"Every hope that I had and that others had for this place back in 2000 has been realized, and I don't say that lightly."
A daring claim for Senior Vice President for Planning and Development Bill Torrey, who makes a living setting high-and often times expensive-expectations for the College.
But how to meet such expectations?
"Buildings only happen because of people, programming only happens because of people, colleges get stronger because their faculty and students are really exceptional," he said.
In that case, the College's "people" have done a lot. In the past 10 years, under the leadership of a new College president, Bowdoin has taken on more than a dozen capital projects and renovations, boasts a net gain in endowment of $250 million despite two recessions, has enhanced its academic curriculum with new programs of study, and instituted new policies for student government and residential life.
In this series, the Orient will present the most important stories of the decade, compiled from the Orient's own archives and conversations with members of the campus community. In doing so, the series will identify stories that were important to students in the past, as well as examine their relevance to the College today.
By focusing on different facets of the decade's history, from financial developments to student life, this series, presented over the next several weeks, will attempt to reveal the recent past of the College, and give further context to where we are now.
Why a decade?
Many students conceptualize College history over the span of four years, from signing the matriculation book as first year students to their Commencement on Memorial Day Weekend as seniors. Others may have fragmented perceptions of College history, with grandparents, parents or siblings who attended Bowdoin and can recall having all-male classes or being part of a fraternity. Others still are new to Bowdoin, their memories of the College just beginning to accumulate.
So, why focus on the past 10 years? What's so special about a decade?
Despite the fact that students come and go faster than decades do, the notion of the decade is a popular tool for both categorizing and reflecting on historical changes.
According to Professor of English David Collings, the notion of a decade is both useful and fictional.
"Decades are curious things. We think we know what they mean or meant, identify with them nostalgically, idealize or vilify them," he wrote in an e-mail to the Orient.
"Yet they are fictions. In relation to actual social developments, the passing of a set of numbers is quite arbitrary," he added.
In an e-mail to the Orient, Professor of History David Hecht agreed that "people seem to enjoy thinking of decade markers as transition points, and opportunities for reflection."
According to Hecht, though people often perceive decade markers as signifying beginning and end, history does not always fall so neatly within the parameters.
"My sense is that decades, generally speaking, don't line up neatly with significant historical changes. For example, the 1960s—one of the decades I hear people refer to most commonly—doesn't really comprise a distinct historical era if you go by the calendar alone," Hecht wrote. "There are many things we associate with 1960s-era changes that in fact happened a little later—or, in some cases, earlier."
Collings noted that within decades, certain events often stand out—especially those that are "the most symbolically crucial moments in those decades."
Hecht cited the elections of President Kennedy in 1960 and President Reagan in 1980 as events that caused significant change or perceived change, but added that even milestones like these do not completely distinguish one decade from another.
"[It] doesn't mean that the decade in question is completely different from what went before it, or what will come after it," Hecht wrote. "But it does help create a sense that there is something new happening, which probably lends some force to the natural tendency to ascribe meaning to the changeover in decade."
Whether a symbolically crucial moment in a decade is the election of an iconic president, an economic crash or boom, or a declaration of war, speaking about decades allows us to speak about the important events—and everything in between.
According to Collings, thinking about decades "makes explicit that the past for us is much more than a historical fact: it remains powerful for how we imagine the present, how we wish to live or not live, and how invoking or repudiating aspects of the past enables us to live the present in a certain way."
Despite the artificiality inherent in considering a decade out of context, this series will attempt to present the past decade, as documented by Orient articles spanning from January of 2000 to December of 2009, as fully and coherently as possible. The start of the new decade this past January is an excuse to look back from where we have come—even if the parameters are fictional creations.
As Collings noted, "Fictions, after all, are very useful things."
Campus enhancements: Buildings, facilities
In the September 7, 2001 issue of the Orient, the first issue of Mills' tenure as president, Mills said he anticipated construction during his time would be significantly less than the previous 10 years. He announced plans to construct an academic building (now Kanbar Hall), transform Curtis Pool into a recital hall (now Studzinski Hall), and renovate the Walker Art Museum.
Aside from these projects, he said, "I'm not, at this point, looking at a huge amount of construction."
"I think that was an honest statement," said Senior Capital Gifts Officer and Special Advisor to the President for College Relations Richard Mersereau '69. After so much construction through the 90s, "the last thing you wanted people to think was that construction was the priority."
Forty-five years after his start as a student at the College, Mersereau has witnessed many of Bowdoin's biggest changes through the years.
Although this decade was one defined by constant construction and renovation, Mersereau said that building projects are "all about balance." The College, he said, was able to meet the needs of its programs without over-building, and there's not a "laundry list" of construction left to tackle.
"Thank God [Mills] got as much done, and we've been able to get as much done, in the 10 years as we have. I haven't heard anybody say, well, you shouldn't have done that one or that one," Mersereau said.
Naming such key construction projects as the new Watson Ice Arena, the Buck Fitness Center, renovations to the existing first year bricks and construction of Osher and West Halls, Mersereau said the College was able to finish "some really important projects" in the last decade.
"All of the things that needed to be done from the standpoint of, 'This is really important to Bowdoin, we really need it or else we'll fall behind, or won't be able to do what we can, or we won't be able to attract students,' we did. I can't think of one thing we haven't been able to do through this year," Mersereau said.
In a future installment of this series focusing on capital projects on campus, the Orient will investigate the role of construction and renovation to Bowdoin's academic, social and extracurricular programs over the last 10 years.
Students, faculty and administration
"It's overwhelmingly the people that change an institution. First, you need a visionary leader, and second, you need to have people respond to their vision. And then the other things will come," Torrey said.
According to Torrey, one of the biggest changes at Bowdoin in the past decade has been the diversity of both the student body and faculty. Through increased efforts of the Office of Admissions, increased financial aid funding, a greater technological presence, and a growing reputation, Bowdoin has attracted a more diverse population on campus.
"We've significantly increased the number of students that have come here from different geographic regions, the composition of the student body in terms of race has changed dramatically," Torrey said.
Mersereau said that many changes were implemented in line with "the 30-year attempt to make Bowdoin more diverse—in every respect, but particularly racially and ethnically."
In an effort to increase diversity of the student population, Torrey said, "I think we decided we were going to take more risks in our applicant pool. We really went out and looked for people, we put more resources into putting more people on the road, we established more relationships with more types of organizations that could help us recruit people from different parts of the country, of different gender, and of different race."
Torrey said that Bowdoin's dedication to technology also made a big impact on campus diversity, as it allowed more people greater access to Bowdoin, particularly beyond the New England area. By implementing and using technology on campus, Torrey said they attracted new types of students, changed the way the College did business, and recruited faculty members.
"The faculty are as institution-minded as I've ever seen—astonishingly more than I've ever seen. They care about the things that we've been talking about...I think they feel supported by the institution and integrated into it, and it just makes a better experience for everybody," Mersereau said.
Further, Torrey said that dramatic improvements in campus buildings allowed for expanded academic and athletic programs, which are attractive to students. In particular, Bowdoin's Walker Art Museum renovations, Studzinski Recital Hall construction, dance studio renovation, and theater improvements attracted more students and faculty in the arts.
Beyond students and faculty, however, the president has a huge impact by leading the College.
Mersereau said that many changes in the past decade are tied to Mills, "in the sense that presidents do matter hugely, and Barry matters hugely." He said that Mills has understood the College's priorities and been able to execute change "as quickly as possible."
"Presidents suffer the consequences sometimes when they don't deserve it but, in this case, almost all of the good things that have happened at Bowdoin in the last 10 years at least start with Barry," he said.
Torrey said that the College has been "extraordinarily fortunate in that it has had two very capable, very visionary presidents that made a big difference. And they have complimented each other very well."
In a future installment, the Orient will investigate advancements in the academic curriculum, changes implemented by faculty and staff, and the significance of President Mills' time at the College.
Campus life and student body
Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster said that he sees striking differences in the student body today compared to when he arrived at the College in 1996, and "certainly since 2000."
"I'd say we're a more community-minded place, and a more civically engaged place," he said.
Annual events such as V-Day, Speak Out and the Day of Silence confronted issues surrounding gender and sexuality at Bowdoin throughout the decade, increasing awareness while simultaneously celebrating difference.
Foster said he believes the campus is a "safer, more inclusive community where it's easier for students to be themselves" today.
Mersereau said that the ultimate testament to the success of Bowdoin's culture is how the campus community responds to a failure, how it corrects itself. In response to recent issues with alcohol on campus, he said that Director of Safety and Security Randy Nichols takes the problems personally and that students have rallied together in discussion—signifiers of a close-knit community.
Similarly, when racial tensions escalated at a coffeehouse celebrating Black History Month at Jack Magee's pub in 2004, students engaged in campus discussion for months afterward to achieve resolution.
Civic engagement intensified with the creation of the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good, which Foster said turned the "notion of serving the common good [into] sort of a living mantra."
Bowdoin students responded to crisis situations ranging from September 11, 2001, to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur with compassion and thoughtfulness, and acted both informally and through organizations, such as the Bowdoin Student Government. In doing so, students brought awareness to situations, support for the community and relief for those affected, when possible.
Whether facilitating student response to a crisis or debating the merits of the Credit/D/Fail grading option, the Bowdoin Student Government continued to define itself over the decade.
Citing primarily the leadership of those at the helm of BSG over the years, Foster noted the turn toward a "more formalized, organized, and professionalized" atmosphere in the student governance.
"It was a very informal group of student leaders back in 2000; I think there was quite a bit of discussion over a period of several years about how BSG should recast itself for the future," he said.
While BSG transformed student involvement in campus affairs, the College House system continued to develop throughout the 2000s and define Bowdoin's residential life experience after fraternities were formally abolished in March of 1997.
Associate Director of Housing Operations Lisa Rendall said that phasing out the fraternities resulted in a tense relationship between students and the Office of Residential Life.
"There was clearly this tension between students who lived in fraternities and the ResLife office, and they were not happy to be in our office and not happy to be talking to us, because they saw us as the reason that their fraternity was being closed," she said.
Mersereau said that introducing a College House system "wasn't a criticism of the fraternities," as most "were just fine." Rather, it was an issue that fraternities occupied the attention of 25 percent of campus, while the rest were fairly removed, he said.
According to Mersereau, the change in housing over the decade reflects the desire for Residential Life policies that were more consistent with the size and goals of the College.
"The brilliance of the whole effort was that it looked, on the surface, to be all about fraternities," he said. "But, it was a recognition that, as a relatively small college, we needed to have a residential life that would achieve the goals of the College much more than the laissez-faire one that been at Bowdoin for a long time."
Rendall said that students who lived in the College Houses in the early years struggled to maintain a sense of history, having given up many of the fraternity traditions that had gone on for 100 years.
Though Residential Life originally thought that College Houses would attract upperclassmen, especially seniors, most houses see a heavy turnover rate from year to year, and usually attract rising sophomores.
Despite the challenges that abolishing fraternities posed, doing so removed an element of exclusivity to the campus. Mersereau said that he believes many students felt more connected to Bowdoin after College Houses were instituted.
"To me, the remarkable thing was the speed with which you went from a period of the students feeling pretty disaffected and maybe not happy with the change, to a point where students thought what had been created and their role in it was about as good as it gets," said Mersereau.
"The trick was to create a residential life and student life culture that was inextricably in sync with the academic goals of the College. The philosophy and the plan was created in the late '90s when Barry was a trustee, but by 2000, when Barry took over, the implementation was just beginning," he added.
In a future installment of this series focusing on the student body and campus life, the Orient will examine the political causes furthered by students, the push for inclusivity regarding gender, diversity and sexuality, student involvement in national and global causes, developments motivated by BSG leaders and referenda, and finally, the evolution of the current Residential Life system.
Capital campaign and endowment growth
In a decade defined by economic upswings and downturns, managing finances has proved a difficult task. Mersereau said that Bowdoin has worked hard to remain healthy financially in the past decade, raising money effectively, managing investments wisely, and controlling spending responsibly.
"[Financial health] is more than just whether spending is under control this year, it's what commitments we have made that may make spending go out of control next year, the year after or four years from now," he said.
When Mills entered the fall semester of 2001 as president, his original understanding of spending and finances was thrown off by the "mini recession," according to Mersereau. With a tougher economic climate and less money in the short-term to spend, Mills worked to get a better understanding and control of campus finances that has carried through until today.
As the College developed long-term goals for change on campus, it also made plans for funding with the Bowdoin Campaign. The campaign started July 1, 2004 with a goal of raising $250 million by June 30, 2009. By the end of the campaign, the College earned $293 million to fund increases in financial aid, improvements in academic and student affairs, construction costs and the operating budget.
As the Bowdoin Campaign progressed, the College saw huge gains in its endowment in the second half of the decade, followed by a dramatic loss as investment markets crashed in 2008. While no college or university endowment was immune to the hit, Mersereau, Torrey, and others said that Bowdoin fared better than most.
An annual study conducted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) reports a bottom-line value of college and university endowments. The bottom-line amount is a net value of endowment once operating costs and capital expenditures have been removed, and alumni donations or capital gifts factored in.
At the end of the 2001 fiscal year, the endowment was at $433.2 million, ranked the 96th-highest endowment of more than 650 colleges and universities in the comparison. The report listed Bowdoin's highest endowment, at the end of fiscal year 2008, as $831.5 million, earning a ranking as the 93rd-highest endowment.
In the midst of last year's financial crisis, Bowdoin's endowment closed at the end of fiscal year 2009 at $688.4 million, ranking 83rd on the list.
Similar to the financial problems faced in 2001, the College took steps to control its budget and spending in 2008. The Blue Tarp Committee, comprised of students, faculty and staff, set forth recommendations to freeze faculty and most staff salaries for two years, hold operating costs flat, and increase the student body by 50 students over five years.
The trustees met and approved the measures last year, and the College is currently working to keep its finances under control and optimize endowment performance.
Stay tuned for...
In the weeks to come, the Orient will present the most significant stories of the past decade from our archives, discussing their relevance to Bowdoin's past, present and future.
The Orient will investigate stories relating to: academics, student affairs, athletics, health and wellness, safety and security, capital projects, diversity, world events, environmental awareness, Brunswick and more.