CLAYTON S. ROSE, the 15th president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, took the reins in 2015.

CLAYTON S. ROSE, the 15th president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, took the reins in 2015.

First of two-part interview

Bowdoin College President Clayton S. Rose has been on the job for just over a year. At a Brunswick Downtown Association function last year, the newcomer Rose said the connection between the college and the community is so close, it’s hard to find a line that divides it. A year later, Rose still sees that strong bond.

Despite that bond, there is no such thing as a perfect community and Rose has had to deal with racial and sexist sniping from a few in town and challenge his students to be “intellectually fearless.” In this first part of our two-part interview, Rose speaks with The Times Record on the college’s place in the community, having students embrace discomfort and the challenge of socioeconomic equality.

The Times Record: Can you give us an idea regarding Bowdoin College’s place in the broader Brunswick community?

Clayton Rose: The short, sweet version of that is that Brunswick and Bowdoin are deeply intertwined in all kinds of wonderful ways. Bowdoin would not be Bowdoin without Brunswick. The people in particular in town are an amazing and important part of the experience that our students have here. Brunswick and Midcoast Maine are an amazing part of the experience that our students have here as well.

So, we see ourselves, and I see the college as being incredibly fortunate to be in Brunswick, not simply because of the physical beauty and being part of Maine but part of the community that is here. It’s a really unique community that’s incredibly warm and welcoming and deeply interested in the college and in our students. It’s a place where the faculty and staff — many of them are part of that community.

We’re all mixed up with each other in a wonderful way.

TR: It seems that many college towns have challenges with the school that’s within them and vice versa. I’m wondering if you could tell us what the school’s doing to best integrate itself into the community and to have a smooth relationship?

CR: There isn’t one thing that the school does at any moment in time.

I think the first thing to acknowledge is this is something that’s been going on for a very long time. This relationship essentially has existed since the beginning of the college. The two, while they’re distinct entities in some ways, we have shared existence and history and development over a really long period of time.

The second is that this all works because the folks who live in Brunswick are deeply interested in the college and, most importantly I think, in our students. They love our students. Our students love the folks that live in town. So many people are host families — so many show up on campus.

Our students are regular members of the consuming community downtown and so forth. And it’s a day-to-day thing about the wonderful personalities that exist between the two groups which make them really one group and I think that’s been going on — it’s a fact, it’s been going on for a really long time.

I can’t tell you why that may be different in other places. I think some of it has to do really with personality. The personalities of the folks in Brunswick and the personalities of our students and they’re really good groups of people.

TR: In a time of safe spaces and triggers, at the beginning of the year you addressed your incoming freshmen about embracing discomfort. Have you seen anything come of that for the better or worse?

CR: I talked to the students at the welcome steps about the fundamental challenge they have of being intellectually fearless.

I think the most interesting and heartening part of that for me was the reaction I got from students. Both first-year students that were in the audience, but also our upper-class students who were on campus, and some who had seen it or read about it but were on campus as part of the residence staff and orientation. How valuable they found those words and that encouragement and license to engage with one another in a respectful and thoughtful way, but about the really tough, challenging issues.

I was really pleased to see that and we’ve seen our students and the rest of our community, but in particular, our students just since the beginning of the year really embrace this and engage in a lot of really interesting discussions in a lot of different forums here about very difficult topics that I would argue are rarely talked about and certainly rarely talked about in that kind of respectful way anywhere else in America — it’s really great.

TR: There have been some concerns in the community before about sexist, racist comments. Have you seen a rise or a fall in those occurrences and ultimately, what’s the answer?

CR: When any of these instances happen it’s deeply offensive, deeply troubling — but not just for those of us on the campus but for the Brunswick community as well.

I know that from the conversations I’ve had with the town leaders and other members of our community, the BDA and folks. Everyone takes this to heart and we’ve thought about it — the Human Rights Task Force has done some work in this.

What we might do as a town, and these are really tough issues because we’re really talking about a handful of individuals who do not represent in any way, the values that Brunswick has, the values that we have at Bowdoin and they’re really outliers.

They express themselves in ways that are very ugly. They’re really hurtful to the extent that if we can identify them and engage with them — that may be helpful. That’s been hard to do because they exit the scene very quickly, which speaks to their lack of personal courage.

I think more than anything else for us it’s about understanding that these things happen in our society, occasionally. There are very occasional occurrences here.

They aren’t acceptable when they do happen and we have to rally around each other as we have as a community — Brunswick as a broader community and Bowdoin as a campus and support each other and recognize that these are rare occurrences that don’t represent the town or the college.

I don’t know of any occurrence that I’ve heard about since the summer. When any one of these things comes up, I’m deeply engaged in it. I think we have to be prepared. It’s gone on for a long time and we’re in a particular place in our history right now as a country where it’s kind of an encouragement for some of that.

TR: Do you think that socioeconomic class, or perceived class structure, has something to do with those incidents?

CR: The short answer is I don’t know because I’ve never had a conversation with anyone who was at the delivering end of those sort of things. But I think you can look at society more generally and look at some of the real challenges that come with increasing income and equality in our country and understand that there’s frustration on the part of a significant block of people with their economic opportunities.

None of that is an excuse for blaming other people and particularly targeting specific groups of people by gender or race or ethnicity as the root of their problem. The challenge of socioeconomic equality and the lack of opportunity for groups of people is a real phenomenon, one that needs to be addressed and dealt with and acknowledged.

NEXT, Rose speaks the benefits of a liberal arts education, the humanities and the challenges of integrating a diverse student body. Look for Part II of the interview in Monday’s Times Record.

[email protected]timesrecord.com


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