Barry Mills

Maine Impact

Barry Mills ’79 is just as comfortable driving educational innovation at Bowdoin College as he is blogging on the school’s widely read website

By Sam Shaw

Fall 2010

In 2000, when Barry Mills ’79 signed on to chair the search committee tasked with finding a new president of his alma mater, Bowdoin College, he had no inkling that he would be drafted to fill the role himself. “In fact, we all made a pledge that nobody [on the committee] wanted the job,” he recalls. At the time, he enjoyed a thriving practice at Debevoise & Plimpton, where he was deputy presiding partner. His wife was working at a private equity fund in Manhattan, and his three sons were happily ensconced at Trinity School on the Upper West Side. “And we were in serious negotiations with some people who are important college presidents today,” he says. So when peers on the committee invited him to throw his hat into the ring, Mills declined. When they returned a few months later to press their case, he sat down and talked it over with his wife. Looking back on that crossroads 10 years later, he quotes the advice of a Debevoise colleague: “When the cookies are passed, you take one.”

Mills was inaugurated as Bowdoin’s 14th president in the fall of 2001. A natural polymath with seemingly boundless energy and a generous sense of humor, he is equally at home among high-level donors and the students who drop in for his weekly office hours. “I sort of feel like the Max Bialystock of college presidents,” he jokes, “because I sell huge portions of my time to different parts of the job.”

But unlike Mel Brooks’ leading man, Mills believes passionately in his production. Over the course of his tenure, he has strengthened Bowdoin’s commitment to diversity and financial aid, eliminated student loans in favor of grants, built arts facilities and sports centers, and spearheaded a major curriculum overhaul. In 2006, he announced a five-year, $250 million capital campaign—the largest fund drive in the history of the state of Maine. Not only did he meet that goal two years ahead of schedule, he exceeded it by $43 million. His prudent stewardship has enabled the school to expand its academic offerings and even hire new faculty during a recession that has other colleges slashing programs. He cheers on the Bowdoin Polar Bears at sporting events and contributes a weekly column to the Bowdoin blog. (In a recent post, he confessed to being a Yankees fan.)

Mills entered the job with no executive or fundraising experience. “It was a little bit like jumping off a cliff,” he says. And in a certain sense, he has made a career as a cliff diver. After graduating from Bowdoin in 1972, Mills spent four years at Syracuse University, where he earned a Ph.D. in biology and a firsthand perspective on the challenges of teaching. (“I studied ion transport,” he explains, miming cellular mitosis with enthusiastic hand gestures. “How potassium and sodium and calcium get across cell membranes.”) He left Syracuse for Columbia Law School and then joined Debevoise & Plimpton in 1979—a time, he says, when the practice of law was less specialized. Mills, unsurprisingly, thrived on the eclectic challenges he found there. “I did many, many different kinds of deals,” he recollects. “I did office leases, leveraged buyouts, IPOs, and mergers and acquisitions.”

His eagerness to tackle varied intellectual problems may be his secret weapon as a college president. “Some people might say I have a very short attention span,” he admits with a laugh. But his wide-ranging career makes a strong argument for the value of a liberal arts education. As he approaches the 10th year of his presidency, Mills is committed to offering just such a diverse academic experience to an increasingly diverse student body. His hope is to produce graduates who are “confident, inquisitive, and, to some extent, fearless in their ability to take on and learn new things”—unflinching, that is, at the edge of life’s cliffs.

Sam Shaw is a New York–based writer who contributes to Harper’s and other publications.

Photographed by Peter Freed