To the Bowdoin community:
There is currently commentary in the press and social media about a “tequila party” on campus and the reactions of students and the administration. Some aspects of what has been reported have been accurate, others have not, and some facts and context are missing. Because of our legal obligation to protect student confidentiality, I cannot comment specifically on this party, although I will say that the issues we are dealing with are not really about hats or drinks. I do want to share with you how I consider these situations.
I understand that this issue and the standards to which we hold our community members creates debate here and in society more broadly, and I know there are differing reactions and views. I welcome thoughtful engagement on these issues. More on this later.
Context matters, and over the last year or two we have had several incidents where students have engaged in racial and ethnic stereotyping—a violation of our Social Code—and there has been much discussion within our community about these incidents, as well as action taken by the administration. Like our Honor Code and rules against hazing, our Social Code creates a set of standards that reinforce and embody our values, and that directly serve our intellectual mission, which importantly includes engaging with uncomfortable, difficult, and even offensive ideas. It is also important to note that the language of our Social Code is quite similar to the language found in codes of conduct for federal and state governments, as well as for most private sector employers.
We are a place with a history and culture of tolerance, respect, and warmth. Over the decades, our thinking and standards have evolved while remaining true to our values. Examples include opening the College to those of any religious faith, making Bowdoin a place where gender does not define who attends or teaches here, and recognizing that—notwithstanding a powerful and positive legacy—the time for fraternities at Bowdoin had passed. These were not easy moments. They caused debate, and each required that we confront and change attitudes and behaviors. As we have evolved Bowdoin to stay true to our values, we have become a better, more vibrant college and community.
Bowdoin’s essential mission is to teach, learn, and create knowledge, and in doing so to prepare our students for lives of leadership and for making a difference. This requires that our students arrive at Bowdoin ready to be transformed and to evolve their intellect and character through their four years on campus. To deliver on our mission, we must engage in “full-throated intellectual discourse,” including with challenging and disturbing ideas. As I said in my inaugural address, we must do this because:
It is only through this engagement with the most uncomfortable and difficult ideas that we can understand ourselves, our history, and understand the issues and challenges embedded in the hardest, fiercest problems we face today—natural, social, political, and economic. Addressing and confronting these problems requires individuals who are unafraid, who have honed their intellectual skills and are prepared to engage in the debate. If we are to tackle these tough problems, we must be willing to engage with those we disagree with in the strongest terms possible, whose ideas may offend us, and where we may have a deep emotional reaction. We cannot respond by turning away; rather, we need to confront and dig in, figure out what is flawed, incomplete, or wrong. We solve the hardest problems and defeat bad ideas not by withdrawing, but with well-honed logic, data, analysis, and rhetoric.
If we are to serve this mission then every member of our community, every one of our students, must know themselves to be an equal member. Anything less diminishes their ability to participate, to become educated, and it diminishes their ability to add to the learning and creation of knowledge for others.
Social gatherings on our campus are generally not connected to our intellectual mission and the exchange of ideas. They are meant for fun, which is as it should be. However, in the context of the serious campus discourse about race, ethnicity, and identity that has been ongoing this year, actions in these social settings that caricature groups, that simplify a culture to some coarse or crude sense of its reality, or that use tokens of discrimination with deep and long-standing meaning, can have a profound effect on those in our community who identify as part of these groups, and can diminish their ability to engage academically. That’s when our values and our mission suffer.
Finally, as I noted above, I welcome open and thoughtful discussion on any number of questions related to this issue, including what constitutes stereotyping, the role race plays in determining opportunities and outcomes in our society, the definition of “political correctness,” the nature of a community and what it might owe its members, and how and why a community such as ours evolves its values. These are worthy topics for debate and learning.
I welcome your thoughts.