Over Spring Break, one of the preliminaries to the Bowdoin Project caught my attention. It discussed the development of the concept of the common good at the College, which today seems vital to our institution. The report contends that Joseph McKeen, when referencing the common good in 1802, noted the nation’s need of ministers. The revival of the conceit 200 years later raises the inevitable question—just how constructed is our understanding of the common good?

I will not attempt to defend the common good, if it indeed needs defending. I am more concerned with moments of uncommon good in Bowdoin’s history. When has Bowdoin demonstrated extraordinary leadership in the face of extraordinary adversity?

The question matters because of the uncommon threat that climate change poses, made worse by a Congress that seems hellbent on ignoring science so long as corporations continue to line its pockets (see the Senate’s symbolic approval of the Keystone XL pipeline a few weeks ago). Urgent action has been taken by four colleges known for their “experimental” education methods, in divesting from the fossil fuel industry, while more traditional schools all look at each other sheepishly, like Bowdoin students with cold feet before a Polar Bear plunge. “You first.”

Over Spring Break, an old teacher asked me where I was these days. Her eyes lit up when I said Bowdoin, and I asked her what she knew about the place. She responded that she knew it was “visionary.” I chuckled. 

Bowdoin is not a college of firsts. We are a top (but not tippity top) liberal arts college, middle of the NESCAC pack in athletics (save our hockey teams), academics, hell, even recyclemania results. The most controversy we’ve managed to amass in recent memory, apart from NAS’s conservative critique, was over a single day of vegetarianism two years ago. Accusations of liberal bias aside, I’d say we’re pretty inoffensive—especially compared to those raving liberal radicals at Unity College and College of the Atlantic who have actually divested from fossil fuels.

This is not to say we’ve always shied away from challenge. There were indeed times in our history when Bowdoin demonstrated uncommon leadership. In 1826, the third African-American man (John Brown Russworm) to graduate from an American college received his diploma from Bowdoin. In 1969, the College became the first selective institution to make the SAT an optional part of its admissions process. A year later, President Roger Howell navigated a student strike in response to the Kent State shootings and escalated violence in Vietnam by joining the Bowdoin community in a fresh start. I do not claim that this is a comprehensive list, but these examples are good proof that Bowdoin has demonstrated uncommon leadership in complex issues in the past, the first brave soul to take the plunge into icy water.

Which begs the question: what happened, Bowdoin? When did you hang up your innovation for stagnation? When did our student body become the butt of the “great social rest” joke? When did protecting the sanctity of our Polar Bear become more important than protecting actual polar bears? When did we trade uncommon dedication to social issues for a complacent belief in the common good?

Right now, humanity faces the greatest challenge in the history of existential threats. Now is the time for bold action—the kind of risk that demonstrates leadership by example, that educates students, that is rewarded by proud alumni donations. That shows the rest of the world that maybe the water isn’t so bad after all.

Colby recently announced that it had achieved carbon-neutrality two years ahead of schedule. Our carbon neutrality plan commits us to reducing just 28 percent of our “own-source” emissions...in seven more years. Brown, too, has big news: their Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies (do we have one of those?) unanimously recommended divestment from coal—and their trustees have never once failed to follow such a statement. How are we doing at Bowdoin?

Students deserve an honest, open appraisal of what Bowdoin can do to keep up with Colby and Brown, but so far, the administration has been aggressively unreceptive to not only divestment, but also to other investment solutions from alums. I know Bowdoin can do better.

President Mills has claimed the College is committed to leading the way against climate change but so far, we haven’t seen any conviction. With divestment, Mills has an opportunity to remind us why the last words of Bowdoin’s mission statement is a call to “subordinate self to higher goals.” It’s time to demonstrate some uncommon leadership, President Mills, and divest from fossil fuels.

If we’re going to be under scrutiny for systemic liberal bias anyway, we might as well start living up to it.

Matthew Goodrich is a member of the Class of 2015.