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President Zaki inaugurated as the College’s sixteenth president

October 20, 2023

Courtesy of Joy Wang
A HISTORIC MOMENT: Safa Zaki, the College’s sixteenth president, delivers her inauguration address on the steps of the Walker Art Building. She is the first woman to hold this position in the history of the College and talked about the legacy of Bowdoin women in her address.

Campus bustled with faculty members, alumni and current students who came from near and far last weekend to celebrate the inauguration of Bowdoin’s sixteenth president, Safa Zaki.

Zaki was chosen to replace Clayton Rose after an extensive presidential search process. Her life experience fulfills many firsts for a Bowdoin president. Originally from Egypt, Zaki is the first president born outside the Western Hemisphere, the first cognitive scientist and the first woman to lead the College.

The weekend’s festivities commenced last Thursday night with a diverse program of student performances in Morrell Lounge, featuring Obvious, Ursus Verses, Weatherspoon, the Middle Eastern Ensemble and Polar Bear Swing Dance. Each of the five performances showcased a different facet of Bowdoin’s talented student body.

Ruby Khalyat ’24, a member of the dance group Obvious, felt it was fitting to begin inauguration programming by highlighting student groups as an integral part of campus. She noted that Obvious practiced their choreography for weeks in preparation for the historic performance.

“Showcasing student pieces, especially for our new president, is special and really kind of intimate as a campus, so I think it was a nice way to get everyone involved in this big inauguration,” Khalyat said.

After the conclusion of last Thursday’s program, President Zaki expressed her gratitude for the students and organizers involved.

“I think I will remember this night for the rest of my life,” she said.

In addition to incorporating student life into the inauguration celebrations, the College featured academic interests with the panel “Beyond Good and Bad: AI in the Context of the Liberal Arts.” The panel, moderated by Professor of Digital and Computational Studies Eric Chown, featured prominent scholars studying artificial intelligence, an area of interest for many Bowdoin faculty and students.

The weekend culminated in the formal inauguration ceremony that was well attended by members of the Bowdoin community and beyond, including 59 college delegates, Olympic Champion Joan Benoit Samuelson ’79 and Governor of Maine Janet Mills. The ceremony itself featured a number of speakers honoring Zaki’s work and wishing her well in her new role. Oliver Goodrich, director of the Rachel Lord Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, delivered an invocation emphasizing the importance of Bowdoin’s educational mission and recognized the many alumni back at Bowdoin last weekend.

“May our students continue to thrive as they discover the joys of a liberal arts education and find their unique place in this diverse residential community that has been shaped by over two centuries of Bowdoin alumni,” Goodrich said.

Co-chair of the Presidential Selection Committee and Chair of the Board of Trustees Scott Perper ’78 reflected in his speech on the long selection process. He recalled a conversation he had in 1977 with the College’s tenth president Roger J. Howell about the qualities needed to succeed as president of the College.

“[Howell] leaned back in his chair, and he said, ‘Scott, what you need to find is a person with the hide of an rhinoceros and the soul of a philosopher,’” Perper said.

Perper’s remarks were followed by speeches from representatives across the Bowdoin community. Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Danielle H. Dube spoke on behalf of the Bowdoin faculty, and Student Body President Paul Wang ’24 welcomed President Zaki on behalf of current students. Other speakers included Samuelson on behalf of the state of Maine, President of Williams College Maud Mandel on behalf of the academy and Vice Chair of the Brunswick Town Council Abby King on behalf of the town.

King spoke about the evolution of the connections between Brunswick and the College. As part of her speech, she relayed the advice of local second graders on how to be a good college president.

“Make sure you don’t turn the wrong corner, get enough sleep and always, always have snacks,” she said.

In her inauguration address, Zaki spoke to many aspects of the College, including preserving the liberal arts, promoting the Common Good and the ever-changing landscape of learning. Zaki in particular recounted the history of firsts for women at Bowdoin and expressed her excitement to be a part of that legacy as the first woman president.

“The determination and bravery of so many other women, faculty, staff, students and alumni over the years lay the foundation for this moment, which is not mine,” she said.

The inauguration coincided with Homecoming Weekend, welcoming alumni from Bowdoin’s community, near and far, to witness the historic celebration of the first woman president.

“Having been a part of the community for a long time and finally seeing a female elevated into that role and also to see previous presidents there supporting her was really exciting,” said Kathleen Burke ’89.

Governor Mills reflected after the ceremony on her excitement to welcome Zaki into the new role. Mills noted the importance of being a good listener in positions of leadership and celebrated Zaki’s open door policy, which includes open lunches with students.

“College is all about learning, and she’s an expert in learning, so that is fantastic,” Mills said. “Bowdoin has been blessed with a lot of good presidents and she is going to be a great one.”

Editor’s Note 10/21/2023 at 12:17 p.m.: This article has been updated to provide greater clarity to Co-chair of the Presidential Selection Committee and Chair of the Board of Trustees Scott Perper ’78’s conversation with the College’s tenth president Roger J. Howell. The original version of this article implied that Perper spoke with Howell about President Safa Zaki’s selection process, when, instead, the two spoke in 1977 in the context of  a different selection committee. Additionally, Howell told Perper  a president should possess the “hide of a rhinoceros,” not the “hide of an elephant,” as originally written. 



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