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Nov. 17, 2010

Vol. 111, No. 4


Lessons learned at Nassau Hall

In a new book, William G. Bowen *58 reflects on his years as Princeton’s president

Published in the November 17, 2010, issue

Courtesy of David Lubarsky

In a life dedicated to higher education, William G. Bowen *58 has served in many capacities: as Princeton’s president from 1972 to 1988; a trustee at his undergraduate alma mater, Denison University; and president of the Mellon Foundation. Now 77, Bowen spoke to Merrell Noden ’78 about his latest book, Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President.

Why this book, and why now?

For many years, people have urged me to make some kind of a record of what I thought I had learned throughout all these years, in and around ­presidents’ offices. ... I kept getting asked for advice on one subject or another. So I finally yielded to these blandishments.  

You became Princeton’s provost in 1967 and then president in 1972. You were in Nassau Hall for many important changes at the University.  

It was a tumultuous period. It was such a complicated period. Of course it was a great learning environment. I was fortunate. I could have been at an institution where nothing much was happening at a time when nothing much was happening. Instead, I was at an institution where everything
was happening.

The event you come back to again and again is the Vietnam War. Why was that such a particularly testing gauntlet for the University to pass through?

It led to a fundamental transformation in the way the University operated because it brought together so many people of different persuasions, different points of view, and it put the focus so clearly on very basic governing issues. And that was what led to the Kelley Committee report, probably the most insightful document anyone has ever written on governance of a research university. Stan Kelley was a genius. He was extraordinarily good at bringing people together, making them think about what they shared.

At one point you write, “Seeking greater inclusiveness is a never-ending task.” Is it really never-ending?

I think there will be different dimensions. One of the dilemmas of American higher education today is that the increasing stratification of talent means that places like Princeton, Harvard, and Williams run the risk of populating themselves with a rather narrow set of folks because those are the people who had the advantages that were necessary for high achievement. It is a true dilemma, because you work so hard to attract the best people, and yet you also want the best people to come from a wide ­variety.  

It’s important that the place be genuinely open, both for reasons of fairness and for reasons of educational quality. You do learn more when you’re surrounded by people who are different from you.  

You admit to being pessimistic about returning college athletics to what you see as its proper place. Do you think your fellow presidents lack the willpower to stand up to sports-mad alumni?

It isn’t that they lack willpower. It’s that the pressures to just stay on the same path are so deeply embedded in our society. Look what happens to students when they are in secondary school — in elementary school! — the focus on specialization, the intensity of it all.

The other reality is that presidents have lots to do, lots of wars to wage and goals to pursue. The question a president has to ask is: Is the game worth the candle? Some things you just put up with even though you wish they were otherwise because to try and change them would cost too much, not in money, but in time and energy, and they distract you from other important things. Was it more important for Princeton to get better in the life sciences than to deal more directly with the athletics situation? No question about it, much more important.

You state again and again that Princeton is very different from other schools, even from other Ivy League schools.

It is. I was concerned that the book would be too ­Princeton-centric, since many of the examples and most of my experiences were at Princeton. But my editor persuaded me otherwise. ... But I must also say that people from a wide range of very different institutions said many of these principles and propositions are really universal. They apply at my community college as well as at a big land-grant university, as well as a liberal-arts college.

Sally Frank '80
Sally Frank '80

Excerpts from Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President


My favorite dissenter was Sally Frank, a member of the Class of 1980, who was best known as a determined opponent of the all-male eating clubs. ... Combating the all-male clubs was by no means her only cause. She was also a zealous advocate of divestment and an opponent of many university policies that she regarded as too “conservative.” But, to her great credit, her dissent was never personal and she always treated her opponents (including the president!) and the university itself with great respect. She was extremely loyal and never failed to show up for reunions and to march with her class in the P-rade. She knew that Princeton was a great university, but she also believed that it could be much better. ... But we should not be Pollyannaish and think (or pretend) that all campus dissenters are such ­generous spirits or as constructive. ­Protestors, like all others, come in many flavors. Especially at the time of Vietnam, some were just angry and destructive ...


Prickly alumni are often valuable in bringing clarity to issues, and they should be taken seriously and treated with respect. ... One particularly ferocious-looking alumnus from the Class of 1912 came marching down the hallway toward me, rapping his cane vigorously on the floor. I thought: “Get ready; here comes an assault on the politics of the faculty or on the handling of student protests.” I could not have been more wrong. The alumnus in question looked me squarely in the eye and said: “Young man (the emphasis was unmistakable), there is just one thing I want you to understand. There is nothing you can do to disaffect me!” That comment was a reminder that many of the most faithful alumni are well aware that presidents come and go, but the institution remains — and deserves support whatever mistakes a particular president makes.

I would do a disservice to readers, however (and especially to prospective presidents of colleges and universities), if I glossed over the sometime need to combat alumni attitudes that can be destructive. During my early days in the president’s office at Princeton, I had to deal with a group called the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) that was pursuing what seemed to many a stridently conservative agenda tinged with opposition to coeducation, and complaints about alleged coddling of student protestors, aggressive recruiting of minority applicants, the presence of faculty with overtly liberal political views, and so on. ... The key to our ultimately successful response to this group was a considered decision not to let them set our agenda. We focused on the issues we thought were really important and said directly that these were the issues we were going to spend serious time on, not issues of lesser consequence that were distractions.


My section of Econ 101 included many able Jewish students. ... As I came to know these students, it became obvious that a number of them, and their Jewish classmates, felt less fully included in the life of the university than should have been the case. The problem was not so much overt discrimination — though I cannot say that there was none of that — as it was an unstated assumption that Jewish students should simply accommodate themselves to all aspects of university life as they found it. Symbols are important, and there was no overlooking the fact that opening exercises and the baccalaureate service were held in a Christian chapel at the “Christian hour” of 11 a.m. on Sunday. Experience taught us that a thoughtful effort to modify such arrangements could pay large dividends.

Fred Fox '39
Fred Fox '39

An irrepressible spirit who somehow managed to make the most surly ­person smile, Fred [the University’s recording secretary and “keeper of Princetoniana”] was a great ambassador to every constituency. He was once prevailed upon to complete — of all things antithetical to his character —

a “position description and analysis form.” ... Fred listed 161 separate functions involving students, faculty, alumni, and friends. Included on his list was “Soothed Yale Professor whose bulldog was stolen by our undergraduates. Petted his dog.”  

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President will be published in December by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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CURRENT ISSUE: Nov. 17, 2010