First female president inaugurated at Bowdoin College


First female president inaugurated at Bowdoin College

New Bowdoin College President Safa Zaki speaks during her inauguration Saturday. At left is former college President Clayton Rose and Scott Perper, chairperson of the board of trustees. Jason Claffey / The Times Record

Bowdoin College on Saturday inaugurated the first woman president in its 229-year history.

Safa Zaki, a cognitive scientist and former dean of faculty at Williams College in Massachusetts, said she is following in the footsteps of other women trailblazers at the liberal arts college, from Marion Holmes, Ruth Yeaton and Marguerite Little, who in 1943 became Bowdoin’s first woman teachers, to Susan Jacobson, who in 1971 became the first woman to graduate from the school.

“I know the work these women and so many other women that I have not named did, and I can only imagine the courage it required,” Zaki said. “The determination and bravery of so many other women, faculty, staff, students and alumni over the years laid the foundation for this moment, which is not mine so much as it is ours.”

Several hundred people, including Gov. Janet Mills, Maine’s first woman governor, attended the ceremony, which was held on the college’s main quad.

“It’s exciting to have the first woman president of Bowdoin, and a woman with such an incredible background,” Mills said.

Zaki, 55, was born in Egypt. She traveled to the U.S. in 1990 to attend Arizona State University, where she earned her master’s degree and doctorate, both in psychology. Her work has focused on how people divide themselves into categories; she has received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health for her research and she has been published in several psychology journals.

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Zaki is Bowdoin’s 16th president and the first born outside the Western Hemisphere.

“Each of us is more than one thing and the different parts of my identity will undoubtedly shape my approach to this role,” she said.

“This is a rare and historic occasion for Bowdoin,” said Scott Perper, chairperson of the Bowdoin College board of trustees. “In Safa Zaki, we have found a leader.”

The school did not release Zaki’s compensation or contract length, saying it does not disclose employees wages beyond the information it provides in annual tax forms. Its forms this year showed outgoing President Clayton Rose earned $503,393 in base compensation and $122,111 in other compensation.

About 1,900 students are enrolled at Bowdoin, which has a $2.4 billion endowment. Nearly 52% of students are women.

In her inaugural address, Zaki defended the value of a liberal arts education and said students should be prepared for a world increasingly shaped by artificial intelligence.

“Americans’ confidence in the value of higher education as a worthwhile investment has eroded of late, despite the evidence we have about its positive impact on people’s lives,” she said. “That investment, I deeply believe, will prove itself worth it in the ways that we build lives full of people and full of meaning and in the ways that we work toward the common good.”

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On artificial intelligence, she said, “AI is here to stay. It’s going to be, or it already is, part of society and a part of educational institutions.

“A different question is whether there are good and useful things that AI will allow us to do in our classrooms and in our research. I know we at Bowdoin, faculty members, and students and staff who are going to figure this out together.”

Abby King, vice chairperson of the Brunswick Town Council, welcomed Zaki to town.

“The town of Brunswick and Bowdoin are irrevocably linked,” King said. “That is not to say that our shared path has always been smooth. The college and town have at times disagreed on a range of topics, from budget allocation to local land use. And yet through clear communication, dedication to our shared values and an authentic appreciation for what each entity brings to the table, a fruitful and valued relationship has endured.

“With this transition comes the opportunity to reactivate Brunswick’s long-standing identity as a community dedicated to humanist values.”


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