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Clayton Rose’s BSG performance only raises more questions

February 7, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author s.

Our first year, President Clayton Rose taught a First-Year Seminar titled “The Moral Leader.” A young Ben Ray wrote in his course notes that “an accumulation of moral challenges solved with moral choices (either based on principles or consequences) paints a picture of the capabilities of a leader.” Clayton taught that moral leaders have a moral code which guides their decisions. Yet Clayton’s own actions reflect a moral code in disarray—one that fluctuates based on the audience in the room. Clayton’s performance at last week’s BSG meeting demonstrates an incoherent value system. He was unwilling to accept responsibility for his and the College’s public actions. At the meeting, Clayton even publicly asked Ben if he regretted being in the seminar. The short answer is no; in order to stand up to systems of power, it’s necessary to watch them struggle to articulate their own contradictory frameworks. This ongoing struggle was on display last Wednesday and demands a response.

Clayton outright dismissed the claim that some faculty and staff hesitate to express criticism of the College in public, stating “all you have to do is show up at a faculty meeting. There’s no one on the faculty that has an issue talking to me. That’s true outside of faculty as well.” This is a nonsense argument that fails to take power into account. Throughout the past two years, multiple workers and faculty members have exposed repeatedly that there is a culture of fear and intimidation at Bowdoin. Clayton cannot dismiss their claims outright, and this dismissal is even logically incoherent: how can he say that people not talking to him is evidence that people are not afraid to talk to him?

This response is also unsurprising. From faculty meetings where Clayton speaks, to captive audience meetings—meant to stifle worker organizing efforts—the College’s leadership has often responded to criticism with indifference, outright antagonism or simple denial. Any member of the Bowdoin community—a tenure track professor, a concerned housekeeper, a critical student—who feels afraid to speak up should not be brushed aside. Rather, the College should express concern about these issues and seek to generate a productive and inclusive conversation in response.

Clayton can claim to value free speech all he wants, but these claims are not being reinforced by concrete action. These contradictions call into question his true priorities and motivations, as does his commitment and financial obligation to the Bank of America Corporation.

Last Wednesday, in response to criticism of Bank of America’s ongoing financing of migrant detention centers on the southern border, Clayton spoke as a board member of the bank—not as President of the College. As such, he defended Bank of America as doing “really good work” when it comes to engaging with issues of “the environment, race and immigration.” A look at the bank’s record, however, tells a different story and presents an institution at odds with the stated values and purported concerns of President Rose and the College at large.

Between 2016 and 2018, Bank of America was one of the largest financiers of global fossil fuel production, having made available $106 billion to fossil fuel operations. Included in this nauseating figure is $20 billion for top fracking companies, $3.6 billion for ultra-deep water oil and gas (remember Deepwater Horizon?) and $323 million for Arctic oil and gas projects. Building a fancy new Arctic museum and showcasing stuffed polar bears won’t save the Arctic from corporate greed—especially when that greed has a seat at the head of the table at colleges like Bowdoin.

As a member of its board and owner of over 15,000 shares in Bank of America stock worth more than $840K, Clayton is directly implicated in the profits of the past and current partnerships with companies and projects that will lock in new carbon emissions for decades to come. Clayton openly acknowledges that a portion of his income results from the bank’s ongoing financing of the detention of migrant families and disastrous schemes by the financial elite to facilitate the engines of the rapidly-accelerating climate catastrophe. Clayton’s lip service to issues like immigration and the environment is, at best, complacent ignorance––at worst, willful complicity in the face of humanity’s largest failures.

Clayton isn’t the only one with these contradictions. Nearly 50% of the Bowdoin Board of Trustees is made up of white men in finance. After learning about their “really good work,” is this who we trust to govern our school? The case of Jes Staley, and Clayton’s subsequent response, only further erode our trust.  Staley was fined over $850,000 in 2018 for “[failure] to act with due skill, care and diligence” when he violated rules that protect whistle-blowers, and he cultivated a personal and lucrative business relationship with sex criminal and disgraced financier, Jeffrey Epstein. Even after Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor, Staley and J.P. Morgan continued to work with him for years. Staley also chaired the Presidential Search Committee that ultimately hired President Rose. This might help explain why Clayton seems so unwilling to express deep concerns about a Bowdoin trustee having a personal relationship with Epstein, or at least detail the findings of the Governance Committee’s “very thorough review” of Staley and Epstein’s relationship to the Bowdoin community. Clayton’s standoffishness at concerns regarding Staley’s actions and troubling relationships leaves us with little confidence that our school’s administration truly “cares deeply about the character of the trustees.” Clayton: show our community the care, concern and explanations we deserve.

We deserve leadership with integrity, but Clayton’s actions and Staley’s presence on the Board do not align with our College’s mission and stated values.

The concerns surrounding Arthur Brooks’ arbitrary appointment as Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow also compel us to question the College’s commitment to “moral leadership.” From 2009 to 2019 Arthur Brooks led the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), arguably the most influential think tank in U.S. politics. AEI is funded by the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil, Comcast and Phillip Morris among others and, in turn, works to promote free-market policies like lower taxes on the rich and weaker health, labor and environmental protections for the public. AEI propagates ideologues like Brooks to pursue ‘inquiries’ with foregone conclusions that conveniently neglect to hold the corporations and interests that bankroll AEI to account. Of course they fund climate change denial and oppose higher wages, net neutrality and Wall Street regulation; it’s what they’re paid to do.

Brooks simply says what his audience wants to hear for a fee, distracting us from the human consequences of the policies he and AEI have worked to advance. Last fall, his performance on campus only affirmed his moral and intellectual bankruptcy; his premier tactic of engagement with our academic community was to muddy the waters, dodge hard questions and obscure a counterfactual ideology with rhetoric of love and compassion. His appointment also extends the influence of AEI on campus, drawing credulous students to value AEI as a virtuous institution. One look at the Career Exploration and Development website, with numerous “Bowdoin-preferred” job listings for AEI, only confirms this agenda. Of course, this all reflects an ongoing trend by institutions of higher education to attract conservative donors, disguised as the pursuit of “intellectual fearlessness.”

Even according to Clayton’s corporate logic, students deserve honest answers regarding Brooks’ compensation. We’re stakeholders at this institution; financial decisions should include our input, reflect our values and be in our best interest. Yet Clayton only evades pressing questions: How much is Brooks getting paid? How can he defend Bank of America? Why is Jes Staley still on the board? We’re simply asking the most pressing questions, yet others remain. How is the legacy admissions system not tied to wealth? By what metric does Clayton present Bowdoin’s low wages as indicative of a “leadership position in the state of Maine” when high schools down the road are already paying custodial staff starting wages of $21 an hour?

President Rose’s consistent failure to take the concerns of students, faculty and workers into account reflects an administration that is increasingly out of touch—whose attention we struggle to secure, whose interests we struggle to understand and whose actions they struggle to justify. We must keep asking these hard questions so long as these contradictions persist. If he doesn’t answer us, after all, a larger question remains: who does Clayton answer to?

Diego Grossmann and Benjamin Ray are members of the Class of 2020.

Editor’s Note, 2/7/2020, 1:35 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the reason why Staley was fined in 2018. It has been updated to correct the error.

2/9/2020, 1:24 p.m.: A previous version of this article was missing a comma in the third paragraph. The sentence implied that President Rose had led captive audience meetings with workers, which has not happened. It has been updated to correct the error.


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  1. Arnold Horshack says:

    Standing up to the lefties is, by far, the best thing President Rose does. From my perspective, he’s the only President to do have the courage to do so in the past half century.

  2. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    Reading the article, looking for clear examples of lapsed moral leadership, all I see are differences of political opinion coloring perspectives. Politically objectionable isnt the same as morally deficient, let alone illegal. President Rose’s leadership is commendable- Bowdoins finances and reputation continue to strengthen. Politically based differences of opinion hardly constitute a failure of moral leadership.

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