As a pair of recent Bowdoin College graduates make international headlines — one accused of espionage in Russia and the other a lawmaker ousted for voicing support for protesters — the school is reflecting on its role in society.

“Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education,” Joseph McKeen said during the college’s inaugural address on Sept. 2, 1802. “Every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education and to qualify himself for usefulness is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.”

More than two centuries later, two graduates recently showed the world how they embody that ideal, according to the college’s current president.

Wall Street Journal reporter and Bowdoin College graduate Evan Gershkovich was detained by Russian authorities. Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

On March 29, Wall Street Journal reporter and 2014 Bowdoin graduate Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia and accused of spying. The Journal said Gershkovich was on a reporting trip and denied he was engaged in espionage. President Joe Biden demanded he be released.

The next day, Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, a 2017 Bowdoin graduate, led a protest in House chambers demanding his colleagues enact gun control measures in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. A week later, the House voted Pearson out of office, saying he violated decorum rules.

Gershkovich and Pearson displayed bravery by taking massive risks in the name of the common good, according to Bowdoin President Clayton Rose.


“Both of them have had to put at stake things all of us take for granted,” Rose said. “I’m incredibly proud of both of them.”

Gershkovich faces a 20-year prison sentence in a country where 99% of criminal cases end in a conviction. A colleague said Gershkovich is a dogged reporter who didn’t shy away from taking on tough assignments. The Journal said Gershkovich was doing important work in Russia; the newspaper said he was the only American reporter to witness the evacuation of the first injured Russian troops during the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. In July 2021, he slept in a tent for four days in Siberia to cover the plight of exhausted firefighters battling a massive forest fire, the newspaper said.

APTOPIX Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion

Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises his fists on the floor of the House chamber to recognize his supporters before the start of the legislative session on April 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Pearson was expelled from the House for using a bullhorn to shout support for pro-gun control protesters in the House chamber. George Walker IV / Associated Press

Pearson and fellow Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville, both Black lawmakers, were voted out of office for leading the gun control protest. Jones was reinstated Monday and Pearson is expected to be reappointed Wednesday. A third lawmaker who participated in the protest, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, survived her expulsion vote. Johnson, who is white, said the different results were based on race.

“I think it’s pretty clear,” Johnson said in an interview with CNN. “I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young, Black men.”

Rose said Gershkovich and Pearson are similar in that they believe in causes bigger than themselves.

“In Evan’s case, it was the pursuit of truth and living the democratic value of a free press in a country that doesn’t respect all of that,” Rose said. “In Justin’s case, it was about imploring his colleagues in the Tennessee House to engage and then take action in a substantive and real way to begin to end the murders of innocent children and adults.”


The time Gershkovich and Pearson spent at Bowdoin helped shape their career paths. Gershkovich took Russian classes and wrote for The Bowdoin Orient student newspaper, while Pearson earned a public policy fellowship.

“What the college does more than anything else is provide the opportunity for an enormous variety of different kinds of people to find themselves and to find out where they want to make a mark in the world,” Rose said. “(Gershkovich and Pearson) were here at Bowdoin for a reason and I think Bowdoin provides that opportunity.

“I see them as role models for everyone in the Bowdoin community, for all of us. … They represent what is possible.”

Rose said Bowdoin students and graduates have long been engaged with critical issues in America, going back to Joshua Chamberlain, the 1852 graduate who served as a brigadier general for the Union during the Civil War and earned the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1964, students invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at Bowdoin during a time of racial upheaval. And the school counts diplomat Tom Pickering, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen among its alumni.

“These are example of individuals who have dedicated themselves,” Rose said. “(Gershkovich) and (Pearson) join a long line.”

Rose is hopeful Gershkovich and Pearson can rise out of their predicaments. Legal experts said Gershkovich could be freed in a prisoner exchange; Pearson said he will run again for his seat. It would allow them to continue doing the work that Rose said benefits the common good.

“The idea is that those of us who are privileged enough to receive a Bowdoin education … have an obligation to give back in one form or another,” Rose said. “We have an obligation to something that is bigger than yourself.”

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