Bowdoin College was chartered on June 24, 1794, by the General Court in Boston, because Maine was until 1820 a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The new college was endowed by the late governor’s son, James Bowdoin III, who was a diplomat, agriculturalist, and art collector, and by the Commonwealth, which supported higher education with grants of land and money, a practice established in the seventeenth century for Harvard and repeated in 1793 for Williams College.
In 1969, Roger Howell Jr. ’58 was inaugurated as president at the age of thirty-three. The youngest college president in the country, and a highly respected scholar in the field of seventeenth-century British history, Howell ushered in an era of rapid change. The turmoil of the Vietnam era was reflected in the student strike of 1970 and in early debate about the fraternity system. The decision in 1969 to make standardized tests optional for purposes of admission, the arrival of coeducation in 1971, an eventual increase in the size of the College to 1,400 students, and a concerted effort to recruit students in the arts and students of color all significantly altered the composition of the student body and began an impetus for curricular change that continued through the 1980s under the leadership of President A. LeRoy Greason.
During the Greason presidency, the College undertook to reform the curriculum, expand the arts program, encourage environmental study, diversify the faculty, and make the College more fully coeducational. By 1990, Bowdoin was nationally regarded as a small, highly selective liberal arts college with an enviable location in coastal Maine and a strong teaching faculty willing to give close personal attention to undergraduates.
Robert H. Edwards came to Bowdoin in 1990 as its thirteenth president. He reorganized the College administration, strengthened budgetary planning and controls, and developed processes for the discussion and resolution of key issues. In 1993–94, he presided over the College’s bicentennial celebration. A capital campaign, concluded in 1998, raised $135 million in additional endowment for faculty positions and scholarships and funds for an ambitious building program.
During the 1996–1997 academic year, the Board of Trustees established a Commission on Residential Life to review all aspects of residential life. The commission recommended, and the trustees unanimously approved, a new conception of residential life for Bowdoin based on a model of broad College House membership that includes all students. The new system also replaced the system of residential fraternities, which were phased out in May 2000. During the Edwards presidency, the enrollment of the College was expanded from 1,385 to approximately 1,600 students, and the College’s endowment grew from $175 million to approximately $500 million.
Bowdoin’s 200th academic year began with the inauguration of Barry Mills ’72 as the fourteenth president and the fifth alumnus to lead the College. Mills, who worked with the faculty to redefine a liberal arts education for the twenty-first century, led the first major curriculum reform at Bowdoin since the early 1980s. Under his leadership, the College also successfully recommitted itself to the goal of expanding ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic diversity among students and employees, and to building resources for financial aid. The student-faculty ratio was also reduced to 9:1. Meanwhile, the Bowdoin campus expanded significantly, with the acquisition of nearly 175 acres of developable land at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. The arts were a major focus of the Mills administration, with a major expansion and renovation of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and a conversion of the former Curtis Pool building into the Studzinski Recital Hall and 280-seat Kanbar Auditorium. The College also acquired and converted the former Longfellow Elementary School into the new Robert H. and Blythe Bickel Edwards Center for Art and Dance. Student residential life was improved through the construction of new residence halls and the renovation of existing residential facilities. The College established the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good and built the Sidney J. Watson Arena and the Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness.
Bowdoin’s endowment nearly tripled in value during the Mills years, surpassing the $1 billion mark for the first time in June 2013. The College was also able to maintain its financial equilibrium during the economic downturn that began in 2008. That same year, the College announced that it would replace student loans with grants for all students receiving financial aid, beginning with the 2008–09 academic year. Mills also emphasized sustainability efforts at the College through the construction of “green” facilities and other conservation and sustainability efforts.
Clayton S. Rose was elected Bowdoin’s fifteenth president in January 2015 and began his duties on July 1, 2015. Throughout his presidency, Rose has articulated several ambitions for Bowdoin, beginning with the imperative to further enhance its position as an exceptional and deeply relevant liberal arts college, in part by determining and planning for the knowledge, skills, and creative disposition graduates will need for success a decade into the future and by underscoring the value of a liberal arts education in building rewarding careers and lives of meaning. Rose continues to promote the value and importance of the humanities in higher education while working to debunk the myth that the undergraduate major defines or limits a student’s career path. He has also moved to bolster the study and teaching of the environment at the College—with the opening of the LEED Platinum-certified Roux Center for the Environment (2018) and the ongoing expansion of the Schiller Coastal Studies Center in nearby Orr’s Island—by leveraging Bowdoin’s close proximity to the Gulf of Maine and Atlantic Ocean, and by working to raise awareness about the College’s leadership role in interdisciplinary environmental studies. Another area of focus is ensuring that Bowdoin continues to have the resources to offer comprehensive need-based financial aid, to maintain its “no-loan” policy, and to be able to expand the availability of financial aid for families in different income brackets. He has also focused on building and sustaining a more inclusive community across many dimensions of difference and identity. And, since his inauguration address in October 2015, Rose has consistently emphasized the critical need at the College for intellectual discourse and full engagement on tough issues through respectfully challenging deeply held views and by working to comprehend new and unfamiliar ideas and material.
For more information: https://www.bowdoin.edu/about/history-traditions/historical-sketch.html