The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.
Bowdoin College has a new president. For most Mainers, that news was met with a collective shrug. An online Bangor Daily News story last week about the selection of Safa Zaki to lead the college, the first woman to do so in its 229-year history, didn’t generate a single comment on our website.
This apparent lack of interest is too bad for the college, and for the state.
Bowdoin has been educating the people of Maine (and the country and world) longer than Maine has been a state. Yet, many people in Maine couldn’t care less about the private college in Brunswick.
Many people I’ve talked to in Maine don’t know that Bowdoin is here. Some don’t know how to pronounce its name – the college, which was founded in 1794, is named for the second governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin. Most think the school – often considered an elite place for rich people – is irrelevant to their lives.
Bates College also recently hired a new president, Garry Jenkins, the Lewiston school’s first Black leader. So, why focus on Bowdoin?
First, I’m a graduate of Bowdoin. It is a major reason I am in Maine. I first came to the Pine Tree State nearly 40 years ago to attend college. I lived and worked elsewhere after graduation, but returned to Maine in the 1990s in part because of my time in Brunswick.
My daughter is currently a student at Bowdoin, so I am, literally, invested in the college.
I am also deeply invested in Maine.
Then, there’s this thing called “the common good.” It’s Bowdoin’s tagline if you will.
But is Bowdoin serving Maine’s common good?
Sure, the college employs a lot of people and buys millions of dollars worth of goods and services in Maine every year. It offers generous financial aid to Maine students and many of its graduates remain in Maine, contributing to the state in many ways. Its students and staff volunteer at numerous organizations. The college even has a center for the common good that helps guide students who are interested in public service.
These are all important and valued. However, leadership is also about informing and driving the search for solutions to pressing problems. Especially if you pride yourself on being about the common good.
Maine is a small, poor state. As such, powerful, rich institutions like Bowdoin can have an outsized impact, if they choose to more fully engage.
Take a look at Colby College, in Waterville. The college has intentionally chosen to be a more active, most would say positive, participant in the Waterville community, a place hard hit by the closure of mills in recent decades. The college and donor partners have invested $85 million in the revitalization of Waterville. The college built apartments downtown, rather than on Mayflower Hill, where its campus is located, so that students would be part of – and spend money in – the community. Other projects include a downtown hotel, art center and studio block.
Brunswick isn’t Waterville, but Colby’s president, David Greene, articulated this call to action well. “The world needs colleges and universities to be deeply engaged in their communities, to be solving problems for society,” he recently told Inside Higher Ed.
Maine, frankly, has lots of problems. Deaths from drug overdoses are rising and happening more frequently here than in most other states. Housing is increasingly unaffordable in most of the state. Community leaders in the state’s largest cities are begging for help for unhoused people and Portland is struggling to help new arrivals from around the world, many of them seeking asylum in the U.S.
Meanwhile, many employers can’t find enough workers and demographers have warned that the state faces economic stagnation if more people don’t move here.
Bowdoin, of course, can’t solve these problems, but imagine if it put more of its considerable resources, – financial, knowledge and otherwise – into the quest for solutions. Imagine pairing alumni, and alumni giving, with local nonprofits. Imagine a Bowdoin Center for the Rural Economy, in rural Maine.
I know nothing about running a college, so these may be unworkable ideas. But I do know that in an era when higher education is denigrated for being elitist and out of touch, colleges like Bowdoin need to recommit to their home states and to prove their value to a larger community.
“It ought always to be remembered, that literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education,” the college’s first president Joseph McKeen said in his 1802 inaugural address.
New president Safa Zaki will no doubt face a lot of challenges and demands when she comes to Brunswick this summer. I hope she recommits Bowdoin to its charge of serving the common good of Maine.