Monday and Thursday represent important milestones in our country’s history, and for someone of my generation, a reminder of past inspiration that inspires us to this day. Monday was the 25th anniversary of this country’s celebration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thursday, January 20, is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States. These two men, in so many ways, defined a generation of Americans and their hopes and dreams. The words of both men inspired many of us on a personal level and led generations of Americans to service and action in support of a better America and a better society. These anniversaries remind us just how quickly time rushes by—it really is a half-century since the inauguration of President Kennedy!
King and Kennedy were men of principle. I suppose history will tell us that they were also pragmatic leaders who understood full well the path to progress and the risks inherent in driving for change. Neither was a perfect human being—none of us are. But the leadership that Kennedy and King exhibited in those important days of the 1960s was brave, skillful, and inspirational, and we are all better for their leadership.
Words matter. That is certainly a lesson we can take away from the leadership examples of Kennedy and King. Both men understood that words can move people to change, give people the courage to take risks, and help them see hope and optimism in the face of despair and uncertainty.
I am by no means or in any respect a leader in the realm of these important Americans. But it was clear to me when I came to Bowdoin as president that words do matter, and that expressing one’s vision for our community in words that seek to inspire and create a call to action is critically important to the leadership role. This is especially true in a community with as many constituencies as one finds on a college campus. I leave to it others to judge, and to history to reflect, whether this or any other time in Bowdoin’s history has been inspirational, but I am hopeful that we have at least been consistent in message and goal.
It is in this context that I feel compelled to respond to the remarks of our new governor, Paul LePage, who said last week that the NAACP could “kiss my butt.” Clearly, this comment reinforces the image that Governor LePage is his own man—but I wonder if it creates for him and for our state the message he seeks as we commence a new administration in Maine. I suspect the message was not well thought out. It was the reaction of a new governor who finds himself pushed and pulled in so many directions just days after taking office. Certainly, the support he has garnered from his friends and those who know him well suggest that assertions of bigotry or bias are unfounded.
However, words do matter. In a state that may be the “whitest” in America or nearly so, the shock value of his statement cannot help but reinforce a negative stereotype of our state that is not warranted. Over the past few days, I have received numerous messages from alumni that can best be summed up by the message: we have come so far, yet we have so far to go.
Karen and I are proud to call Maine our home. We find Maine to be a place where people respect the values and life choices of neighbors and where folks withhold judgment and permit others the liberty to make their own choices. We at Bowdoin understand that is it our responsibility to educate students from across America, bringing to our campus a diversity of background and experiences that enrich our campus and create opportunity for students regardless of economic means or background.
Most importantly for the health and vitality of our state, we recognize that talent and expertise is best recruited and retained by bringing to our campus and the state of Maine people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Our leaders must understand that words matter to these folks and that this state will be disadvantaged if we are unable to attract the best and brightest to our communities. Ours is a country that has prospered because we have welcomed to our shores and our states people with the drive and energy to improve their lot and the lives of their communities. We do ourselves no good by closing our minds or our borders to those seeking the American dream.
And so the message to our Bowdoin community, and to our students especially, is to remember that words do matter, symbols do matter. It is our responsibility to lead in ways that are inspirational, not in ways that divide or diminish members of our community. This will make for a better Bowdoin, a better Maine, and beyond.
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 email@example.com