Iced Out: We Held a Conference and Bowdoin Stayed Home

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared in Minding the Campus on February 13, 2014. 

On February 6 the Maine Heritage Policy Center sponsored a small conference in Brunswick, Maine. The idea was to present a follow-up to the National Association of Scholars' lengthy study, What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students, by following one of its many threads. KC Johnson, one of the speakers, published an excellent account of the conference itself, "An Update on the Mess at Bowdoin." But there is more to say about the how and why of this venture.

What Does Bowdoin Teach? was an attempt to picture an elite liberal arts college in its entirety, top to bottom—curriculum, faculty, students, academic life, social life, politics, culture, sports—leaving out nothing essential, and guided by the search for what the college actually accomplishes in the minds and the lives of its students. We chose Bowdoin mostly out of accident: the same study with much the same results could have been accomplished by studying any of dozens of other elite colleges. The biggest advantage Bowdoin gave us was its size: 182 faculty members, 1,700 students. It was small enough to be studied in something approaching its entirety--though naturally we fell short, especially in areas such as admissions where the college kept close guard over its secrets.

The conference was held at the Inn at Brunswick Station, across the street from Bowdoin College. Out the window of my hotel room I could see the monument to Bowdoin's sixth president, Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain.  

Our host, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, is a right-of-center "research and educational organization" in Portland. The thread we chose from the original report was the college's emphasis on encouraging students to see themselves as "global citizens." We then set out to see if we could find scholars of high standing who would be willing to take on such a topic--and come to Maine in the middle of winter to talk about it.

It turns out that it wasn't hard at all. 

Weather Permitting

The larger challenge was getting to Brunswick, Maine, in the middle of winter. A snowstorm in Portland led to the cancellation of all of the participants' flights. Those of us in New York bundled together in a van with an intrepid driver and headed up the Merritt Parkway, the sides of which were littered with cars that had skidded off into the snow banks. A trip that ordinarily takes five hours, took nine. The snow was deep in Brunswick, the temperature barely above zero. Somehow all of the participants made it, the last one shaking off the snow at nine the next morning when the conference began. 

The weather made me worry that the 80 or so people who had registered for the conference might stay home by the fire. But Maine folks are hardy and a large majority of them were there Thursday morning. 

We held the event in Brunswick in order to draw Bowdoin students and faculty members. They needed only to stroll across campus. To get them we had submitted to the student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, an editorial which explained the purpose of the conference and its agenda. The editors of the paper originally agreed to run the editorial but then recanted. After some arm-wrestling the editors did agree to publish the editorial as a half-page paid advertisement ("Resuming the Conversation"). In addition to the ad, we had tweeted, Facebooked, and emailed news of the free event to the whole campus community. The result, when I looked out over the audience at 9:00, was one Bowdoin student and no faculty members. (Later I was told a second Bowdoin student joined the proceedings.)

In the afternoon we did slightly better. A half dozen or so Bowdoin students appeared—at least for a while—and one Bowdoin faculty member.

No Shows

Why did Bowdoin mostly stay home? We have some clues. The Orient article said "many students" did not know about the conference and quoted one student as saying that he would have come if he had known about it. Might there have been other events competing for student attention? The Orient's headlines the day after the conference were "ResLife Redesigns College House Blocking System," "Library Debuts Newly Updated Version of Joint CBB Catalogue," and, "Young to Depart for Blake School in Minn." The "Young" departing is not an exodus of children leaving Maine for Minnesota but Jarrett Young, the assistant dean of student affairs, who departs "most proud" of the work he did on "masculinity and his role in establishing the Black Men's Forum." 

We were trumped by a plan to draw more juniors and seniors into the residence life system, the library catalogue, and a personnel change in the demesne of multiculturalism.

Perhaps students and faculty stayed away because, as the NAS study had documented, global citizenship, as with diversity, multiculturalism, and sustainability, is not open for serious debate. Challenges to these ideals slide off like one of those cars on the Merritt Parkway.

A Bowdoin faculty member I talked to the day after the conference suggested another explanation: Bowdoin students, he said, "over-schedule" themselves with non-academic activities and that getting them to turn out for any event of an intellectual nature is very difficult.  Maybe so, but the NAS study, one the most publicized incidents at Bowdoin over the last decade, is not just one more in a long list of college events.

Taking Offense

Then there is this. When I was interviewed after the conference by the editors of the Orient, Erica Berry and Marisa McGarry, they told me that one of the reasons students stayed away is that they were "offended" by the criticisms of multiculturalism in What Does Bowdoin Teach? And in their follow-on story they quoted a student, Michelle Kruk ('16) who characterized the report's "discussion of campus gender and multicultural issues" as "offensive and hurtful."  The word "offensive" is a way of saying, "Shut up. I don't like what you're saying and therefore I won't listen to you and I will do my best to make sure that others won't listen to you either." Calling something "offensive" or "hurtful" is a half-step short of calling someone a "racist" because he does not endorse the prevailing diversity doctrine or a "homophobe" because he does not endorse same-sex marriage.

That spirit is all too evident at Bowdoin. President Barry Mills has made it clear to the faculty that they were to treat the report with disdain.  After one faculty meeting in which Mills had spoken of the report with derision, economics Professor Stephen Meardon wrote a private letter to Mills objecting.  Mills got angry at Meardon and over the telephone dared him to make his letter public: "He said that I should rather 'have the guts to stand up and say it.'" Meardon did just that in the Orient on April 4, 2013:

I was sorry to hear my colleague's chuckle at the mere mention of the NAS study at today's faculty meeting. I am sorrier still to say that, to my ear, you [Mills] encouraged them....The chuckles were the sound of people resting comfortably with the conviction that the ideas in the study, probably a good deal different from those that dominate around here, need not be seriously entertained.

Government professor Jean Yarbrough also wrote in the Orient (April 12) that she had heard this same sort of self-satisfied chuckling on another occasion.  She wrote,

I was not at the faculty meeting where Stephen Meardon observed that faculty chuckled at the very mention of the NAS report, but I was at the 2010 convocation where President Mills observed that conservatives resist sending their children and grandchildren to Bowdoin because they fear they will become alienated from their roots. There was certainly chuckling then.

Is "chuckling" a form of intimidation?  Within the context of higher education, it is certainly a way to convey disdain and to marginalize arguments without having to address them on their merits.  It is a form of eye-rolling. 

Disdain isn't the legitimate currency of the liberal arts, where even bad arguments must be met with patience and reasoned replies. 

Most members of the Bowdoin faculty probably would agree with this, and yet the Bowdoin faculty was--at least in public--conspicuously silent after the Mills-Meardon incident. No one said that President Mills's challenge to Meardon was out of line. But surely it was. College presidents are not emperors. Meardon had responded to Mills's untoward behavior with a polite—and politely private—remonstrance. Mills's answer was of the how-dare-you variety: "have the guts to stand up and say [this publicly]."    

We cannot know why the faculty was silent, but we can see some of the consequences. When faculty members do not defend their academic freedom, that freedom, like a small bird, simply flies away. There need be no direct threat of punishment. People get the idea that to cross the college president is to court trouble. 

This attitude takes various forms in the Bowdoin community, including what might be called the I-know-it's-important-but-I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it syndrome. 

In the article on the conference the Orient reported, "The Peucinian Society—a student group founded in 1805 to debate statesmanship, culture and political thought—declined to participate in the conference. President Sam Karson '14 said that while the group did agree with some of the criticisms, it did not support 'the strategy they're employing to achieve their goals.'"

Government professor Paul Franco, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, took the same line as the Peucinians.  He wrote that "some of the issues raised in the NAS report are of vital importance: the specialization and fragmentation of college curricula; the need for a more thoughtful and robust set of general education requirements; the excessive number of courses devoted to race, gender, and sexuality; and so forth."  But while Professor Franco endorses significant aspects of the study, he doesn't believe the report itself is worthy of debate. That's partly because it singles out Bowdoin for abuses that he says are common among liberal arts colleges and because it plays into the hands of people who would sacrifice liberal education for mere job training. 

Professor Franco strikes me as an especially thoughtful and informed faculty member who in this particular judgment veered a bit off course. What Does Bowdoin Teach? was framed from the beginning by the idea that Bowdoin exemplifies broader trends in American higher education and that our interest in it came by way of the opportunity it provided to speak with depth and precision on matters that are usually known only superficially and by anecdote. As for the charge that we undermine liberal education by arming its utilitarian foes, nothing could be further from the truth.  We are steadfast proponents of liberal education, worried that some of today's custodians of the tradition are playing it false.

The Peucinan/Franco response—I-know-it's-important-but-I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it—is interesting in that it offers a submerged recognition of our central points.  But Bowdoin's more frequent response has been simply to avert its gaze, and if the report is mentioned, to deny that it has any value at all.  This has been President Mills's position from the outset.  Taking their cue from Mills, the faculty as a whole has publicly ignored the report.  I know of four exceptions:  Meardon, Yarbrough, Franco, and one more, history Professor Patrick Rael who objected to the report's characterization of the history department.

Professor Yarbrough's assessment of the study poses the core puzzle:

[M]uch of what the NAS report describes is, I am sorry to say, spot on...the retreat from the core texts of Western civilization and their replacement with a much more ideological and multicultural curriculum...the shallowness of the College's understanding of diversity...and the absence of political and intellectual diversity.

In writing this, Professor Yarbrough, who is one of Bowdoin's most senior and most respected faculty members, established the report's essential credibility.  The rest, unfortunately, was silence.   

But silence doesn't necessarily mean inactivity. Bowdoin did take at least one step. It put a 20-year embargo on its archived faculty minutes, access to which had been key to our ability to write What Does Bowdoin Teach?

The Day After

My wife and I stayed in Brunswick the day after the conference. I had said in my advertisement in the Orient that I would be around that day in the event any students or faculty members wanted to continue the conversation. Initially, none did. So we also had a leisurely walk through Bowdoin's splendid museum. Long ago, Bowdoin was the academic seat of one of America's foremost geologists, Parker Cleaveland (1780-1858), "the father of American mineralogy." Over time Bowdoin assembled a world-class collection of minerals, but as interests changed, it fell into disuse. According to a label on the one cabinet of mineral specimens, it was headed for the town dump in the 1930s but was rescued at the last minute by an alert staff member and was sent to a campus shed instead. Decades later it was rediscovered and now Bowdoin finds itself with a large assemblage of unidentified minerals from unknown locations, and is fitfully attempting to re-identify them.   

There is a story in there somewhere about a college that misplaces valuable things and ends up with remnants of knowledge. 

The Bowdoin museum, however, is an impressive place. After that entry hall that nods to the college's scientific interests, it offers historical artifacts, costumes, and then galleries of contemporary art, Assyrian bas reliefs and broken monuments, and some treasures of European and American art. Here you will find Winslow Homer's masterpiece, "The Glitter of Night Hauling," depicting a man looting a lobster trap out in a dark sea speckled with phosphorescent diatoms.

After the museum we rendezvoused with the one faculty member who did indeed follow up. We had an amiable conversation for several hours, though it was shadowed with the faculty member's regrets about the college. He had, however, an inexhaustible fund of Bowdoin stories.  I learned, for example, that Cleaveland, the famous Bowdoin geologist, suffered from "gephyrophobia," the fear of crossing bridges, which kept him from accepting invitations to join the faculty at that many-bridged college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

That night we went to see Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers movie, in Brunswick's somewhat tattered Eveningstar Cinema, which we shared with four or five other people. The theater is equipped with several dropcloth covered couches for the front row and we enjoyed the melancholy tale of a Greenwich Village folk singer in the early 1960s. The hapless Davis comes alive when singing the old songs, but he is a self-defeating mess. It is a wonderful movie, and we seemed to have found the perfect time and place to watch it. 


Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.  


Image: Screenshot from Youtube

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