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Look to the past for Maine universities of the future

University of Maine

Grappling with the goals and future of a university is nothing new, as former Maine Gov. Joshua Chamberlain made clear in his 1871 inaugural address as the new president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick. As the University of Maine System finds itself in a continual struggle to attract students and revenue, it might be helpful to reach back into history for perspective.

In his 1871 speech, Chamberlain ripped the college as “behind the times,” and laid out unpopular ideas to modernize it: Start a science department, admit women, boost academic rigor, teach German and French and step back from Congregationalism.

His ideas were not new, but they were met with ferocious resistance. Chamberlain may have been pushing the college in the right direction, but progress came incredibly slowly, as Peter Wood and Michael Toscano described in a history of the college. Women weren’t even admitted until exactly 100 years later, in 1971.

As Maine’s universities today eye reforms, they must not, as Chamberlain put it 143 years ago, feel their way “by cautious and imperceptible degrees” and, eventually, “rot above ground.” They must envision the future they want for their students and the state and proceed boldly.

Here is an excerpt from Chamberlain’s speech, available at and used by permission. The punctuation and spacing have been slightly edited for ease of modern reading:

“The college had touched bottom, not so much by the fault of men, as by the fate of things. But how to rise again and how to begin? Young men passed by the college, because they demanded a kind of education she could not give. To meet this exigency, to carry out the wishes of the friends of Bowdoin and the votes of the boards, devolved a labor which I did not err in calling a task. There were two courses of policy. We might confine our efforts chiefly to holding our own, ‘strengthening the things that remain,’ and feel our way by cautious and imperceptible degrees; or we might accept at once the challenge of the time, advance boldly to the key point of the position, and begin in right earnest to entrench, before we had force enough to hold it at all hazards, and even before our supplies had come up.

“This course would have the advantage of cutting off all doubt and debate as to what we were going to do, or whether we were going to do anything. The will would follow close upon the wish, and the way would be made instead of waited for. It would be the track behind us and not the dreaded essay before us. The former and more cautious way would be an easier one for the actors, certainly, and would have the merit of awakening less misgiving on the part of friends, less criticism from enemies, and less notice from anybody.

“But we saw exactly what was to be done: Why not go forward then and commit the college to its position, and make the support of its friends not a thing to be desired but an absolute necessity? This reduced the question to a sharp alternative. Should the college conquer, or should it die? Rejecting totally the middle, or I ought to say the mean question, should it merely live?

“It was an adventurous and possibly a rash decision; that it was an unwise one is not yet proved. We said that in this crisis it would be better to move on, even though it were upon a scale of expenditure that would exhaust our whole capital in a dozen years, and then either die gloriously or be worth saving, than to dwindle along until men began to doubt whether we were worth a decent burial, and left us to rot above ground.”

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