Memorials to past presidents surround Bowdoin’s campus. When students reside in first-year bricks Appleton and Hyde, move into Chamberlain Hall, Coles Tower and Howell House as upperclassmen, take classes in Sills Hall and swim in Greason Pool, they pay quiet homage to the fifteen leaders who have served the College.
Bowdoin’s presidents have been preachers, philosophers, astronomers and chemists. They have fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Their terms have been as short as two years and as long as 34. But president-elect Safa Zaki, who will become the sixteenth president when Clayton Rose steps down at the end of June, will make history as the first woman and first person of color to hold the storied role.
While the College has changed significantly since Bowdoin’s first president, Joseph McKeen, took office in 1802, many of the role’s fundamental duties have remained consistent. Since McKeen’s tenure, the role of the president has been to serve as a public-facing representative of the College, chair a number of committees and boards, act as a disciplinarian and oversee academic and social life on campus. To Rose, a key role of the presidency is the ability to address the community with guidance—particularly in moments of hardship.
“There is a debate within our community and more broadly about whether college presidents should just shut up and run the College,” Rose said. “But as an educational institution, and as an institution that is founded on a set of values, I feel strongly that there are moments when a college president—when Bowdoin’s president—needs to clearly articulate our values in the context of things that are happening in the outside world.”
For Rose, this meant releasing a statement on behalf of the college denouncing “the Klan, neo-Nazis, white nationalists and those who give them comfort” in response to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. Kenneth C.M. Sills, president through World War II, likewise publicly emphasized Bowdoin’s dedication to the free flow of democratic ideas and to naval training to aid the nation’s wartime effort. And for Robert H. Edwards, president from 1990–2001, standing for Bowdoin’s values meant challenging what he saw as a culture of “anti-intellectualism” produced by fraternities.
Edwards followed in a line of presidents, such as Samuel Harris in the late 19th century, who outwardly challenged the practices of hazing at Bowdoin often espoused by groups like fraternities. Edwards would eventually lead the charge to abolish fraternities on campus after the death of a University of Maine student who fell from the roof of the Zeta Psi house (now Ladd House) in 1996. Edwards emphasized that much of the work of the presidency consists of maintaining strong leadership through these moments of unexpected challenge.
“There are sort of traumatic external events that can twist a college out of shape,” Edwards said. “[There is] that feeling that you’re never quite your own master, that the only thing you can bring is a sense of your standards … you simply want to be a model of the kind of grown-up you would like your students to emulate.”
Alongside the public-facing role of presidents, Bowdoin’s leaders have remained dependably committed to certain institutional efforts. Since the first class of seven students graduated in 1806, presidents have sought to grow the size of the student body and faculty. Largely beginning with James S. Coles, president from 1952 to 1967, presidents have worked toward enhancing the economic and racial diversity of the student population.
Increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in admissions was a priority for Rose. Under his tenure, financial aid was expanded for middle-class families, the College moved to a “need-blind” admission policy and the proportion of students of color increased from 30 percent to 43 percent.
Another lasting goal for Bowdoin’s presidents has been to expand the endowment, categorized in 1900 by William DeWitt Hyde’s Report of the President as “the one great, permanent need of the College.” Rose said that working toward this sort of long-held administrative goal constitutes the more predictable work of the job.
“There are some things that you anticipate [will] come true: increasing costs of a college education, the challenge of balancing intellectual life with academics, with athletics, with the experiences of college and so forth,” he said.
The president’s residence provided by the College has been another constant focus for presidents, with the benefit having been established early on through negotiations surrounding McKeen’s contract. Until the end of William Allen’s tenure in 1839, the president’s home was located closer to campus. But Allen was regarded by students as a harsh disciplinarian, and his wooden residence was burned down after his resignation in a suspected “vigorous manifestation” of students’ frustrations.
After the incident, the residence was moved a few blocks away from campus, marking the earliest ties between the presidential home and Federal Street. Next year, the residence will change again with Zaki’s move to 6 Boody Street.
Some features of the presidency have seen more notable changes. Early presidents took a more hands-on disciplinary role, for example, than their later successors. McKeen and second president Jesse Appleton would visit students’ dorms and common rooms to uncover and punish misconduct ranging from breaking into Brunswick livestock farms to hazing first-years to playing cards. Hyde would later reflect on the increasing laxity of the presidents’ disciplinary stances, writing that earlier leaders “treated students as boys under parental discipline … patrolling the campus by day and chasing miscreants by night.”
While presidents no longer take to scouring students’ dorm rooms, Rose and Edwards both said that maintaining close connections with community members is key to success in the role. Edwards found Bowdoin’s friendly culture to be one of its most notable features when he arrived at the College.
“The thing about Maine is that people don’t like brief conversations. They like to talk a little bit,” Edwards said. “So by and large, if it’s possible, have your style on the campus be one where you give the sense that you’re always ready for a conversation.”
In Rose’s first year as president, he took Edwards’s advice and met with every member of the faculty and a number of students, many of whom remain close friends with the departing president. Rose reflected that these relationships have been one of his favorite parts of working at Bowdoin.
“I tried to very much come in and spend my first year listening and meeting as many people as I could.… Those conversations lead to a set of priorities, and then you get on with actually executing those priorities,” Rose said. “My favorite thing? Driving the Zamboni. No, but the thing that I will miss the most is those connections.”
Rose reflected that both surviving presidents—Edwards and Barry Mills—have been great friends during his presidency. He noted his hopes to provide the same for Zaki, alongside returning to the Harvard faculty to teach leadership.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have really thoughtful, helpful former presidents and I consider them both friends,” Rose said. “If [Zaki] asked me for advice, I’ll be happy to give it to her between the two of us and then go off into the sunset. She’s gonna be magnificent.”