Now in his ninth year at the College, President Barry Mills has led Bowdoin through academic reform; a steady stream of campus projects, construction, and renovations; a capital campaign; and a commitment for carbon neutrality on campus. The Orient sat down with President Mills to check in on swine flu, campus finances and construction, first year cars, Brunswick construction, and police enforcement against underage drinking. [Editor's note: Portions of this interview have been edited for length.]
The Bowdoin Orient: Emergency preparations against the H1N1 virus were discussed extensively last spring, and swine flu has descended on the campus quickly this fall. How are you working with the College and health administrators to handle the threat that swine flu poses?
President Barry Mills: A great deal of work to prepare for swine flu was done over the summer, because...there was actually much more anxiety about it this summer given what went on in the Maine summer camps. We have extensive preparations in place to deal with students who are afflicted by swine flu...The good news is that in most cases, in nearly all the cases we've seen, the students are only ill for two or three days, and they shuttle into and out of the rooms we've made available...If a student has other medical issues, then it can be more dangerous. But for the average student who is healthy, which reflects most of the Bowdoin population, this is not a really serious issue that people have to be panicked about. My job is to make sure there are preparations, but at the same time maintain a sense of balance.
Orient: How extensive is the threat? At what point would an outbreak be considered unmanageable for the campus? Is there an aspect of health on campus that concerns you most?
Mills: No, I don't think so, because given what we understand to be the characteristics of the disease, people are only sick for three days...We've already had people check in and then check out of the swine flu facilities. We have a plan for all different magnitudes of the number of students who are sick. But unless the disease changes in its form, the idea that it could somehow be debilitating to the College to the point where the question of our being able to run would be in question, so far we don't see that.
Orient: Another topic of concern that has lasted through the summer is the economy. Though Bowdoin is more financially healthy than some peer schools, the College has experienced a decline in the endowment. Last semester, the College developed plans to reduce the budget deficit, including freezing faculty and staff salaries, slightly increasing the student body, and holding operating costs flat. How are these measures shaping up so far?
Mills: All of those measures that we talked about last year are being implemented this year. We are slowly growing into this concept of more students, and depending on how the economy shakes out, we may not actually effectuate the entire student growth I talked about last year. In terms of the faculty and staff salary issues...last year we talked about doing this but no one felt it. Now we are in an environment where people are not getting raises, and they won't be getting raises next year.
Everything that we put into place last year, I think was right then and appropriate now. I continue to believe that we're on track to being financially stable.
Orient: In your address at Convocation, you said "This year we will begin in earnest to experience the financial decisions we set in place—and our sense of community will be tested as we live through the consequences and impacts of these decisions." What sort of consequences and impacts are you expecting? What cutbacks do you anticipate? What changes will students notice?
Mills: What I meant was that although we appear to be in a deflationary economy right now, it isn't easy for folks to live with flat salaries for two years. Everyone will have a reason why it's difficult for them. I recognize that. The bonds of community get strained when the reality of "less money in my pocket" becomes real rather than hypothetical. The test for the community will be: how committed are we to our Bowdoin community? How committed are we to our principles of financial aid?
How will the students begin to feel it? It's hard to predict. But I think that it's fair to say that...we'll be looking at each request [for expansion of program] harder, and that we'll have to be thoughtful about expanding what we do.
Orient: Along those lines, how are the planned projects that should be wrapping up now going?
Mills: The big project that's been finishing up is the fitness center. It is fantastic. It is a multipurpose building that will benefit the entire community, and it's very exciting. I think people will be thrilled when it opens...And [major summer maintenance] projects went well, and they're pretty much done, and they're very much on budget.
Orient: What are your thoughts about the developments in Brunswick, particularly Maine Street Station? Looking forward, do you foresee changed interactions between Brunswick and the College?
Maine Street Station is an exciting and interesting development for the town of Brunswick...this isn't a Bowdoin project. We were asked by a variety of people to participate in the Maine Street Station project by leasing space in it to make it viable. Nearly entirely as a community commitment we rented space in Maine Street Station, and committed to rent it for five years, where we have built some wonderful new dance space that was sorely needed at the College.
There's a new store that's being completed—it's right near Cote's—and Bowdoin will operate that store. It will be a place where we will sell soft goods, Bowdoin T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, other goods...It won't be the Bowdoin bookstore, the bookstore will still remain in the student union on campus.
Orient: What can you say about the Naval Air Station? Has Bowdoin figured out how land will work?
Mills: We continue to work with the governmental agency that has been created to redevelop the base, we're working with the town, and we're working with the Navy, and we continue to be a partner with all of them in thinking of how to utilize the base. We expect that sometime within the next few years that the land will be conveyed to us.
Orient: You're going on nine years with the College now, so you've been here during the first sort of economic downswing with the tech bubble, followed by September 11 and all of that. Do you see comparisons in College response, or interactions between the College and Brunswick during an economic downswing?
Mills: It was a difficult time for the College in the 2001-2002 period, when that short economic problem time occurred, but it's nothing compared to where we are today. This is a very serious time, the loss that we've seen in our endowment is significant. We rely significantly on our endowment for supporting the operations of the College. We are a 2009-sized College—and I don't mean student body size, sized in the most broad way—based on an endowment now of what it was maybe in 2007. So that has broad implications for the College, and that's why we've had to take the kinds of actions that we're taking.
Orient: What might a return to normalcy might look like for Bowdoin? You seem to be implying that it might not look all that different from now.
Mills: It's a broader question on what's it like when Bowdoin gets back to normal—are things going to be, in our country, back to the way they were? Should we all be looking back and expecting that we'll get through this and we'll go back to the way we were, or is there a new normal?
I think one of the challenges that people will have to face up to is almost every new idea that's generated at the College has a component to it of more space, more facility. I think that we're going to have to rethink that. If we believe in the sustainability that we talk about...the more square footage we build, the more we expand, the more we challenge the whole sustainability issue. And then there's the whole economic cost. I think that the new normal at Bowdoin will be to challenge folks to continue to improve, continue to innovate, continue to do what they do best, teach and learn, in ways that aren't always linked to space.
Orient: How did you decide to eliminate first-year cars?
Mills: This was a plan that was initiated and formulated by me. First, there were the issues of sustainability. Second, there were the issues of sense of community among students, and the sense that we have all kinds of students coming to Bowdoin today, from all kinds of different economic backgrounds. Asking our students to come to college in ways that their economic situations weren't so obviously different based on the kind of cars they drove to school, I thought was a valuable thing. Finally, we've always had parking issues at the College, and eliminating first year cars takes some of the pressure off of that. I think it's a good change for Bowdoin.