President Clayton Rose, along with 48 other college and university presidents, signed a letter that was delivered to to President Trump on Thursday urging a re-examination and reversal his the executive order executive order on refugees and immigrants. 

On Monday, Rose sent an email to the campus that expressed concern about the executive order and its potential to harm Bowdoin community members. He rearticulated the College’s commitment to safeguarding the confidentiality of information about students and staff. The message also announced that the College is providing affected community members access to legal assistance.

Across the country, college presidents have taken similar responses. Wheaton College has perhaps gone the furthest, establishing a scholarship that will cover the full cost of attendance for a student from “a war-torn nation” and giving preference to applicants from one of the seven countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—targeted by Trump’s executive order. Cornell University, like Bowdoin, has promised to provide legal counsel for affected students and assistance in the event they are detained. Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, wrote an open letter to Trump outlining the ways in which the order could negatively impact the country and affirming the value of immigrants in America.

The events that have occurred since President Trump’s inauguration are an indication that such policies and decision making will continue raise the question of how colleges and universities should respond to political controversies, particularly when students and faculty are affected or taking action themselves.

At Bowdoin, the 1970 student strike demanding the end to U.S. activities in Southeast Asia offers a historical perspective on the potential extent of institutional activism. 

In the midst of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and an escalation in the Vietnam War, Bowdoin students were galvanized after the shooting of unarmed student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. On May 4, 1970, 300 Bowdoin students who had gathered in Moulton Union voted to initiate a strike. 

In the days immediately following, Bowdoin President Roger Howell actively solicited student opinion and let it determine the public actions of the College. At an all-campus meeting he initiated the following day, Howell spoke out against actions of the Nixon administration and condemned the government’s actions in Cambodia. 

“We should deplore the events at Kent State and we should deplore the climate which has led to their possibility,” he said.

As the students voted overwhelmingly to strike (73 percent for), Howell expressed skepticism about the efficacy of such an action. But he allowed the strike to proceed and was quoted in the Orient the following day saying, “Our voice will have its maximum impact if it is spoken as the voice of the community.” 

Following the all-college vote on May 5, the majority of the College’s activities shut down for the remainder of the academic year. 

Howell’s actions stand out for the degree to which they differed from responses to student activism around the country. Many administrators across the country were not as receptive to their students, actively resisting student protest or paying it no attention. 

According to a Bowdoin-sponsored report by Luke McKay ’07 and Elyse Terry ’11, Howell’s “actions were crucial in establishing a sense of trust and unity, allowing the strike to progress peacefully until its conclusion at the end of the academic year.” 

They also allowed students the space to make the most productive use of the strike as a learning experience. McKay and Terry quote Director of Moulton Union and Director of Career Counseling Harry Warren who said that “for many students this was the first realization that ‘if they care enough’ about a cause or challenge, ‘they can … see some changes made.’”

In recent history, Bowdoin presidents have been reluctant to respond to student activism with institutional action. 

In an email to the Orient, John Rensenbrink, a professor of government emeritus at the College who was active in founding the Green Party of the United States and the Maine Green Party in 1984, said that, during his interactions with the College, “no president has actually welcomed [student political activism].” 

“Many [presidents] were skeptical of the actions proposed and, even more so, of the actions taken—and became almost distraught when the action included sit-ins,” Rensenbrink wrote. “Some, a very few, responded in an acquiescent mood. Some responded in a guarded mode of (‘I so hope we can weather this, wish it were over!’). Some were definitely opposed. Some got very defensive, feeling fenced in and angry.  Some found ways to rationalize saying “no” so as not to further upset the apple cart with too much overt negativity. Some, in the end, bowed down to pressure. But, no one readily or ever really welcomed it.”

Rose is the only president of the College since Howell that Rensenbrink has not interacted with on the subject of student activism.

In an email to the Orient, Rose explained his philosophy for institutional political response. 

“There is too much uncertainty about what specific policies and legislation could come from the new Administration and Congress to be able to speculate about what I may or may not say or do,” Rose said. “Any actions or statements on my part will be motivated, in the first instance, by those things that challenge our educational mission and/or our [sic] threaten members of our community.”