This piece is the first of two installments profiling President Barry Mills. Part Two
Barry Mills was in the pool, treading water, trying to pass the Bowdoin swim test. There was no end in sight; Charlie Butt, the College's swim coach at the time, had forgotten Mills was there.
"I can't believe it was more than 10 minutes, but it felt longer," said Mills. Finally, Butt noticed he was still treading water and Mills climbed out, having more than passed the test. Unsurprisingly, it is not Mills' fondest memory as an undergraduate at Bowdoin and 42 years since he survived the Curtis Pool, Mills '72 is still not fond of swimming. Or water for that matter.
"He's not much of a swimmer," said Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster. "I don't think he's really comfortable around water."
These days, Mills does not have to worry about being forgotten. In 10 years, Mills has transformed Bowdoin from a beer-swilling, mostly white, art-starved college dominated by athletics into a premier liberal arts institution whose financial security, racial and socioeconomic diversity and new buildings are the envy of its peers. The beer swilling, however, continues.
The student body, the faculty, the curriculum and the physical campus all bear traces of Mills' vision.
But Mills is not just a man of ideas, he is deeply engaged in the here and now—the daily happenings of the College. Never content to remain in the president's office on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longellow Library, he can often be found in the bleachers at Whittier Field and the balconies of Pickard Theater. Ever-present at film screenings, soccer matches and student concerts, sightings of B-Mills—as many students call him—are frequent on campus.
In the words of Foster, Mills is highly "tuned in" to student life, and he's not just watching games and listening to concerts. He personally responds to the 20 or so e-mails that students send him each week. While students at some colleges have to get lucky in lotteries to get face time with their presidents, meetings with students fill Mills' schedule.
The offices of important administrators tend to bear signs of both their official and personal lives, and Mills' is no exception. The room is a study in opposites, for while the space is neatly organized, Mills has infused his environment with a casual living room feel. Dozens of books are piled on a low coffee table in front of the couch, and an old globe and telescope complete the impression of a homey den.
Mills rarely converses from behind his desk, preferring a black rocking chair for his audiences with students seeking career advice or griping about the indignities of course registration, among other requests, protests, chats and grumble sessions. When Mills is thinking quickly, the chair-rocking goes into overdrive.
Whether he's hearing a student complaint or a senior administrator's report, Mills doesn't hesitate to launch into rapid-fire questioning, an approach that causes some to describe him as grating. Mills is a master of the Socratic method. After answering the Orient's questions, he always fired back with his own: "What else do you got?" But Mills is also an attentive listener, a skill that allows for fluid communication with his many constituencies.
"There are very few people that Barry doesn't make feel special when they deal with him one on one," said Senior Vice President for Planning & Development Bill Torrey. Indeed, Mills said that his defining trait is his ability to read people and situations.
"That has always helped me. It helped me as a lawyer; it has helped me here," said Mills. "I think I am able to understand what people are trying to say to me, not necessarily from the words they are using, but what they really mean."
This ability has no doubt allowed him to gain the confidence of the often fickle Bowdoin faculty.
"People generally trust his instincts and feel that he really cares about the academic program," said Professor of English Marilyn Reizbaum.
In meetings with senior staffers, Mills directs conversations with his index finger, pointing to different members of his staff like the conductor of an orchestra. He stops only to hold his head at bad news or to thrust his hands into his pockets when he's pleased. Though he describes himself as "shy," he is a dramatic showman, assuming different mannerisms with the different people he meets.
Every issue thrown his way receives brisk analysis and his pace is frenetic as he whirls through mental lists of problems. Intellectual agility, however, is a common, if not requisite, virtue in leaders of academic institutions. Mills is a rare breed of administrator, in that so many people—students, trustees, community members, faculty, staff, alumni—find him personable, direct and engaging.
But Mills was not always the picture of confidence that he is today. Peering up from the pages of the Class of 1972's facebook is a bespectacled, painfully-nerdy boy who looks more like Buddy Holly's twin than the capable leader we know today.
"Oh God, I was a geek," groaned Mills. "If I weighed 120 pounds soaking wet, that was a lot."
"Barry was studious," said Vincent DiCara '72, who was a member of Mills' fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, now known as Howell House. DiCara described Mills as a friendly and nice guy, if somewhat removed from the social hub of Alpha Delta.
Mills was vice president of the fraternity in 1971. Though many fraternity brothers—especially officers—lived in the house, Mills chose to keep a bit of distance between himself and the debauchery of the fraternity scene.
"He, unlike some of us, did not live at the house his sophomore year or junior, which was probably wise on his part because fraternity houses were not necessarily the best place to be studious or spend time studying," said DiCara. Unsurprisingly, drugs and alcohol were common at Bowdoin in the late '60s and early '70s, but Mills' classmates say that he did not partake.
When he wasn't studying, Mills was more likely to be spotted heckling opponents at hockey games.
"I remember him at hockey games yelling, if not obscenities, certainly things at the other opponents that might come back to haunt him some day," said DiCara.
Mills grew up in a working-class community in Warwick, Rhode Island. There, Mills' father Babe moved between businesses. At various times, Babe sewed seat covers into cars, sold auto glass, owned a women's dress shop, and ran a liquor store. Both Babe and his wife Rena came from large families, and so Mills grew up surrounded by cousins, uncles and aunts.
Rena helped with Babe's various businesses, but spent most of her time at home.
"My mother was a typical, wonderful Jewish mother who was devoted to her kids," said Mills, lighting up at the memory of her cooking. "She used to send brisket to me in college."
"She was the search engine before there were search engines for movie and television trivia," said Mills. "I can remember many times being in college trying to remember the name of some movie star or somebody who was in some show or movie and we'd call my mother."
Babe left school in the 10th grade and, though neither he nor Rena went to college, they were bent on sending their son.
"College was viewed in those days as a place where you would create a better life than your parents had," said Mills. But Mills did not think of his roots as humble—at least until he got to Bowdoin.
"I grew up in a wonderful household," he said. "But when I came here and began to realize the other opportunities that people had, I realized that I had never been on an airplane, never been to Europe. I lived in Warwick, Rhode Island—going to Boston was a big deal."
So it was a very big deal for Mills to go beyond Boston and up to Brunswick, Maine. Mills' high school guidance counselor encouraged him to apply to Bowdoin, and when he visited, he fell in love. And that was that. Well, almost. Money was tight and it was unclear to Mills' parents how they were going to afford to send their son to a school as expensive as Bowdoin.
"My parents were always worried about whether they had the resources. They really, really scraped to make it happen," said Mills. Fortunately, Walter Moulton, the director of student aid at the time, stepped in. Moulton came to be revered in the Mills household for his role in making Bowdoin accessible to their son.
"I remember coming to Bowdoin with my father, and sitting down with Walter Moulton, and Walter came up with this financing idea that helped my father figure out how I would come here. And so, through a combination of support from Bowdoin and Walter's advice, it really made an important difference," said Mills.
It's safe to assume that Moulton's timely help is one reason why expanding access financial aid has been a top priority during the Mills presidency. When Mills took the reins in 2001, the Student Aid Office distributed $14.6 million in financial aid, unadjusted for inflation. This year, approximately $26.5 million is being allocated to students in need. While some colleges have revoked their no-loans policies in light of the recent recession, Bowdoin has held fast to its commitment and a record 47 percent of the current first year class is receiving aid.
"Since Barry has become president, we've probably raised close to $125 million worth of financial aid money alone," said Torrey. "That has probably been his number-one focus and priority, and the thing that he is the most passionate about."
Mills' staff agreed unanimously that making financial aid more accessible has been of paramount importance to the president.
"I'd say at the top of the list would have to be his absolute and unwavering commitment to making this educational offering accessible," said Foster. "Barry's own experience coming from Rhode Island, a first generation college student...there were probably real questions about how accessible this place was to him. I've got to imagine that when you hold something at the core of who you are, you hold it at the core of who you are because most of the time it's the product of your own life experience. And I think for him, this place changed him."
Although Mills said that he is "not an introspective guy," he acknowledges the impact his past has had on his policies.
"When I think about what Bowdoin did for me as a student, and the kind of opportunities it created for me in life, that has informed my view of what this College ought to do for students, hugely," said Mills. "It's clear that my own life experience has had a huge effect on what I think about the place."
At the beginning of Mills' presidency, he was met by a student body far less racially diverse than the Class of 1972. Slightly more than a dozen of Mills' classmates were African American, and the College was several hundred students smaller then. For example, of the 464 incoming students in the Class of 2003, only four were African-American.
Foster attributed the nosedive in numbers to the pernicious assumption that students of color would not want to study in Maine—the nation's most racially homogeneous state.
"There was complacency," said Foster, who ruefully recalled his ability, 10 years ago, to count on one hand the number of African-American students at Bowdoin. "I think Barry and others were able to say, 'Now wait a minute, the place was actually more diverse when I was here. I think we can not only return to that, but we can be a much better reflection of society, so let's stop making excuses.'"
"When I came, it was clear to me that for Bowdoin to be an excellent place, we had to look more like America," said Mills. "Do I think that other schools focused on this issue sooner than we did? Yes. In the '90s, I think there were two issues. One was financial. You needed to have the financial aid resources to bring in the kids who couldn't pay for the school. And then, I think that people viewed it as risky, that you were going to bring in students who maybe aren't as qualified—that it would be risky not only for the school, but for them... When I came to the College, I was sure of two things. One, that we could generate the resources to support them, and we have, and two, there is no risk."
Since Mills' arrival, racial diversity has skyrocketed. The Class of 2013 is 10.9 percent African-American in comparison to .86 percent in 2003. It is 10.1 percent Asian, 22.9 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Native American. Compare that to the Class of 2003, which was 6.7 percent Asian, 2.4 percent Hispanic and .44 percent Native American.
Other college presidents, should they have successfully brought socioeconomic and racial diversity to an all-time high, might devote their attentions to the fine art of back-patting. Not Mills. His commitment to diversity demonstrates a comprehensive approach because his understanding is not limited to a racial and economic scope, but extends further to comprise intellectual diversity as well. Ten years ago, the campus was short on studio space, the art museum's galleries were too small, and there was no recital hall to speak of. Mills saw that to attract students interested in the arts, the first step was to build outstanding facilities.
"I think it is certainly true that the arts at the College had been underserved for years, that we had some strength, but it wasn't anything that we thought about as integral to the place," said Mills. "We've changed that."
"It's extraordinary to look at a timeline of the arts at Bowdoin," said Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Music Cristle Collins Judd, who added that his decision to enhance arts facilities is emblematic of Mills' characteristic "seeing opportunities and then figuring out how to take them while keeping everything else in play."
The biggest banner of Mills' investment in the arts so far has been the $20.8 million renovation and expansion of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The design of the new entrance next to the traditional facade pits glass against red brick, stately ionic scrolls and regal stone lions against industrial-looking bolts and modernist minimalism. These unlikely combinations somehow converge into a cohesive and highly symbolic space, striking a rare and difficult balance between the new and the old.
Mills is an outstanding delegator, but he's not afraid to get his hands dirty. When the architect proposed modifying the front of the original building, there was public outcry against the plan. Mills consulted the community, as well as Paul Goldberger, an architecture critic he knew from New York. Mills brought the architect and Goldberger together over lunch, and the critic expressed hesitant support for the design. Immediately after the lunch ended, Mills called Goldberger up and asked him what he really thought. Goldberger told him the truth—he thought it was a bad idea. In a demonstration of his commitment to excellence and despite the feathers ruffled, Mills asked the architect to return to the drawing board. The architect returned with a new design that the community and, ultimately, Goldberger approved. Crisis averted.
Less than five months after the museum reopened, concert-goers flooded the new Studzinski Recital Hall. A $15-million renovation transformed what had been the campus pool of Mills' swim test into a state-of-the-art performance hall. Roberto Diaz H '07, who is president of the Curtis Institute of Music, one the world's top conservatories, has called the hall "a fabulous place," and noted that Curtis does not have anything quite as nice.
"We've built a lot of buildings since I've been at Bowdoin; I don't think we've done any more important project than Studzinski Hall," said Mills. He must be thrilled the pool no longer exists.
For Mills, leaving Warwick for Brunswick fulfilled his parents' hopes and simultaneously catapulted him into a world with which they were entirely unfamiliar. Mills arrived at Bowdoin in 1968 for what may have been the most politically radical phase in the College's history. The spring of Mills' sophomore year, finals were canceled and the College effectively shut down due to a student strike.
His experience in Bowdoin classrooms injected Mills' politics with a shot of liberalism. Much of his introduction came from John Resenbrink, a favorite professor of Mills' who taught government.
"I took almost everything he taught," said Mills. "He and I became good personal friends. He is this very brilliant, exceedingly liberal guy, and here I was, this very protected, somewhat conservative kid, and he and I used to sit and argue all the time. I remember one day—he won't admit this—but he threw a pencil at me, because he was so concerned about some of my views."
His parents back in Rhode Island caught a glimpse of what their son was learning at school when Mills came home for a few days during that tumultuous sophomore spring.
"So picture this: It is 1970; it is the student strike; I go home for a few days. My parents are very conservative people—neither of them went to college. I bring home my laundry, and in the bag—I don't know if I put it there, or one of my friends put it there as a joke—they put Mao's Little Red Book in the bag. My mother opens it—till this day I will never forget it—they [my parents] went crazy," recounted Mills. "There's their son, becoming a communist, who they sent up to this liberal college in Maine."
Fortunately for Mills' parents, Bowdoin did not make a card-carrying comrade out of their son. In fact, he was not engaged in "radical behavior" to the extent that many of his classmates were. Scanning the composite from Alpha Delta, DiCara pointed to Mills' relative conservatism.
"You can see some of the people here who were in need of haircuts at the point in time—that was never his style," said DiCara. "I mean, he still has the same damn hair, doesn't he?"
"You would be hard-pressed to characterize me in any political party," Mills said. "I think you put me squarely in the middle as an Independent. I've been all over the lot in how I've voted. I guess you would characterize me as a socially very liberal, fiscally conservative person."
It's been the socially liberal Mills that holds the purse strings, though. According to Federal Election Commission records, Mills has been an infrequent contributor to the Democratic National Committee and former Congressional Representative Democrat Tom Allen '67; Mills has given $4,300 to Allen since 1996. And his Democratic connections don't end there: Last year, his wife Karen was appointed to head the Small Business Administration by President Barack Obama.
Mills' parents were keen on him attending medical school, and it took him quite some time and a large number of science classes to reach their expectations. Though he majored in both biochemistry and government, it was a cell biology class and his honors project work that inspired him to pursue a doctorate in biology at Syracuse University.
"Being an academic seemed right to me at that moment," he said.
At Syracuse, he fell for an undergraduate named Joan Tugendhaft. She was an artist with an interest in the sciences. The couple announced their engagement her senior year and were married three days after Christmas, 1974.
"It lasted, six, seven years; we never had any kids," he said. "We moved to New York; I went to law school and she became a scientist. And then life got in the way, and we split up."
By the time they divorced, Mills had graduated from Columbia Law School. He had finally found a career path entirely his own, unaffected by his parents' wishes. He became an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton, a pre-eminent New York law firm where he cut his teeth working in real estate and corporate finance.
He doesn't blame the long hours demanded by corporate law for ending the marriage: "One day we said, 'OK, we're not doing this anymore.' We just never stayed in contact. I'll tell you, it's weird in life: You sort of know somebody really well and then you don't know them at all."
It wasn't long before Mills met his current wife, a Harvard graduate working at the prestigious global consultancy McKinsey & Company. Mills glows when describing Karen and her remarkable ability to balance the many aspects of her life. She devotes herself to her job in Washington, D.C., and to her family, as well as to the College, with energy matched only by her husband's.
"She really does view part of what she does as being part of Bowdoin, and she doesn't think about it as being married to the president. She does what she does and she does it in an impressive way," said Mills.
Barry and Karen married in 1983. Three years later, he became a partner at Debevoise, where his clients were impressed with his technical knowledge of the law, analytic mind and candid, insightful counsel. Other lawyers at the firm were equally satisfied.
"Barry was always well thought of by the younger lawyers in the firm as someone who provided great guidance, not just on technical matters, but on how to practice law, how do conduct oneself," said Debevoise's Presiding Partner Rick Evans. "He helped develop a range of junior lawyers in the firm. He takes genuine pleasure in teaching. He helped me to listen better, encouraged me to always be in communication with as many members of the Debevoise community as possible."
By 1999, things were going well—some might say very well—for Mills. He had risen to the post of deputy presiding partner at Debevoise and he had been a member of Bowdoin's Board of Trustees since 1994. Karen was cofounding Solera Capital LLC, their three sons had spots at New York's most selective schools, and the entire family was enjoying what Mills described as an "unbelievable apartment."
That October, Bob Edwards, the president of Bowdoin at the time, announced plans to retire. The Board of Trustees promptly formed a search committee, and Barry Mills was chosen to head the committee. As he initiated the search for Bowdoin's next president, Mills himself began thinking about what might be in store for him after Debevoise.
"At some point in my life as a lawyer," said Mills, "I decided that I was never going to retire at Debevoise—that I was going to do something different with my life, that there wasn't ever going to be a retirement party for me."
The second installment of this profile can be found here.