President Barry Mills announced on Monday that he plans to step down at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year. Mills has been president since 2001.
“Transitions are inevitable, and after what will be 14 tremendous years as president, I believe it is time for me to make way for new leadership to propel Bowdoin into its next period of greatness,” Mills wrote in an email to campus.
In an interview with the Orient, Mills said that he came to the decision in March. He notified the Board of Trustees of his decision on Monday morning, followed by an email to the campus.
In 2011, Mills told the Orient that he would stay at the College for at least five more years, making his departure in 2015 a year earlier than expected.
Mills graduated from Bowdoin in 1972 with a double major in Government and Biochemistry. He holds a Ph.D in Biology from Syracuse University and a J.D. from Columbia University School of Law. He was a partner at the New York-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP before assuming his position at Bowdoin.
He has been popular among students, with approval ratings in Orient surveys consistently above 90 percent.
“Barry’s been a really remarkable leader for this place,” said Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster. “I don’t think I know anyone who has such passion for Bowdoin. You take his strategic mind and his relentless drive and his high aspirations for this place, and it’s quite extraordinary to see what’s been accomplished.”
Mills has also proven an effective fundraiser, helping to grow the endowment from $433.2 million in his first year in office to $1.03 billion in 2013. The amout of money the College puts toward financial aid has more than doubled during his tenure—from $14.6 million (unadjusted for inflation) in 2001 to $32.3 million in 2013.
Mills is currently the second longest serving president in the NESCAC. Colby’s William D. Adams has been in office since 2000, but plans to retire at the end of this year. Mills’ tenure is the longest for a Bowdoin president since James Coles, who was in office from 1952 to 1967. Overall, Mills’s length of tenure will rank sixth-longest of 14 Bowdoin presidents.
Few members of the Bowdoin community knew of Mills’ plans before Monday.
“Everyone knew this day would come, but it was a surprise,” said Foster.
Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley said she “was hoping it wouldn’t be this soon.”
Mills said the timing of his announcement was meant to give the Board of Trustees enough time to start thinking about the transition in time for its annual meeting in May. The Board now has 14 months to find a successor and prepare for the transition.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Deborah Barker said that the committee is going to revisit Bowdoin’s mission, and think about where the College is currently headed, and then draft a job opening based on these considerations.
“A president needs to be everything,” she said. “He needs to be a chief executive—or she does—a politician, a leader and a fundraiser.”
Barker said that the Trustees hope to approve a search committee at their meeting on May 7 and 8.
“That’s the most important responsibility the Trustees have,” Foster said. “We have a stellar board, and they’ll get it right.”
Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) President Sarah Nelson ’14 sent an email to rising juniors and seniors Wednesday night inviting them to apply to represent the student body on the search committee. According to Barker, the board has reached out to all constituent groups—students, faculty, and alumni—to find potential committee members.
Mills said he does not plan on being involved in the search process.
“It’s not wise for a person to be involved in choosing their successor, so it will be up to that committee and the trustees to find a new president,” he said.
He cited the College’s stability as the main reason for his decision to depart a year earlier than he had planned.
“It’s not a lot earlier,” he said. “I recognize I’ve been here a long time. Fourteen years is a long time to be a college president, and the transition is going to be somewhat challenging for the school. My own view is that it’s important to allow a place to go through a challenging point when it’s in an incredibly good position.”
Mills also emphasized the importance of a president’s commitment to a long tenure.
“It’s an incredibly good time for the College,” he said. “It deserves a new leader who is going to have a run rate of 10 to 15 years.”
For now, Mills said he is focusing on his remaining time at Bowdoin.
“Lots of people have asked me to reflect on the past, and I’m actually not interested in reflecting on the past right now. I’m interested in thinking about the future,” he said.
He listed fundraising for the College’s financial aid endowment, supporting the Digital and Computational Studies program, and promoting the Coastal Studies Center as top priorities for his remaining time at Bowdoin.
As for his plans after Bowdoin, Mills said that his decision to step down should not be interpreted as a retirement—though he does not plan to practice law again.
“I don’t want to retire,” he said. “I have a lot more years ahead of me where I think I can be incredibly effective and energetic and successful. And so I’m open to all kinds of opportunities.”
President Mills’ Monday morning announcement came relatively abruptly, but it was a coordinated effort. Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood said he learned of Mills’ plans in a “number of conversations over the weekend.”
“The first order of business once he had made his decision was to tell his bosses—the Board of Trustees,” said Hood.
After informing senior staff members of the decision individually, Mills placed a conference call to the trustees at 11 a.m.
An email announcement to staff, students and faculty came half an hour later, followed by an email from Debbie Barker ’80, chair of the Board of Trustees. Hood said that both of those emails were written over the weekend, and were not edited by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs beyond simple copy-editing.
After Mills’ email, Hood said, his office “took over with getting the word out.” The Bowdoin Daily Sun quickly posted online and promoted it on the College’s social media channels. The article was also sent in an email to alumni, parents, and the widows of alumni.
“The biggest challenge is making sure that things happen fast enough, so that you’re not leaving people out, so that they’re not hearing it in ways other than what we would prefer, which is from the College,” said Hood. “It was all done in 40 minutes.”
“Bowdoin students are very technologically savvy,” he added. “We knew that as soon as that email went out, it’d be out on Twitter. And it was.”
Mills himself was also involved in the social media blitz, posting a photo taken during the conference call to his personal Instagram account after the call ended.
“This was all Barry,” Hood said. “We’re sitting there, the phone call’s going on, and he hands his phone to one of the senior officers and says, ‘Take a picture!’”