The History of Bowdoin College from 1978 to Present

Michael Toscano

What are we trying to accomplish here? Clearly, we want our students to be able citizens in a global community. But college is only a beginning. There is a life after college during which we continue to learn. Our goal should be to start these young people on a path where they can acquire the life skills and the knowledge to be able global citizens, and to make sure—to the extent possible—that they do not reach adulthood without the intellectual and emotional capacity to engage effectively in a global society.” 

President Barry Mills, fourteenth president of Bowdoin College, “Preparing Students for Success in a Global Economy," April 1, 2010.

Our sixth Preliminary of the Bowdoin Project, “Bowdoin’s History from 1978 to Present,” is the last of four installments which trace the history of the college from its founding to the present day. This section recounts Bowdoin’s attempts in recent decades to grapple with the legacy that presidents Coles and Howell bequeathed to it. Coles focused the intellectual energy of the college on research and the creation of new knowledge; Howell “liberated” students from the bonds of general education requirements so that they could pursue their own individualized educational projects. A sense that the college had lost educational unity set in. 

To overcome this, President A. Leroy Greason reestablished general education requirements to curb some of the abuses and failings associated with Howell’s liberated education. President Robert Edwards, on the other hand, confronted the disunity by establishing uniformity. Lacking a common educational enterprise, the college’s academic departments had developed highly distinct cultures and organizational practices. Edwards sought to standardize and simplify these administrative structures. Likewise Edwards systematized Bowdoin’s increasing political commitments, effectively grafting them into the college’s administrative structure. Barry Mills, Bowdoin’s current president, continues to build on the successes of his two predecessors and today presides over one of the country’s most prestigious and revered liberal arts institutions.   

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Since September 2011, NAS has been conducting an in-depth, ethnographic study of Bowdoin College in Maine. We asked, “what does Bowdoin teach?” and examined Bowdoin’s formal curriculum, its residential and student life policies, and its co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. We have dedicated a page on our website to the Bowdoin Project. The full report will be published there in April. In the meantime, we will continue posting a series of Preliminaries which will provide context for the report.

The Bowdoin Project >

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