Posted by Tom Talbott
Our club welcomed back Clayton Rose, who had previously spoken at our club during his first year as the President of Bowdoin College, back in April 2016. He entertained us with some opening humor of once being pressed into carrying boxes on freshman move-in day by a mother who did not recognize him. He then proceeded to provide an overview of current things going on at Bowdoin, as well as the national scene on higher education.
Proudly, Bowdoin is one of just 19 schools in the U.S., out of approximately 4000, that has an endowment large enough to be completely “need” blind when it comes to admitting students. If a student is accepted, then finances or money would never be declared an obstacle. Loans have been completely replaced by grants.  Students are accepted on their merits and can work out a financial program that is acceptable to the student and family.
What particularly worries Rose is how many schools focus too closely on families with limited needs, in essence, at the expense of the middle class. He coined the term, “the barbell.” For Rose, he believes that diversity includes all facets of life, including financial. The goal is to attract the best students, some who require aid and some who do not. It is expensive, and this approach is truly only possible by the amazing generosity over many years by Bowdoin alumni.
Clayton spoke enthusiastically about recent building projects on campus. The new Roux Center for the teaching and study of the environment has opened, and the additions to the Schiller Coastal Studies Center is being designed now. The plan is to create spaces that are more conducive to how people teach and learn in the 21st century. Ground will be broken soon for new upperclass student campus housing, with “passive house” design ideas to be more eco-friendly and comfortable. The purpose is to lure older students who have been quick to move off campus back into student life, to be more connected with the fabric of the school.
At this point, Clayton opened the floor for questions. The first question asked how Bowdoin creates an atmosphere that is comfortable and conducive to a student body that has such a diverse background – ethnic, financial, geographical, and so on. Rose responded by noting that orientation programs are set up that deliberately mix-up students from the get-go, room to room, floor to floor, dorm to dorm. Students are immediately put into situations that require them to open up and experience new things. 
Another question was asked by an alumnus, who also had a daughter attend Bowdoin. Noting years of financial support and alumni participation, there is somewhat of a concern for legacy families, when there are over 9000 applications (9332 last year) and only about 5% get in. (522 accepted, 5.6%) Rose countered the concern by noting that legacy students do have an advantage, but the admissions process probes deep to see just how serious that student is about attending Bowdoin. Admissions wants to know….Who are you? Are you a humanitarian? Are you engaged in the community? What are your passions? Why do YOU, not your family, want to go here?
On the cheating scandal, it was “mind-blowing” to Rose. His first reaction was to question the parenting of the students; second was to blame “institutional corruption,” schools so large and decentralized, departments such as sports were acting on their own. This would be far more difficult at a smaller school, where everyone is involved.
Bowdoin is expensive, $71k per year for room, board, and tuition. 51% of students are on aid, with the average family getting about $48k back. 65% of the costs are salary and benefits. A question came from an Amherst alumni, who noted that his alma mater had brought in a layer of high priced provosts…..thick with bureaucracy and an expanding overhead, all to appeal to diversity issues and compliance. Is that money well spent? Is that happening at Bowdoin? Rose said that to some extent, it is, adding the line, “Government is often well-intentioned, but things usually never go as they should.” He claimed that Bowdoin has a modest infrastructure, and benefits greatly by having faculty and staff learn and take on administrative duties. “We’re as lean as we can be.”
An interesting question at the end was if the school had studied if alumni 15 years after graduating were doing what they thought they would be doing. While not able to quote specifics, Rose felt that many were doing very different things, but that was not a bad thing. He emphasized that Bowdoin has always taught core skills of critical thinking, writing, and creativity, that students are able to apply in all walks of life. The focus is on “how to learn,” a characteristic that is appreciated by employers. Cross-training is an asset.