Many academics were dismayed at the performance of the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn before Congress in December. The Stanford president also had issues that caused him to resign last year. These events prompted me to order and read The Human Nature of a University by Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48 and Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President by William G. Bowen *58.

President Goheen’s book is a distillation of his speeches, reports, and other papers and was published in 1969. This compendium is filled with his acquired wisdom. It came as no surprise to me, nor will it to many others, that early in this volume, referring to the challenges facing a university, the classicist Goheen recalls that, “Heraclitus’ favorite images were the bow and the lyre. The tension of the bow, the strain put on its opposite ends gives the arrow force to carry firmly to a mark. In playing of a lyre, harmony results only where there is contrast — where there is interplay among tones at variance with one another.” In his concluding paragraph, Goheen reminds the reader, “Nevertheless, born as it is of our society, the American university must not surrender its role as foregazer and critic — as searching mind and probing conscience — of that society.”

Almost a half century later, in 2011, another Princeton president, William G. Bowen, published his reflections on university leadership. With an insight similar to Goheen, Bowen recalls the words of E.M. Forster, who applied the words of the Greek poet Cavafy to describe the role of a university in society to be “at a  slight angle to the universe.” President Bowen follows this introduction with a cogent analysis of the challenges he faced as Princeton president and concludes, “Failings and shortcomings notwithstanding, we do well to protect and strengthen these venerable institutions that have nurtured and inspired us over the centuries.”

Leadership is integral to the success of countries, corporations, hospitals, and universities. These books by Goheen and Bowen should not only be read by university presidents seeking guidance, but by all academics in leadership positions. As Princetonians, we are the direct beneficiaries of the collective leadership of presidents Goheen, Bowen, and others who have led our university so successfully through turbulent times and continue to ensure it remains, “the best damn place of all.”

Editor’s note: The writer is a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School.