When you “take financial resources and human beings and juxtapose them such that they produce an added value in human beings,” what do you get? A college, according to former Bowdoin President Robert H. Edwards. And at the head of that project is the college president.
Edwards’ comment was made in January 2001, after Barry Mills ’72 had just been named as his successor. In his fancy, presidential jargon, Edwards explained that a college president’s job is to use money to improve people through an institution of higher learning. Both components—the financial and the human—said Edwards, are vital for success: “If you believe that the ends of man are totally economic, I don’t think you have got a very happy career as a college president.”
The equation has appeared to ring true for most of Bowdoin’s presidents. People plus money equals improved people (hopefully). But each president interprets the variables somewhat differently. They have had different visions about where the money should go, what the people should look like and what “added value in human beings” means.
The College’s charter states that funds “shall be appropriated to the endowment of the College in such manner as shall most effectually promote virtue and piety, and the knowledge of such of the languages, and of the useful and liberal arts and sciences.” To that end, the first seven presidents were ordained Congregationalist ministers, and in 1842, President Leonard Woods and the Governing Boards officially declared Bowdoin of the Orthodox Congregational Denomination in an attempt to encourage donations—an early capital campaign of sorts that resulted in over $50,000 raised for the College.
In conjunction with Bowdoin’s small size and location in semi-rural Maine, the religious nature of the College meant that, for a long time, its social makeup and academic offerings were geared toward producing moral, Christian men from New England who were well-versed in Latin and Greek.
Joshua L. Chamberlain, Bowdoin Class of 1852 and the sixth president, was the first to challenge “Old Bowdoin.” During his inaugural address in 1871, Chamberlain claimed that the College had hit rock bottom and required radical change to stay relevant. In typical Civil War hero fashion, he employed a powerful war analogy: would it not be better to “die gloriously or be worth saving, than to dwindle along until men begin to doubt whether we were worth a decent burial, and left us to rot above the ground[?]”
Among his most radical suggestions was coeducation. A full 100 years before the first class of women matriculated to the College, Chamberlain declared that women’s “capacities, her offices, her destiny, are equal to those of man.” Beyond creating a summer science program for local women, however, Chamberlain’s vision did not become reality.
In fact, the College did not begin active efforts to diversify the student body until around the late 1960s and into the 1970s, finding support from President James S. Coles during his last few years and from his successor Roger Howell Jr. ’58 throughout his tenure. These efforts included “Project ’65,” a recruitment drive for black students; an exchange program with Morehouse College and finally, in 1971, coeducation. Other presidents have continued that trend: Mills was committed to increasing access and opportunity through the College’s financial aid offerings, and under President Clayton Rose, the College has begun an initiative to attract more veterans.
Diversification efforts also occurred on a curricular level as presidents helped create more departments, expanding from the College’s original focus on classics and theology. Chamberlain was the first to introduce science into the curriculum in a meaningful way by creating a summer program for women as well as a short-lived engineering program that produced Arctic explorer Robert Peary, Class of 1877.
Howell, too, envisioned a new, progressive curriculum for the College. In May 1969, prior to his inauguration that fall, he wrote, “It is no longer possible for a man to call himself educated if his knowledge is confined to the European tradition.”
In his inaugural address, he called for “a new humanism,” which led to the creation of Afro-American Studies program in 1969. Under President Arthur LeRoy Greason, the Asian Studies and the Women’s Studies programs were created; under Edwards’ tenure, Latin American Studies was introduced in 2000.
To do any of this, however, the College needs money. Fundraising has ranged from seeking donations from Congregationalist alumni in 1842 to modern capital campaigns. It’s a part of the job that some are reluctant to do—President Samuel Harris, Bowdoin Class of 1833, is said to have stepped down from the role in part because of this. Fundraising is a quasi-political aspect of the position that requires contacting alumni, parents and other potential donors while representing Bowdoin in the outside world—in terms of “our opportunities, our issues and our points of view,” said current President Clayton Rose
But that representation only goes so far. The 2017 American College President Study, conducted every five years, found that 70 percent of studied college presidents were men and 83 percent were white; five percent of college presidents were women of color.
But Rose does not see the president as representing Bowdoin in that way, especially now. He sees his job as always thinking about the future of the College and helping others implement change.
“All the people who make the place a place with deep emotional bonds—that’s really the embodiment of the College, not this human being who has a particular set of jobs to do,” he said.
It’s true: the president hasn’t been the only one calling the shots. There are governing bodies and committees in Student and Academic Affairs; the Board of Trustees and, until 1996, a Board of Overseers; faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students who all have had some say in what the College does. But no other figure on a college campus is as singularly posed to envision change—and given a platform to do so.
After all, who else is more likely to have a prominent new building named for them?