President’s Welcome to First-Year Students — August 27, 2016

Good evening Class of 2020!

Welcome back to campus. When you accepted our offer of admission you understood what a special place Bowdoin is. And after your trips I suspect you know it to be even more special than you realized.

I am delighted to have my chance to welcome you, and to share a few thoughts about your time at Bowdoin, and the community you’ve joined and that will forever be a part of you. The serious nature of these thoughts reflects the respect you deserve as members of the Bowdoin community.

Make no mistake, there will be plenty of time for us to have fun together, and I very much look forward to that.

Let me start by recognizing four of our deans – Professor Jennifer Scanlon, our dean for academic affairs, Tim Foster, our dean of student affairs, Whitney Soule who you just met, our dean of admissions and financial aid, and Melissa Quinby our dean of first-year students.

And, of course, my wife, Julianne.

Continuing a long standing tradition, in few days each of you’ll visit my office to sign the Matriculation Book on a desk that belonged to Nathanial Hawthorne, Class of 1825, and you’ll have a chance to see the signature of other first-year students dating back to the early days of the College. Some of these names will be very familiar to you. This will be a tangible symbol of your permanent link to Bowdoin. And for me, it will be a terrific chance to meet each of you.

A word about our values. We have very few formal rules here. We expect you to use your sound judgement and your sense of what is right and appropriate. You are here, among other things, to become leaders, and understanding what to do when is essential for leadership. That said, we do have the Bowdoin Honor Code and Social Code. You need to read and understand both, and in the next few days you will be asked to acknowledge in writing that you have done so and that you will abide by them, which we expect and require you to do.

These rules are pretty simple and obvious—for example, do your own work, be diligent about referencing sources, and be careful not to use the internet inappropriately. On the social side, it is all about respect. And to be clear, under no circumstances do we condone or permit violence to another person, or theft or destruction of property. You will be held to a high standard at Bowdoin, which I know you expect and value.

And please, be smart about your use of alcohol. And help your friends to be safe and smart as well. Alcohol is almost always in the mix when something goes wrong—destructive behavior, health issues, and sexual assault, to name three. I hope you’ve all had a chance to read Dean Foster’s message about alcohol. If you haven’t, please do. If you find yourself in a bad place with respect to alcohol, ask for help—the security folks at Bowdoin are here to help you and keep you safe. Similarly, take care of your friends. If you see someone in a compromised situation, get them out of there.

Strive to be excellent in everything you do here—intellectual, athletic, artistic, cultural, service, whatever. Do not just show up. I don’t say this because that’s what older people like me always say, but rather because in stretching and pushing yourself you will find what you are really capable of accomplishing, and the satisfaction from this is amazing. This is not to say that you won’t fail or come up short of your expectations. You will, and you should. We grow and learn, in good part, by failing, by figuring out where we went wrong, and then by moving ahead. This isn’t fun, but again, it will be deeply satisfying. And the most successful people I know in all walks of life have learned how to contend with the instances of failure that inevitably come from pushing themselves.

Now, all of what I have said is important. But here is the most important thing I have come to tell you this afternoon.

At the core of a Bowdoin education, at the center of our mission, is the goal of helping you to become intellectually fearless. Ponder that for a moment—you are here to become intellectually fearless. Of course, there are many things you will do here. You will go to class. You will make deep and lifelong friendships. You will compete athletically, engage in artistic and cultural endeavors, explore the outdoors, and much more. Sometimes you’ll simply goof around.

But, when it’s all stripped away, the essential goal we have is to help you develop this intellectual fearlessness—to help you develop the skills, knowledge, and disposition to deeply and effectively engage with the most challenging issues and problems.

To do this a great liberal arts education and liberal arts experience must make you uncomfortable. Now stop again for a moment—fearless and uncomfortable. I am here to become intellectually fearless, and making this happen requires my being uncomfortable, at times rattled, and even offended.

Our education and our experience are about questions more than answers. They are about challenging deeply held views and pushing ourselves to comprehend new material—to engage with new ideas and ideas we disagree with and, in doing so, to consider material that shakes us up, that unsettles us, and yes, that may offend us.

A great liberal arts education is not an easy thing. But it is deeply rewarding, and it will set you on a path to ambitiously engage the world, to continue learning, to confront these hard problems, and to enjoy success. You will learn new ways of thinking about old problems. You will test and affirm many of the ideas you hold dear. Others, you will test and change.

And in those moments when you are really uncomfortable, when you are struggling to get your mind around a new concept or an idea that challenges the way you thought about the world, I want you to step back and reflect on the notion that this is exactly why you are here. If you think the same way, and think about the same things in the same way four years from now, something has gone wrong.

Don’t avoid being uncomfortable, embrace it. Tomorrow, a week from now, a year from now, when you are in a discussion in class, listening to a speaker—in the dining hall, dorms, wherever—and you hear something that really pushes your buttons, that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you should run to it, embrace it, figure out why you are uncomfortable, unsettled, offended, and then engage with it. Engage with it in a thoughtful, objective, and respectful way. This is how you learn. This is how you become intellectually fearless. And this is how you change the world. Remind yourself that this is exactly why you are here.

Sure it’s a little scary, but it is also incredibly exciting. You have earned the opportunity to spend the next four years developing the knowledge, skills, and the disposition to be able to really engage the world and its big problems. And how amazing is that?

Consider the more than 30,000 graduates of Bowdoin over the past 210 years. Among them are giants in literature and letters; military heroes; Arctic explorers; individuals who have broken racial and gender barriers; pioneering scientists and doctors; great political, government, and diplomatic figures; finance titans; Olympic champions; business and social entrepreneurs; leaders in technology; and great philanthropists. And there are many, many others who have made a real difference and lived lives of real meaning out of the spotlight. Like you, they gathered together as we are this afternoon as they began their time at the College to embark on this journey—to become intellectually fearless.

They are you, and you are them.

I am thrilled you are here. Welcome to Bowdoin College!