What Does Bowdoin Teach?

Peter Wood and Tom Klingenstein

Editor’s Note: On April 3, 2013, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released its study, What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.1 Co-authored by NAS president Peter Wood and NAS director of research projects Michael Toscano, it is the longest report—nearly four hundred pages—and most ambitious research venture in NAS history. The report has garnered considerable positive attention, but has also been subject to some harsh criticism. What follows is a dialogue between Peter Wood and Tom Klingenstein, who funded the Bowdoin study and who is the chairman of the Claremont Institute and a member of the NAS board of directors.

Wood: Tom, as you know, What Does Bowdoin Teach? demonstrated strong evidence of political bias, a curriculum that is incoherent, a pervading preoccupation with identity group diversity, displacement of intellectual standards, promotion of sexual promiscuity, and much more. I am happily surprised by the amount and quality of coverage in the press, beginning with David Feith’s article, “The Golf Shot Heard Round the Academic World,” in the April 5 Wall Street Journal and continuing through Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield’s “The Higher Education Scandal” in the Claremont Review of Books on May 20.2 On the other hand, Bowdoin College has barely acknowledged the report. Bowdoin president Barry Mills issued a short statement dismissing it as “mean-spirited” and “personal.”3 He sidestepped entirely the substantive analysis and larger themes of our study.

Klingenstein: No disagreement there. President Mills’s first line of defense, which has been picked up by the faculty, is to ignore the report. When not ignoring it, he derides or caricatures it. In effect, Mills has judged the report not worth the paper it is printed on. Mills said that he was too busy to respond: “Will we take the time to respond to, challenge, or debunk everything contained in this report and promoted by its authors? Probably not. Time is precious these days.”4 This is a reason so lame that one can only conclude that Mills considers himself immune from challenge. I am sorry to say that he probably is.

Wood: Not entirely. In a letter to the student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, government professor Jean Yarbrough, while criticizing the report for not paying enough attention to what Bowdoin does well, said that the report’s substantive criticisms are “spot on.”5

Klingenstein: But Yarbrough is one of only four or five conservative faculty members (total full-time faculty is 182). A challenge from this quarter can be, and in this case was, marginalized. No one even deigned to respond to Yarbrough. Still, perhaps there is value to Yarbrough’s courageous letter. While it is unlikely to get a serious response, Bowdoin’s unwillingness to engage Yarbrough throws into relief just how battened down the college is. Here we have one of Bowdoin’s most highly respected and talented professors—Mills himself described Yarbrough this way during our famous golf outing. Yarbrough by all accounts dearly loves Bowdoin, and yet delivered a very strong endorsement of the report. Still, the administration hasn’t budged from its head-in-the-sand posture. The faculty, with a few exceptions, has simply been silent, which seems to indicate general consent to Mills’s view.

I do not say that Yarbrough’s endorsement is dispositive, but surely it establishes, all by itself, the creditability of the report. And if Yarbrough’s endorsement is not enough, add to it Harvey Mansfield’s glowing review. He wrote that the report is the best of its type. True, Mansfield is conservative, but he is a scholar of the first rank, a man—even his critics would concede—of deep learning and formidable intellect. He, too, is ignored. Of course, there is really nothing that can compel Bowdoin to respond, nothing, that is, except self-respect.

Wood: I gather you agree with Yarbrough’s criticism of the report.

Klingenstein: I think it is fair. The report might have attended more closely to Bowdoin’s strengths.

Wood: Before Yarbrough’s letter another faculty member, Stephen Meardon, spoke up in support of the report.6

Klingenstein: He, too, showed real courage. Meardon is an untenured member of the economics department and a Bowdoin alumnus. He wrote that when the NAS report was brought up at a faculty meeting there was dismissive chuckling and, to his ears, President Mills was egging it on. Prof. Yarbrough said she had heard similar derisive chuckling on another occasion. Is there no liberal faculty member at the college who objects to such snideness?

Wood: As far as I know only one liberal faculty member has spoken up since the report was released. What do you make of the faculty’s silence?

Klingenstein: Nothing good. I’d like to ask the faculty directly, why the deafening silence? Perhaps like Mills they think the report is not creditable enough to warrant a response. If so, they insult the intelligence and the integrity of Yarbrough and Meardon, as well as their own. Or perhaps they think it disloyal to respond. If so, their loyalty, which should be to Bowdoin ideals, is misplaced. Or perhaps they think to respond is futile or they fear social ostracism or other soft reprisals or they just don’t care very much. I can think of only one reason that does them any credit at all: They are waiting to consider the matter until the dust kicked up by the report has settled. I’d like to believe this, but I’m not holding my breath.

Wood: Nor has there been any evidence of meaningful student support, even from the conservatives.

Klingenstein: Curious. My conjecture is that even for conservatives loyalty to alma mater has trumped politics and intellectual interest. Also, it may be that the overwhelming disdain for the report from Bowdoin’s authorities has had a chilling effect. You have reported that some students who had initially expressed interest in providing you information ultimately backed away. And there was one student who had criticized Bowdoin on the record, and then, after the report was released, asked that his comments be withdrawn. He said in the Bowdoin Orient that you quoted him accurately but that he had changed his mind.7

Wood: No word from alumni or trustees either.

Klingenstein: Not a peep.

Wood: Mills did respond to a few of the report’s observations. For example, he took strong exception to what he believed is the report’s charge that Bowdoin is “un-American.” I gather you agree with Mills that the report implies that Bowdoin has moved in this direction.

Klingenstein: More or less. You never use the term “un-American.” Still, Mills was not far off, though it would be more accurate to say that the report charges Bowdoin with what you call “soft disdain” for America. However, it was not Mills’s interpretation, but his defense that troubled me. Mills responded in a huff, whereas he should have asked his students to explore why conservatives, or at least some conservatives, believe Bowdoin is insufficiently attached to their country. After all, a culture of true openness looks for the truth in every argument and cultivates the empathic imagination required to step into the other person’s shoes.

Take the case of Bowdoin associate professor of religion Robert G. Morrison, who in 2009 accepted an award from Iran’s radical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This wasn’t in your report, but it reinforces the charge of “soft disdain.” Morrison wrote a book about a fourteenth-century Shiite scholar. There is certainly no reason to believe that Morrison was working at the behest of Iran. Still, he allowed himself to be used for propagandistic purposes by a country with which the United States was effectively at war. Morrison’s acceptance of the award, though inconsequential, was unpatriotic, or if that is too strong a word, heedless. That is my view. Bowdoin apparently had another view: It congratulated Prof. Morrison in an article in the Academic Spotlight, a campus publication, and no one at the college objected.8 Clearly, Bowdoin and I differ as to what constitutes a good American citizen or perhaps Bowdoin does not consider Iran an enemy. Would not Bowdoin students benefit from a sober exchange on this matter? But such an exchange is unlikely if challenges to campus orthodoxy are simply brushed aside.

Wood: You once described to me your time in the Peace Corps, where you lived for three years in a remote part of Swaziland in southern Africa. You described the village where you stayed as a self-contained world in which the inhabitants found it impossible to think outside the received views of the community.

Klingenstein: Yes. The Bowdoin reaction to the NAS report reminded me of remote parts of Swaziland where many inhabitants were so unaware of life outside their village that they could not imagine or fathom a language other than their own. There is something of that at Bowdoin. In his response to What Does Bowdoin Teach? Mills explained how he knew the report is all bunk: because, he said, that “is the considered opinion of many members of our community, including those who ought to know best—our current students and their parents, and alumni.”9 That sounds like the Swazi who concludes that his language is the only one in the world because that is the considered opinion of many of his tribesmen.

Wood: In our conversations over the last few years, you have said that what strikes you most about the Bowdoin community is the discrepancy between its professed commitment to openness and the reality of how narrow- and close-minded the college really is.

Klingenstein: It seems there is nothing preached more and practiced less than openness. Take President Mills’s letter to the students in November 2012, advising them to vote in favor of the then upcoming Maine gay marriage referendum.10 Manifestly, this was an inappropriate appeal to students on a political matter. College presidents should not be telling their students how to vote. A close reading of the letter reveals much of what concerns me.

First, President Mills wrote to Bowdoin students in the Bowdoin student newspaper appealing to Bowdoin traditions, yet he had the chutzpah to claim that he was writing as a private citizen rather than in his capacity as president of Bowdoin. He attempted larceny in broad daylight because he knew he could get away scot-free. I don’t suppose he made a conscious calculation. Rather, his decision was born of habit and reflex. Had he given the matter a moment’s thought, he would have asked himself whether it would be appropriate to weigh in were he opposed to same-sex marriage. The question answers itself.

Second, Mills says in his letter that he respects the views of the referendum’s dissenters. Yet how is that possible when he brings the weight of the college down on the side of the referendum’s supporters? In asking students to vote in favor of same-sex marriage he is effectively making gay marriage the official position of the college.

Third, he asserts that there exists a “right” to gay marriage, yet feels not the least obligation to define what he means by a right and how such a right applies. That ought not to pass muster in a community dedicated to “critical thinking.” Assuming Mills could have defended his position in a more substantive way, he felt no need to do so. Presumably that’s because he knew he would not be challenged. And he wasn’t.

Fourth, he made his impassioned plea to Bowdoin students, 92 percent of whom already favored gay marriage. This figure comes from a poll reported in the student newspaper.11

Wood: I suspect you have a view on why he would bother to assert his views so strenuously when the students were already in agreement with his view of the matter.

Klingenstein: Again, nothing good. One person who commented on the brouhaha surrounding the NAS report suggested that behavior of this sort is designed to curry favor and show solidarity with the students. One can’t be sure, but that explanation fits with Bowdoin’s general coddling of students and its treatment of them as consumers with desires to be satisfied rather than as yet largely uneducated young adults still in need of instruction and guidance. What I am sure of is that Mills’s letter is part of a larger pattern. Bowdoin expresses grave concern for largely imaginary campus problems—racism, homophobia, and sexism, for example—while ignoring ones that go to the core of the college’s mission, such as lack of openness or intellectual diversity. This is one way campus orthodoxy is reinforced. Another is to blow out of all proportion the very few incidents of racism, homophobia, etc., that do occur. Virtually no one objects to these tactics—most don’t even notice. A few are made uncomfortable, but are discouraged from speaking out; many more are subtly and quite unknowingly coerced into adopting community norms.

Wood: Why do you think the college doesn’t just say, “These are our views. They are right. We don’t have to be open-minded, since that would mean promoting views we know are false”?

Klingenstein: My tentative answer runs along a psychological track. At some level, Bowdoin believes in the ideal of openness, and senses that it does not always practice what it preaches. And so the college feels what its multicultural ethic says it should not feel: shame. In each of President Mills’s commencement addresses from 2009 to 2012 (I haven’t seen 2013), he includes a paragraph that acknowledges that there exists the perception by some of a liberal bias at Bowdoin, but, he says, it is just that, a perception, and not an accurate observation. The man doth protest too much, methinks. Mills’s view has been echoed in many faculty statements, as What Does Bowdoin Teach? documents.

Wood: As you know, the college catalog states that gender is “socially constructed”—without any qualifications, such as the interplay between nature and culture—and is “explored as an institutionalized means of structuring inequality and dominance.”12 This is dogma paraded as “critical thinking,” and is unfortunately too typical of Bowdoin when it comes to topics that have any political or cultural salience.

Klingenstein: This is among the most discouraging things you and your first-class sleuth, Michael Toscano, uncovered. It does not surprise me that some Bowdoin professors hold this position on gender or that they import it into the classroom, but I am surprised that the position is openly and unapologetically avowed in an official document. That suggests a conscious rejection of the traditional liberal arts understanding that inquiries begin with questions (What is gender?) not answers (Gender is such and such).

Wood: I would have liked to include in the report a more systematic appraisal of the quality of the faculty members and whether it has changed for the worse over time by the pursuit of group preferences and ideological shibboleths. Michael and I spent a lot of time on this. We used the National Research Council’s ranking of doctoral programs, which is a notoriously opaque instrument. To use it would require readers to master the council’s coding system. We also tracked where and when Bowdoin faculty members received their advanced degrees and categorized and grouped by research emphases their doctoral dissertations as well. While we developed some very suggestive material, in the end we decided to leave it out. Presenting all this longitudinal data department by department produced more length than light. I think you would have kept it in, correct?

Klingenstein: I might have, but I now see the error of my ways. In light of the college’s stonewalling, I have come to doubt whether any amount of data would convince Bowdoin that it had sacrificed faculty excellence in pursuit of diversity. However, it is perfectly clear that Bowdoin has done just that. At some point Bowdoin introduced diversity as a criterion in faculty hiring. It said so flat out: “Bowdoin will consider among qualifications for appointment, a candidate’s gender and ethnicity (specifically, African American, Asian American, Latino American, Native American).”13 Bowdoin subsequently abandoned this open declaration that it treats race as a “qualification” for appointment. I am quite sure that was because of federal court decisions that made such interventions in faculty hiring of doubtful legality.14 But it is virtually certain that the withdrawal did not change the practice.

Bowdoin makes Herculean efforts to find minority faculty, including multiple diversity sign-offs by deans and diversity overseers during the hiring process. Prof. Yarbrough affirmed this in her letter to the Bowdoin Orient. She referred to

the lengths to which the administration is willing to go to identify and recruit such [minority] candidates. Every faculty search must now include a member of the Diversity Committee, whose main purpose is to ensure that the members of the department give every consideration to diversity hires.15

If diversity is a now a hiring criterion, logically the weight of some other criteria must have been reduced. Undoubtedly, that something else is scholarly excellence. To ask your earlier question, why doesn’t Bowdoin openly defend this trade-off? I repeat my earlier conjecture: Because at some level Bowdoin is not entirely convinced that trading away scholarly excellence for diversity is defensible. So Bowdoin leaves itself no choice but to deny that it compromises faculty excellence as it denies, by the use of sophistry, that affirmative action compromises student achievement.

Wood: Talking about affirmative action, Bowdoin’s use of racial preferences was the flash point of the original controversy. You mentioned on the golf course that you favored color-blind inclusion over group preferences and President Mills caricatured this comment during his 2010 convocation speech to make you sound like a racist.

Klingenstein: Actually, that is not precisely what I said. I objected to the assumption that underlies group preferences and the other diversity initiatives: that people are defined in meaningful ways by the racial or ethnic groups to which they belong. This assumption is captured in the oft-heard statement, “Blacks have a different perspective.” That statement, not to put too fine a point on it, judges a man by the color of his skin.

Wood: I stand corrected. What Does Bowdoin Teach? has only a little to say about racial preferences per se. We developed more material on this than we published. I chose to hold back because, in the absence of hard data from Bowdoin’s own records, we would have had to make inferences from somewhat fragmentary sources. Nonetheless, it is clear that Bowdoin uses dramatically different standards in deciding which minority and which majority students to admit. Does the report’s reticence on this topic concern you?

Klingenstein: It does insofar as your need for reticence calls attention to the hurricane force of campus speech codes. As in the case of faculty diversity hiring, you were probably prudent to pull a few punches. But allow me to exercise a bit less prudence. Loud denials at Bowdoin notwithstanding, the achievement gap between certain minorities, blacks in particular, and non-blacks is very large. This is true of most of the very good colleges except the top handful, which get the pick of the limited crop of highly qualified black students. By admitting lower achieving blacks Bowdoin is teaching that skin color is important and that blacks underachieve. Bowdoin is probably teaching something similar in its recruitment of athletes, though there is no publicly available data to support this contention.

Wood: If you were president of Bowdoin would you try to reverse field?

Klingenstein: I don’t know which is more unlikely: Bowdoin asking or me throwing my hat in the ring. But if, mirabile dictu, I found myself in charge of Bowdoin, I doubt I would begin by proposing to remove affirmative action altogether: it is so firmly set in place, strapped down by a complex mesh of deeply seated, invisible assumptions. What I would do—very gingerly—is try to bring those assumptions to light. That, of course, would require discussion. But here’s where my initiative would unravel, for serious discussion of sacred ideological cows is just what Bowdoin cannot abide. To discuss affirmative action (or the NAS report) is to set off down a path that would likely to lead to change, which Bowdoin resists with all its might. And, as I needn’t tell you, this single-minded and obstinate support for favored political positions is fatal for liberal arts education.

Wood: After the report was finished, we discussed what we might expect Bowdoin to do in response. I was skeptical that Bowdoin would do anything at all, but you were hopeful.

Klingenstein: If the charge is naïveté, then I plead guilty. I honestly thought Bowdoin was sufficiently committed to its principles that if enough outside pressure was brought to bear, the college would be forced to acknowledge that perhaps it did not always practice the openness it preaches. Well, the pressure materialized, but the anticipated reaction did not. Bowdoin has not budged—not even an inch.

Wood: Do you think anything good at all will come of the report at Bowdoin?

Klingenstein: I do. I even hold out a sliver, albeit fading, hope that What Does Bowdoin Teach? will have a meaningful effect. But even if not meaningful, the report, which will ring in Bowdoin’s ears for years to come, is likely to restrain Bowdoin’s more extreme impulses. Of course, Bowdoin will deny, and for the most part be unaware of, any effect. Perhaps you think I am still being naïve.

Wood: I do not dismiss the possibility of the limited effect you describe, though a recent development diminishes my already low expectations. As you know, our report relied heavily on minutes of faculty meetings, which, until a recent policy change, were made available shortly after the meetings themselves. The new policy, spotted by my ever-vigilant co-author, requires the embargoing of faculty minutes for twenty years. Undoubtedly, this change was the result of our report. Not encouraging.

Klingenstein: Brazen as well. Still, there are signs that point in a more hopeful direction. The indefatigable Michael Toscano called my attention to an article in the Bowdoin Orient that characterized a certain argument as “too ‘Klingenstein,’” an adjective that apparently means “finding fault in one instance when the fault is actually widespread.” It appeared in an article about hazing where the author quotes a student: “Maybe I’m being a little too ‘Klingenstein’ in picking on certain aspects of Bowdoin that are actually problems with higher education as a whole.”16 Even if this neologism fails to stick, its use even once suggests that the NAS report is dripping into the Bowdoin blood system.

Wood: That’s a hopeful note on which to end. But let me amplify it. In What Does Bowdoin Teach? we documented for future generations our moment in the history of higher education. We happened to study Bowdoin, but it could have been any of a hundred or so colleges. Taking Bowdoin as our example, we pinned down with precision what is wrong with the reign of “diversity,” “sustainability,” and the broader politicization of our elite campuses. We gave a fully contextualized account of the misappropriation of key concepts such as “critical thinking,” “the common good,” and the “liberal arts.”

We put forward a lucid explanation of how ideological enthusiasms have been married to a consumerist impulse. We traced the elevation of the student as an autonomous agent, and have shown how that leads to curricular triviality and character malformation. We captured the ways in which a college eager to promote sexual license forged social anomie instead. We showed the interweaving of all these strands and more in a campus culture that flatters and in some ways gratifies students but leaves them empty, or at least emptier than they should be. Bowdoin once spoke of cultivating in students “intellectual poise, disinterested opinion, and patient courage to pursue remote ends by choice rather than compulsion.”17 That language is long gone from Bowdoin’s Catalogue, along with the spirit it expressed.

It is an accomplishment to have shown this as fully as we have, even if the picture of elite higher education we provide is grim. The triumph of political activism strangely blended with solipsism is unfortunately what Bowdoin teaches today. We can hope for something better tomorrow at Bowdoin and at other elite colleges, but that will require a moment of self-reckoning that is clearly beyond such colleges at the moment. They are prosperous and complacent and see no need to contemplate in any serious way what may be missing. I’d like to think that What Does Bowdoin Teach? is an invitation. It may lie unopened for a long time, but when Bowdoin, or any of those other colleges, has its real moment of self-doubt, it will be there waiting.

1Peter Wood and Michael Toscano, What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students (New York: National Association of Scholars, 2013), http://www.nas.org/articles/what_does_bowdoin_teach_how_a_contemporary_liberal_arts_college_shapes_stud.

2David Feith, “The Golf Shot Heard Round the Academic World,” Wall Street Journal, April 5, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324100904578404502145771288.html. Harvey Mansfield, “The Higher Education Scandal,” Claremont Review of Books, May 20, 2013, http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.2089/article_detail.asp.

3Barry Mills, “Setting the Record Straight,” Bowdoin Daily Sun, April 10, 2013, http://www.bowdoindailysun.com/2013/04/barry-mills-setting-the-record-straight/.


5Jean M. Yarbrough, “NAS Study, Though Flawed, Points to Bowdoin’s Problems,” Bowdoin Orient, April 12, 2013, http://bowdoinorient.com/article/8206.

6Stephen Meardon, “An Exchange with President Mills,” Bowdoin Orient, April 4, 2013, http://bowdoinorient.com/article/8143.

7“After reading the account of his interview, [name redacted] requested to have his name and interview removed from the report. ‘I don’t feel they misrepresented me,’ [name redacted] told the Orient. ‘I just didn’t realize that this was appearing in the context of academics. I was unclear as to what the intention of the interview was, and that’s my fault and I realize that.’” Linda Kinstler and Marisa McGarr, “National Association of Scholars Releases 360 Page Critique of the College,” Bowdoin Orient, April 5, 2013, http://bowdoinorient.com/article/8171.

8“Bowdoin Islamicist Wins Top Iranian Book Prize,” Academic Spotlight, February 19, 2009, http://www.bowdoin.edu/news/archives/1academicnews/005906.shtml.

9Mills, “Setting the Record Straight.”

10Barry Mills, “Now’s the Time to Stand Up for Civil Rights and Freedoms in Maine: Vote ‘Yes’ on Question 1,” letter to the editor, Bowdoin Orient, October 25, 2012, http://bowdoinorient.com/article/7583.

11Garrett Casey, “76 Percent of Students to Vote Obama, Poll Finds,” Bowdoin Orient, November 2, 2012, http://bowdoinorient.com/article/7668.

12Bowdoin College Catalogue 2012–2013, 173.

13Bowdoin College Faculty Handbook 2000–2001, 10, http://www.bowdoin.edu/academic-affairs/forms-policies/policies/pdf/f00handbook.pdf.

14Wood and Toscano, What Does Bowdoin Teach? 165.

15Yarbrough, “NAS Study.”

16Sam Chase, “Vague Hazing Policy under Review after Student Discontent,” Bowdoin Orient, June 3, 2013, http://bowdoinorient.com/article/8368.

17“Bowdoin: A Liberal College,” Bowdoin College Bulletin, 1964, 6.

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