’12.
“Unfortunately, the tome of a study reads like an essay about the writers’ own beliefs: the importance of “intellectual humility” (whatever that means), the importance [of]college level work in American history taught in the way the Toscano and Wood learned it, and the preeminence of the Western canon,” wrote Tanu Kumar ’12.
The release of the NAS report coincides with college admissions season; hundreds of prospective students will visit campus in the coming weeks as they decide where to enroll. According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn, the report is not impacting enrollment levels for the Class of 2017.
“We have basically the same number of students signed up for the class that we did last year, so admitted students are matriculating,” Meiklejohn said.
Meiklejohn did note, however, that a short thread of comments regarding the NAS study had been posted to the admitted students Facebook page, and that his office received one “nasty” call from someone shortly after Rush Limbaugh discussed “The Bowdoin Project” on his radio show.
Now that the report has been addressed by a series of national media outlets, one might hope that this saga—now well into its third year—will finally be put to rest.
Gawker's Tom Scocca seemed satisfied with his own investigation into the matter.
“Bowdoin sounds like a decent place for young people to get an education, provided they also want to enjoy themselves,” he wrote.
-Kate Witteman and Marisa McGarry contributed to this report.