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Bowdoin's Double Bogey

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A year ago I published What Does Bowdoin Teach? Or, more precisely, my co-author Michael Toscano and I posted a 376-page obsessively-detailed campus tour, subtitled How A Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students. Those reading at the leisurely pace of a page a day should be finished by now.

WDBT was not a great hit with Bowdoin's president, Barry Mills, or for that matter with most of the students and faculty members. Some were offended. Mr. Mills took it as a personal affront. Nearly all the faculty publicly ignored it. The college's official stand was, in Mills's words, that we "attacked" Bowdoin, and that the attack was "mean spirited" and "personal."

But while many pretended to stay within the circled wagons, we kept hearing from those who sneaked out at dark to say, "You got it right!" "Keep it up!" And, "You don't know the half of it!"

Then last week President Mills announced that he is resigning -- at least a year earlier than he had planned and with nothing lined up, though he says he is not retiring. Mills said he is leaving because of his "affection for the college," and the Bowdoin trustees' statement says Mills was doing "what he thinks best for our College." Both statements suggest a resignation under pressure, but it is hard to know what the source of that might have been. I have no reason to think that WDBT had anything to do with it. But I would like to think that Bowdoin's board did eventually get around to reading our study. If so, it might have wondered why Mills was so grimly determined not to pay it any heed.

If this is the first you've heard of this controversy, there are two things you should know: the golf story and the game plan. The golf story is this. In 2010, an affluent New York businessman played a round of golf with President Mills. A month later, Mills gave a speech in which he caricatured the businessman as a bad sport, and an ignorant, boorish, and racist conservative. Mills then published his speech. The businessman read it and responded with an elegant essay of his own in the pages of The Claremont Review of Books, deflecting Mills' taunts mostly by demonstration of keen intelligence and social sophistication.

Mills didn't come off looking good from this and was even more irritated when a group of students invited the businessman -- Tom Klingenstein -- to campus to debate.

Now the game plan. At Tom's invitation, I joined him on that trip. I'd debated people on political correctness and the excesses of campus activism many times before; Tom hadn't. He wanted back-up. As it happened, Mills called the student organizer of the event "a traitor" and refused to come. We ended up talking with an auditorium of Bowdoin students for a few hours. They stoutly defended Mills's main idea: that the college gave them a perfectly good education and they weren't missing anything of value.

Could that be true? I launched What Does Bowdoin Teach? as an effort to find out. But as I told Tom at the outset, poring over the details of a curriculum, academic requirements, faculty appointments, research foci, official documents, the rules of student life, and all the other minutiae of a contemporary college would likely result in a study drier than the Sahara.

And WDBT is indeed exactly that. We dressed it up with palm trees at the beginning. Bill Bennett contributed a foreword and Tom added a "letter to the alumni." And I put aside the Saharan sand long enough to write an "interpretive preface" that calls Bowdoin out on some of its more egregious educational missteps. But after that come hundreds of pages of finely-sifted detail on who teaches what and why. You can learn about the college's internal battles over student unpreparedness and whether to require a foreign language. You can watch the rise in honors projects and the decline in survey courses.

It ain't the stuff that would set the world on fire. Yet it did. At least the parts of the world I spend my working life paying attention to. The report became a big deal in conservative circles as the first and so far only meticulously documented account of how a liberal arts college lost its way. Or, maybe better put, lost its educational way and yet prospered in every other way. For Bowdoin is a raging success by many standards. It has an endowment of over $1 billion; US News & World Report last year elevated it to fourth in the nation among selective liberal arts colleges; its applicants far outnumber the students it admits; it pays its faculty handsomely; and to the extent anyone can tell, its recent alumni do fine.

With that kind of record you might think Bowdoin could have smiled indulgently at our study and thanked us for our eccentric interest in obscure details of old catalogs, minutes of faculty meetings, and long-forgotten speeches. But instead Bowdoin went into full-scale alarm. We truly did touch a nerve. The interesting question is, "Which nerve?" Proposed study: Why Did Bowdoin Panic?

Part of the answer lies in how the report was received elsewhere. I've heard from faculty members and college administrators across the country who reacted, "This could just as easily have been written about us." Bowdoin felt singled out and its guilty response to much of what we said was a version of, "Why pick on us? Everybody does it."

That, of course, is the complaint of the driver pulled over for speeding. But it was exactly our point. We said that, for us, Bowdoin was only an example: small enough to study in depth, wealthy enough to fully realize its dreams of what a liberal arts college should do. What we hit upon, quite unexpectedly is that, at some level, Bowdoin has a bad conscience. It knows that it has made some wrong turns but it doesn't like hearing that from a stranger. Nor does it know how to get back on track.

This is American higher education today: an angry driver, lost and confused but too proud to stop and ask directions. "I'm not lost! I know exactly where I'm going!" And to prove it, that angry driver speeds up and zips past the next exit.

Bowdoin's confusions are too many to drop into a single final paragraph. They range from a truly chaotic curriculum; an overestimation of what students -- even very bright students -- know when they first arrive on campus; a series of hard-to-undo judgments that unbalanced the faculty in favor of highly-specialized researchers; a smothering embrace of identity politics; the elevation of political piety over intellectual freedom; a distaste for America's political traditions; and an over-the-top sexualization of campus life. These are interwoven in some surprising ways. I'll explain that in some further posts.