In 1955, as I started my senior year at Princeton, William G. Bowen of Denison University began his graduate work in economics at the University, a chore he finished in record time on his way to becoming a professor — at 31, among the youngest in Princeton history — and soon afterward provost (in 1967) and president (1972-1988). When he retired, the Princeton I knew as an undergraduate had been transformed: It was a coeducational institution, considerably larger; had added residential colleges; and featured an exceptional new academic dimension in the life sciences. During this transformative process, Princeton had weathered the unusual turbulence of the civil-rights era and Vietnam War protests.
I was only slightly aware of developments in Princeton, having moved from my familiar East Coast setting (an M.A. and Ph.D. at Penn, plus a year’s teaching at Lafayette) to California: San Francisco State, where I began teaching in 1963, and the nearby University of California, Berkeley, where I was also briefly in the classroom. Bowen’s lengthy obituary in The New York Times alerted me to how little I probably knew of my alma mater and its leader. Fortunately, the former president left an extensive bibliography that provides an invaluable guide to how he governed Princeton and, more importantly, what he perceived to be major issues in higher education in the United States.
In Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President (2010) and Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education (2015), Bowen pursued the theme of shared governance, emphasizing the importance of in-place structure and process as well as the active roles of trustees, the administrative team, and the faculty. Although his attitude toward the persons he worked with was quite positive, he eventually wondered whether the century-old system of governance was adequate to deal with contemporary issues facing higher education: broadening student access to college, achieving better learning outcomes (not only in quality but measured by completion rate and time-to-degree), and cost.
His sensitivity to quality is evident in Ever the Teacher (1988), a volume of his writings as president that, among many topics, offers a long essay on liberal education at Princeton and caused me to reflect on how my own mind was altered at the University. Additionally, his concern, ranging far beyond Princeton, with how efficiently and productively students were working is captured in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (2009).
Bowen’s social origins (he was the first member of his family to attend college) and his timing (he entered when the ranks of higher education were swelling) may have shielded him from insularity. He certainly was aided by the possession of a first-rate mind, a pragmatic temperament (allowing him to break from institutional traditions, much as he valued them), and an ability to find and draw upon talented colleagues, not only as an administrator but in his books, many of which are jointly authored.
He had no doubt that the quality of higher education was not diluted but improved by tapping into the whole pool of American high school talent and creating a college learning environment composed of students from many backgrounds, as he made clear in Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005), though he lamented that top universities were neglecting low-income applicants and remaining “bastions of privilege” rather than “engines of opportunity.” And he was dismayed by the fact that less than two-thirds of students matriculating in four-year colleges were graduating — or “crossing the finish line” — and even then often taking excessive time to do so.
This was particularly true of students from poor and minority families, a fact established by the most thorough examination of the national class entering in 1999, viewing parental education and family income, high school grades and test scores, race and gender, financial aid, and the characteristics of their colleges (21 flagship public universities and four statewide systems of public higher education).
Already Bowen and Derek Bok, retired president of Harvard, had published The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (1998), a study based (unlike Crossing) on the histories of 45,000 students of all races between the 1970s and 1990s in 28 selective liberal-arts and research universities. Bowen and Bok cautioned both critics and defenders of affirmative action that like Mark Twain’s Mississippi, where pilots had to know every aspect of the river to navigate it, understanding race in higher education demanded a multi-dimensional examination. Among their conclusions were that minority students were not outdistanced by whites with higher SAT admission scores; that they reported great satisfaction with their college experiences; and that they took graduate and professional degrees, became doctors, lawyers, and business executives, and participated widely in civic life.
Bowen was a notable collegiate tennis player at Denison, and his already-mentioned concerns with the quality of education and accelerating costs of maintaining a college are underlined by two books focused on sports: The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001) and Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (2003), an analysis of data on 90,000 students at 30 selective institutions in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. Recruiting athletes, supporting their programs, and updating facilities proved not only financially but academically costly, especially as the athletics culture changed with the emulation of professional teams and the added burden of women’s teams through Title IX.
Over and again the burgeoning costs of supporting colleges intruded on Bowen’s narrative, a partial solution to which he located in technological innovation for the classroom, as discussed in Higher Education in the Digital Age (2013). In the same vein, he played a major role in bringing 10,000 educational institutions around the world to JSTOR, a digital archive of back issues of scholarly journals that libraries needed not now store as bound volumes. He also helped in starting ARTstor, which allows educators access to museum image collections.
From 1988 to 2006, Bowen headed the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a nonprofit institution established in 1969 to strengthen and promote the contributions of humanities and the arts through the support of institutions of higher education. With him at Princeton as provost and later at Mellon (before he became president of Harvard) was my classmate Neil Rudenstine ’56, who observed about his mentor that Bowen exhibited “considerable courage to take risks and to make hard decisions when they had to be made unflinchingly ... [and that] went with an instinctive understanding and an unerring judgment about how institutions work.” Together these two men published In Pursuit of the PhD (1992), a volume aimed at improving the effectiveness of graduate programs, “the soft underbelly of the research university” in their words.
Not surprisingly, Bowen’s presence was sought on the boards of corporations (American Express, Enron, Merck, WorldCom) and other entities (Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution, TIAA-CREF). This experience can be witnessed in Inside the Boardroom: Governance by Directors and Trustees (1994) and The Board Book: An Insider’s Guide for Directors and Trustees (2008). And in his late years he published a gemlike and most timely summary of his thinking in Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (2014). He was still writing vigorously when his death came in 2016 — too soon, but the legacy is enormous.
Princeton’s current president, Christopher Eisgruber ’83, recalled: “Bill was always ready to offer counsel about the toughest issues facing higher education, and he did so with a combination of knowledge, insight, generosity and wit that will be missed by all who knew him. I owe Bill a great debt, as do many others who passed through this university that he loved so dearly.” The Mellon Foundation observed: “Bill made an astounding array of contributions to the way that we understand and improve higher education in this country. He did so with infectious enthusiasm and exceptional intelligence that made working with Bill — because he never saw others as working for him — a great joy and inspiration.” President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal.