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Bowdoin president defends school after report

The president of Bowdoin College responded forcefully Wednesday to a scathing, 360-page critique of the small, selective Maine college released last week by a conservative-leaning higher education advocacy group.

“Let me be clear and direct: The report by the National Association of Scholars is mean-
spirited and personal,” Bowdoin president Barry Mills wrote in a statement posted online at the college and e-mailed to nearly 20,000 alumni and parents of current students. “It exaggerates its claims and misrepresents both what we do at Bowdoin and what we stand for.”

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The response from Mills lagged a week behind the ­report, titled “What Does ­Bowdoin Teach?” The report is being championed by the conservative ­Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

A college spokesman said that officials needed time to ­review the lengthy document but grew concerned as misrepresentations of the school pulled from the report gained traction on talk radio and in the blogosphere this week, prompting some angry calls to college offices from anonymous critics.

The goal of the report, say its authors, was not to single out Bowdoin for criticism but to use the school as an example. Peter Wood — coauthor of the report and president of the National Association of Scholars, a New York-based group best known for advocating race-blind college admissions — said that the organization spent 18 months and more than $100,000 creating “a full, 360-degree picture of what happens at a college . . . to serve as a baseline about what the liberal arts are in this moment in history” and to start a serious conversation about making changes.

But the origins of the report have raised questions about its intent. Its funder, New York money manager Thomas ­Klingenstein, has a contentious history with Mills dating to 2010, when the two men first met on a golf course in Maine.

A few weeks later, Mills briefly described their encounter in a speech at Bowdoin. Without naming Klingenstein, the college president said his golf opponent had told him he would not donate to Bowdoin — or to Williams College, ­Klingenstein’s alma mater, for that matter — because of their “misguided diversity efforts,” a pronouncement Mills said left him with “despair and deep concern.”

Word of the speech got back to Klingenstein, who disputed Mills’s account, which he felt wrongly portrayed him as a racist. He wrote his own essay about their conversation, explain­ing his concerns with the promotion of diversity on campus: “Too much celebration of racial and ethnic difference . . . and not enough celebration of our common American identity.” Published in a conservative journal, his piece attracted the attention of Bowdoin students, who invited him to campus in 2011.

Klingenstein accepted and brought along Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars and author of a book critiquing diversity as a cultural ideal. An anthropologist and former Boston University professor and administrator, Wood said the in-depth study of Bowdoin was his idea, and Klingenstein agreed to pay for the project.

In a letter to alumni ­attached to the report, Klingenstein addressed his motive, given his previous conflict with Mills. “No one likes being portrayed . . . as a racist,” he wrote. “But I responded at the time and that was that.. . . This ­report came about because ­curiosity replaced anger.”

Many of the report’s conclusions echo longstanding criticism of liberal arts schools. The authors find that Bowdoin has too few conservative faculty members and that its culture fosters “closed-mindedness” ­toward conservative views. They see problems in its academic requirements and course offerings; its endorsement of multiculturalism and sustainability initiatives; its “assault on tradition” and “draconian anti-hazing rules,” and its academic demands on students “found to study, on average, a mere 17 hours per week outside the classroom.”

A foreword by William ­Bennett, a former US secretary of Education, goes further: The college “effectively promotes sexual promiscuity,” he writes, and even “fosters . . . a dis­regard for America.”

In his statement, Bowdoin’s president declined to respond to the criticism point by point but directly addressed the characterization of the school as grossly deficient in its American history curriculum. In ­rebuttal, Mills lists seven US history courses offered this year, on topics including the Civil War, Reconstruction, colonial America, and the American West.

Though, as the report points out, Bowdoin history majors are not required to take a course in US history, all 38 history majors who graduated last year took at least one such course, the college said.

“We are not a fragile or in­secure institution, and we will not abide personal attacks and unsubstantiated tirades by those with deep pockets and a personal or political axe to grind,” Mills wrote.

Later Wednesday, Wood ­released a lengthy statement countering Mills’s comments. “We were not moved by vindictiveness, a desire to discredit, or an urge to retrieve a bygone era,” he wrote. “We sought to capture a present reality out of concern for the future. ­Bowdoin would do well to ­embody the spirit of the liberal arts it extols and engage our constructive criticism.”

Wood said the courses cited by Mills only reinforced concerns about the college’s focus on groups in history instead of on political, military, or intellectual concerns.

Around the country, specialists said the uproar at Bowdoin comes amid renewed criticism of the liberal arts. The Council of Independent Colleges, a group of 645 schools, announced plans last fall to launch a public relations campaign to “dispel persistent and false stereotypes about independent colleges” and “develop new language to describe the advantages of a liberal arts education.”

At Bowdoin, the researchers were tolerated, but did not get much help, said Wood, who ­described canceled interviews and curt replies to requests for information. Mills sent an ­e-mail to faculty making clear that the college did not endorse the study, but adding that “as always, you are free to discuss any matter you deem appropriate with whomever you choose.”

As a result, Wood said, the final report relies heavily on documents — course catalogs, minutes of meetings, student newspaper articles — that he said resulted in a stronger report.

On the website of the ­National Association of Scholars, comments from Bowdoin alumni were mixed.

“It’s hard to ... read this report and [not] feel that the authors long for a time when the school was predominantly white males from eastern boarding schools,” wrote Jenny, a graduate. “To that I say, good for Bowdoin. Be everything these authors do not want to be. Because that is the direction I, as an alumna, would like to see you continuing to move in.”

But another graduate glimpsed some truth: “I think we are missing the point. . . . Liberalism, at least as it applies to Bowdoin, has changed. The dropping of the discipline require­ments that were the ­basis of a liberal arts education meant that no longer was a student required to study a varied mix of courses designed to produce a well-rounded product,” he wrote.

Alex Williams, a 2012 graduate of Bowdoin, challenged the study’s criticism of a rally held in 2011 after racist graffiti appeared on a student’s door. Students gathered to make public statements about their diversity, an episode the authors find troubling because speakers emphasized race or ethnicity, not their identities as scientists or mathematicians.

“The white, male authors of the NAS report display a sociopathic capability for removing this event from its immediate context,” Williams notes. “The identities that mattered for this demonstration were precisely the ones targeted by hateful speech.”

Wood said in an interview he plans to respond to any factual errors and defended the “provocation” in his report — which he said is limited to the 40-page preface — as “the price of getting it noticed.”

“If it was only dispassionate commentary,” he said, “it would have had no impact at all.”

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.
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