Bowdoin students spend too much time talking about identity, don’t know enough about the founding fathers, and have way too much sex.
It took the National Association of Scholars 19 months to reach those conclusions, which, among others, are detailed in “The Bowdoin Project,” the organization’s report on the College.
Totaling 360 pages, the report applies conservative ideology of the past three decades to virtually every aspect of Bowdoin policy, academic affairs, and student life. The report assails Bowdoin on topics as wide-ranging as sustainability and climate change, gay marriage, and affirmative action.
In astonishing detail, it lists quotes, factoids, and perspectives that claim to indict the College as a hotbed of the type of liberalism that the study’s authors and financiers see as undesirable.
The report was independently commissioned and was not supported by the College.
“The Bowdoin Project” was funded by Thomas Klingenstein, an investor and board member of the NAS, a think tank that has published several reports on the state of higher education in the United States. NAS President Peter Wood and Director of Research Projects Michael Toscano co-authored the report. Wood said the NAS had not yet calculated the full cost of the report, but estimated that it totaled well over $100,000.
The project stems from a round of golf between Klingenstein and President Barry Mills in the summer of 2010. Mills related a conversation he had with Klingenstein during their golf outing in his fall 2010 convocation address, in which he anonymously references Klingenstein has having said, “I would never support Bowdoin—you are a ridiculous liberal school that brings all the wrong students to campus for all the wrong reasons...And I would never support Bowdoin or Williams because of all your misplaced and misguided diversity efforts."
In a letter to Bowdoin alumni that prefaces the report, Klingenstein asserts that “The Bowdoin Project” is not the result of a personal vendetta against President Mills.
“No one likes being portrayed, in so many words, as a racist. But I responded at the time and that was that,” Klingenstein wrote.
But when he addressed the crowd assembled at the University Club to celebrate the reporter’s release on Wednesday, Klingenstein began, “it all started with golf,” and went on to explain how Mills mischaracterized their conversation in the speech.
“He had me interrupting his golf swing, which for you golfers, this is a very serious offense, and something my good friends know that I would never do,” said Klingenstein. “And he had me saying something that sounded very much like a racist comment, that I didn’t want blacks and minorities at Bowdoin.”
Klingenstein clarified his views on diversity, stating, “I object to the current notion of diversity which celebrates racial identity and separateness—I’m much more in favor of what I call inclusion.”
In an interview with the Orient, Wood stated that Klingenstein was not involved in the composition of the report.
“I had conversations with him from time to time about what we were doing,” Wood said, noting that Klingenstein saw parts of the report before it was released. Both Klingenstein and Wood received their undergraduate degrees from Bowdoin’s peer schools; Klingenstein attended Williams, Wood attended Haverford.
An audience of more than 100 people gathered at the University Club, a private social club in New York City, on Wednesday afternoon for a luncheon to mark the release of the report. The event was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think-tank that has advocated against progressive educational policies, including affirmative action. A video of the proceedings is available on the Manhattan Institute's website.
John Leo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, summarized the findings of “The Bowdoin Project” in his opening remarks.
“We now know that the so-called openness that [Bowdoin] preaches is not really open, that it stresses the usual left-wing fare of multiculturalism, diversity, travel, politics and so-forth,” Leo said. “The students have steered away from any concern with our nation, over toward global citizenship.”
Speaking to the audience at the University Club, Wood explained the rationale and methodology of the project.
“This is a campus dominated by a progressive ideology that is rather hostile to American nationhood, and certainly to western civilization,” he said. To illustrate his points, Wood listed names of esoteric classes and criticized the College for issuing “an invitation to sexual revelry among students by putting large bowls of condoms at every floor in every dorm.”
Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, a conservative pundit, fellow at the Claremont Institute, and host of “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America,” spoke at the event along with Klingenstein and Wood. The NAS invited President Mills to the event, but Wood said that Mills declined to attend. Steven Robinson ’11, former president of the College Republicans who invited Klingenstein and Wood to speak at Bowdoin in the spring of 2011, was in attendence.
The NAS hired Revere Advisors, a boutique policy and opinion consulting firm based in Scarsdale, New York, to handle communications and promotion for the project. Revere Advisors purchased advertising in the Orient, and asked the Orient to host a video of the Wednesday’s luncheon on the Orient website.
Reading the report
“The Bowdoin Project” attempts a comprehensive analysis of all elements of life at the College. It takes issue with Bowdoin’s efforts to increase student and faculty diversity, to provide sexual education and resources on campus, and to teach courses with a non-Western point of view.
The report concludes with a summary of its findings: “What does Bowdoin not teach? Intellectual modesty. Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A course on Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course on the American Revolution. The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public speaking. Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture.”
Readers who may be unwilling to wade through the 360 pages and 1157 footnotes may glean the message of the report from Wood’s introductory preface.
“The main qualities of character that Bowdoin emphasizes are matters of will: students are encouraged to do what they wish. Not so surprisingly, what they wish is not necessarily healthy. Just as they cannot educate themselves, they cannot entirely regulate themselves,” Wood writes.
The administration has thus far declined to comment on the report. An official press release responding to “The Bowdoin Project” issued by the College on Wednesday states, “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.”
“This is a report that is based on a documentary record of the College,” said Wood. “The College did everything in its power to thwart in-person interviews....we were necessarily forced to deal with the documentary record, and I think that turned out to be an advantage.” The report relies heavily on articles and surveys from the Orient, as well as documents from Special Collections and transcripts of speeches by College administrators past and present.
Shortly after Toscano and Wood began researching the report in September 2011, Mills sent an email to all faculty members notifying them that the College was not affiliated with the study.
“The College is not participating in this project, nor do we endorse it. As always, you are free to discuss any matter you deem appropriate with whomever you choose. I just wanted you to know that the project is not connected with the College,” Mills wrote.
“It is certainly fair to say that the College did not endorse, participate in, or cooperate with their research, but that’s not unusual—we normally decline to participate in outside ‘studies’ of the College,” wrote Scott Hood, vice president of communications, in an email to the Orient.
The report contains only three interviews with Bowdoin students. Nate Miller ’13, co-leader of the Catholic Student Union; Jamilah Gregory ’11, student leader of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship; and Jennifer Wenz ’12, participant in the Spirituality Circle. Toscano conducted the bulk of the research for the report on campus, contacting “about 100” students, faculty, and administrators for comment. In an interview with the Orient, Toscano said that many community members he spoke to either declined to comment or asked that their remarks remain off the record.
After reading the account of his interview, Nathan Miller requested to have his name and interview removed from the report.
“I don’t feel they misrepresented me,” Miller told the Orient. “I just didn’t realize that this was appearing in the context of academics. I was unclear as to what the intention of the interview was, and that’s my fault and I realize that.”
Toscano interviewed Miller about his opinion on Bowdoin’s diversity and how Catholicism is regarded on campus.
“I am viewed around here as being a reactionary. I feel silenced,” Miller told Toscano in November 2011. Asked if the College’s efforts to increase diversity were successful, Miller replied, “No, real diversity fails at Bowdoin.”
In an interview with the Orient on Thursday, Miller explained that he does not stand by the assertions he made in the interview.
“I, as an eighth-semester Bowdoin student feel much different—I feel like I was being unfair, and I translated religious frustration to what I defined as intellectual diversity, and it wasn’t right of me to do that,” he said.
As news of the report spread late this week, students took to a variety of social media outlets to commen on the report.
Jae Bradley ’13 tweeted, “I’m glad my college offers courses in ‘Pocahontas’—hell of a lot more interesting than my ‘traditional’ high school curriculum,” referring to a first-year seminar taught last fall by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Professor Kelly Fayard.
Nani Durnan ’13 wrote on Facebook, “Feeling pretty sorry for Klingenstein and Wood as they so blindly (and unsuccessfully) fumble for a way to discredit the progress that Bowdoin College and academia in general have made since they graduated in the dark ages... as far as I’m concerned, this is good press.”
Some students, professors and administrators also refrained from commenting on the report on the grounds that they had not yet had a chance to read the 360-page document in full in the 48 hours since its release.
“I have not had the chance to read the report, so I can’t really say,” Professor of Government Paul Franco wrote in an email to the Orient. “Given that the report is funded by a guy who seems to have some sort of weird vendetta again President Mills because of a golf game, and given the highly ideological nature of the organization that wrote the report, I have serious doubts about its objectivity. But I will reserve final judgment until I have read it,”
“My worry about the NAS report is that, for the sake making a predictable point in a now stale culture war, it will render precious institutions like Bowdoin more vulnerable than they already are, feeding the anti-intellectual perception that they do not provide a practical education and therefore aren’t worth the money,” Franco added.
Many believed the NAS painted an unfair picture of Bowdoin and the liberal arts experience.
Tess Chakkalakal, associate professor of Africana Studies and English, defended Bowdoin’s curriculum.
“We’re a place where a lot of collaboration happens. We’re not looking at things through a single lens. The point is to broaden, not narrow, our lens,” she said.
“I’m fine with people critiquing institutions and the whole liberal arts schema, but my problem was” that the report targets only one college, said Quincy Koster ’15. “I don’t think [it’s fair] to evaluate liberal arts schools as a whole by just looking at one rich liberal arts school. It feels a lot like targeting.”
“The connotation that I got from reading it was that there was more of a personal vendetta against Bowdoin,” said David Needell ’15. “It didn’t seem like they got many student opinions. I thought that was a huge fault.”
Matthew Liptrot ’16, however, said he thinks there is some truth to the report.
“They have valid points, there are flaws at Bowdoin,” he said. “The [writers] certainly have a point when they bring up that this place is entirely one sided and not diverse at all.”
“I wasn’t really offended by it because I just thought it was silly,” said Gracie Bensimon ’15. “It was funny to read because I don’t believe much of what it said. But I understand why people are mad.”
“I condemn the spirit of the report in the strongest possible terms. It is a spiteful and partisan attack upon our very way of life and its assault on our educational philosophy should be dismissed as petty and one-sided,” wrote Ryan Holmes ’13, a member of the Meddiebempsters a cappella group, in an email to the Orient.
The report has become a topic of national interest, as several writers for national media outlets, including Bloomberg Views, Real Clear Politics, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, have commented on the story in the last few days.
Just how the report will be recieved on campus willl become more clear as more people have the opportunity familarize themselves with the findings of this report in the coming days.
-Sam Miller and Emma Peters contributed to this report.