I wrote last week about What Does Bowdoin Teach?, the comprehensive and somewhat embarrassing assessment of life at the elite liberal-arts college conducted by the National Association of Scholars. At Bowdoin, the study of race, class, gender, sexuality, and other areas of “identity” studies have almost completely displaced the Western canon, and liberalism often expresses itself illiberally.
Bowdoin has officially responded to the report with what amounts to a polite dismissal, announcing:
We will review the report because we encourage open discourse on the effectiveness of American higher education and because we support academic freedom, which is the essence of a liberal arts institution.
Bowdoin will continue to assess its effectiveness by relying on many factors to evaluate our academic and residential life programs, including the accomplishments of students, faculty, and staff, and the achievements, loyalty, and support of alumni. The College will also look to the informed judgment of foundations, corporations, and other outside donors that are well versed in assessing the quality and efficacy of the institutions they support, and we will depend on the rigorous decennial reaccreditation process. Collectively, these and other internal measures provide us with the qualitative and quantitative means to consider carefully how we are doing currently and what we must do to prepare for the future.
We are proud of our students and our commitment to build and support a community that resembles America and the world. We are proud of our faculty who represent intellectual rigor across the disciplines and who are both excellent teachers and engaged scholars. We are also proud of our alumni who are leaders in all walks of life. A Bowdoin education trains young men and women of varied backgrounds to think critically, solve complex problems, apply sound judgment, embrace lifelong learning, and make principled decisions in support of the common good. This is both our mission and our record.
This exchange published in the student newspaper between Bowdoin president Barry Mills and assistant professor of economics Stephen Meardon, however, provides a clearer picture of the reaction at Bowdoin. Meardon sent the following letter to Mills last Monday:
Dear President Mills,
I was sorry to hear my colleagues chuckle at the mere mention of the NAS study at today’s faculty meeting. I am sorrier to say that, to my ear, you encouraged them.
I was present at your convocation address in September 2010 and admired your aim. “We must guard against political correctness and a culture where everyone…is supposed to feel ‘comfortable’,” you said, and rightly.
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. It’s a different sound entirely from your admirable convocation address.
With highest regard,
According to Meardon, Mills called him when he received the letter. During their conversation, Meardon reports, “I asked President Mills to look to the final NAS report when it is released and point out in public those parts that echo what he said in his convocation address. I hoped that his doing so would cause people who would otherwise dismiss the central message of his address — which I understand to be more concordant with the thrust of the NAS than he does — to take it seriously. He said that I should rather ‘have the guts to stand up and say it.’ Herewith.”