The College’s annual Convocation ceremony, marking the official start of the academic year, was held on Thursday, August 30, in Pickard Theater, Memorial Hall.
Continuing his tradition of speaking at Convocation about issues and ideas important to the College, President Barry Mills challenged the popular notion that liberal arts colleges are not equipped to educate a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
“…while I believe in my bones in the power of innovation, I also believe passionately in the value of a Bowdoin education,” he said. “These are four years that prepare young men and women to be leaders in all walks of life—it is an experience that develops lifelong learners in a rapidly changing world, a world that includes innovators and entrepreneurs of the highest order.”
Mills also urged students, faculty, and staff to develop “the ability and ‘stomach’ to take risk” and to learn from failure.
At Bowdoin, innovation is fostered in many ways, Mills said. The College provides substantive knowledge, a knowledge deepened by a culture of questioning, defending, writing, and articulating one’s own ideas while challenging and questioning the ideas of others.
A liberal arts education provides successful entrepreneurs with an understanding of the world as it once was, and what it is today, Mills said. “We know — as do our most successful alumni — that knowledge about the human condition and the human environment is fundamental,” he continued. “It is difficult to imagine and lead—and being an entrepreneur requires an ability to imagine and lead — without understanding where we have been and why. Moreover, as the world has become global, we will all be required to work with and live among people who are different from us. That’s why Bowdoin’s commitment to understanding social difference is fundamental to success.”
Mills also noted that the skills gained at Bowdoin will serve students well in whatever career they choose. “Our students are here to take full advantage of all that Bowdoin has to offer. In doing so, you will gain much of the knowledge and life experience necessary at a young age to embark on the life of an entrepreneur. And don’t be fooled. Even if you have no intention of becoming an entrepreneur, you will benefit as an innovator from the depth and scope of what Bowdoin has to offer. For every doctor, lawyer, accountant, investment banker, hedge fund investor, artist, environmentalist, or policy wonk—in any and every field that requires excellence for success at the highest levels in today’s society—you must be able to innovate.”
In conclusion, Mills urged the entire Bowdoin community — students, faculty, and staff — to be willing to take risks and to learn from failure. Students, he said, should be willing to take courses in areas of interest “even if there’s no guarantee that you’ll get an A.” Faculty, meanwhile, should embrace new ways of teaching and thinking about their disciplines, and staff should work to make the College more efficient. “Innovation is about risk, and by nature, ours is not a community steeped in risk,” Mills said. “Real success from innovation is grounded in one’s ability to deal with failure and to learn from it; to turn failure and risk from something to be feared into an experience one is willing to internalize and then use toward improvement.”
Following the president’s remarks, Dean of Student Affairs Timothy W. Foster presented “Voices from the Past,” in which he recounted the extraordinary life and career of Paul Howard Douglas, who “grew up in a log cabin in the heart of the Maine woods.” After graduating from Bowdoin in 1913, Douglas became an economist at the University of Chicago, a U.S. senator, a prominent political and social reformer, and at the age of 50 — a Quaker with poor eyesight nonetheless — he became a private in the Marines to fight in WWII.
“He was known as the ‘conscience of the Senate,’ a ‘fighting liberal’ ahead of his time who was on the losing end of many legislative battles but who never tired of introducing the same bills year after year,” Foster said. “He had no patience for those who refused to fight for their beliefs.”
Professor of Religion Jorunn J. Buckley delivered the Convocation address, “Using Your Culture.”Buckley, in a talk that had students laughing throughout, advised students to watch out for stereotypes and to use the opportunity of studying and living at Bowdoin to perhaps distance themselves from who they had been, while also not forgetting their cultures or backgrounds.
“You’re here to discover what you did not know existed — that’s the risk. Maybe you think you’re exceptional, maybe you were a candidate for the ‘madman of the village’ role in your hometown, or maybe you were the town genius. You can study those kinds of types here, in literature and sociology courses, for instance. You might get a new understanding of yourself.”
Music for the processional and recessional was provided by George Lopez, Beckwith artist-in-residence, and pianist Linna Gao ’12, who played the Etude de concert in D-flat Major, “Un Sospiro,” by Franz Liszt.