We just completed Parents Weekend at Bowdoin. We were very fortunate to have exceptionally blue skies and great weather, although it was quite brisk and probably felt pretty cold to some of our visitors “from away.” There were hundreds of family members all over campus having a great time experiencing Bowdoin. We had a record-breaking weekend at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, as families poured into the place to check out the new exhibition on chairs, “Sit Down! Chairs from Six Centuries.” Many family members visited classes on Friday. One dad I met was in awe of Assistant Professor of German Jill Smith and captivated by Professor Robbie Greenlee in music theory—clearly a dad ready for the liberal arts!
Every Saturday of Parents Weekend at 9:00 a.m., we meet in Daggett Lounge for a conversation with the president and deans of the College. We call it “The Shareholders Meeting,” a session that fills my colleagues with trepidation the week prior. They send me list after list of issues that parents are likely to raise at the meeting. There are no questions deemed out of bounds for the meeting, which lasts about 90 minutes, although I do establish one ground rule that may not be breached: We won’t talk about any issue specific to the questioner’s child. We handle those after the meeting or in the ordinary course of campus life.
I enjoy this event every year and actually look forward to hearing what’s on people’s minds. Of course, I have some messages I seek to convey to the group. But the discussion is largely driven by the questions people pose.
This year, we revisited the important questions we discuss annually: plans for the Brunswick Naval Air Station land to be acquired by the College; the strengths and weaknesses of our curriculum; town/gown relations; job prospects for our students; the relevance of the liberal arts; and the familiar questions about alcohol.
A few questions caught my attention this year because they focused the group on important issues. First, a parent raised concerns about the amount and quality of housing for upper-class students. The group was surprised to learn that Bowdoin is actually a smaller school residentially this year as measured by the number of students on campus. So, in fact, the housing crunch we anticipated did not materialize despite our first-year class being a bit larger than anticipated. The quality of the housing can still be an issue, but in comparison to most colleges and universities, our housing is more than adequate.
This particular question allowed me to raise the issue of cost. How much are parents willing to pay for college as we seek to provide the environment and amenities beyond the classroom that parents and students seem to want? How much can parents pay and what is truly necessary for our students given these economic times in order for them to have a valuable college experience and education? The nodding heads in the room made it clear that these questions crystallized for many the issue of cost. When confronted with the reality of cost, people visibly stepped back to consider the issue from a different perspective. There is no “no cost” solution to these amenities, and we must make choices.
This led to a question about the viability of the liberal arts model given the cost, the condition of the economy, and a society that seems to demand more specialized knowledge. I offered my view that the value of knowledge gained from a liberal arts education and the sensibilities developed have, for generations, been valuable and effective in an ever-changing society. Bowdoin has been educating students for over 200 years and it is likely that every generation questioned the relevance of the education in the face of change. Of course, the pace of change in our society has increased over time, but I am certain that our education today prepares our students very well for their place as leaders in society.
However, this concern about the value of the education comes at a time when the cost of providing it approaches levels that make it unaffordable for too many. We are in an environment where incomes for most have not grown nearly at the level college tuitions have increased. So, there are fewer and fewer folks out there able to pay the cost of the education in our model. In my view, this economic challenge coupled with questions about the relevance of the education, raises the issue of viability for the liberal arts sector (although not for Bowdoin). I reminded folks that at Bowdoin, we are hedged against this risk because of our financial aid endowment that we must grow into the future in order to maintain our quality of students.
This discussion led to what I felt was the best question of the morning (other than the question about why we ring the bells of the chapel on Saturday morning before 10:00 a.m.). In light of what we had been discussing, one parent asked: “So, what is core?” I answered in a manner that seemed to surprise people, but shouldn’t have. It is all about the quality of our faculty—they are the core element of our excellence. I then reminded the group that we are a “residential” liberal arts college, and the quality and values of that residential experience also define the place. It is these two elements that demand our constant focus.
Parents Weekend is a lot of work for the president—so many people to greet who want to talk and ask me to listen. But the feedback on how we are doing is immediate, and based on my countless interactions with so many fantastic families, Bowdoin can feel quite proud of the job we are doing educating the sons and daughters of these parents. There is always more to do better, but the enthusiasm and generosity of spirit among the families brought a deep smile to my face and a genuine sense of satisfaction for the work we do. I am grateful to all the families for the visit, and most of all for their confidence in Bowdoin.
In the coming weeks, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org