July 17, 2013

Journey “Full of Adventure, Full of Discovery” Leads Bowen to National Humanities Medal

In the epilogue to his 2011 book Lessons Learned, former Princeton University President William G. Bowen, who was awarded a National Humanities Medal last week, quotes Greek poet C.F. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka,” to make a point about the way academic institutions help students and faculty see education as a “‘long journey,’ enormously consequential in its own right.”

Had it not been interrupted by illness, his own journey, “full of adventure, full of discovery,” would have taken the 79-year-old Bowen all the way to the White House July 10. David Bowen accepted the medal from President Obama on behalf of his father, who is said to be doing well now and looking forward to new projects. Princeton’s new President Christopher L. Eisgruber called Mr. Bowen “one of the great figures in American higher education” whose “legendary leadership of this University simultaneously elevated Princeton’s stature and strengthened its core values.” Other Princetonians receiving the Medal are former faculty member and historian Natalie Zemon Davis and sportswriter Frank Deford ’61.

Mr. Bowen has a special relationship with Cavafy’s poem and its “many a summer morning when/with what -pleasure, what joy,/you come into the harbors seen for the first time.” At Opening Exercises in the University Chapel, September 14, 1981, then-President Bowen read his faculty colleague Edmund Keeley’s translation of “Ithaka” in full, emphasizing the poem’s relevance “for the beginning of the academic year — and especially for those of you who are freshmen.” First-Lady-to-be Michelle Robinson ’85 was presumably among the students beginning “an entirely new journey” that day. The poem, Mr. Bowen went on to say, “reminds us of the need to have destinations in mind so that we do not simply wander aimlessly — so that we have at least some general sense of why we are here. Each of us is left, however, to determine his or her own Ithaka, which is as it should be.”

Mr. Bowen’s Ithaka is higher education. No wonder, then, that Cavafy’s poem surfaced again when his journey took him from Princeton to the presidency of the Mellon Foundation (1988-2006), where, according to the Mellon website, “his special interest in the application of information technology to scholarship led to a range of initiatives, including the Foundation-sponsored creation of JSTOR (a searchable electronic archive of the full runs of core journals in many fields), ARTstor (a repository of high-quality digitized works of art and related materials for teaching and research), and the destination to which the others lead, ITHAKA. After stating its mission, to help “the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways,” the website presents Cavafy’s poem in full under the heading, “Our Inspiration.”

Editor to Author

“Ithaka is a metaphor that means something very special to him,” says Mr. Bowen’s longtime friend and editor, Princeton University Press Director Peter Dougherty, who credits him for “singlehandedly” helping create the Press’s outstanding list of books on higher education: “He sees it as the vanguard, the leading edge.” Referring to his author’s “laser-like attention” to the subject, Mr. Dougherty describes him as a “very clear writer, and an extraordinary organizer of people who have worked with him. He knows what questions to ask and how to ask them, and he’s good at pulling together all this energy toward answering those questions.”

The NEH makes special mention of the book coauthored with former Harvard president Derek Bok The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton 2000), which Mr. Dougherty says “cemented” his editor-author relationship with Mr. Bowen. Described as “a landmark in the national debate over affirmative action,” the book’s “overall conclusion is that race-sensitive admissions policies are effective and deserve the support of society.”

In addition to The Shape of the River and Lessons Learned, subtitled Reflections of a University President (2011), some recent Princeton University Press titles among the 20 books Mr. Bowen has written or co-written, include Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (2009), Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values (2005) and this year’s Higher Education in the Digital Age, which focuses on the economic challenges facing higher education and how technology might help address them. Fittingly, this most recent post from Mr. Bowen’s “long consequential journey” was co-published with “the online scholarly project incubator” (in Peter Dougherty’s words) named for Cavafy’s “Ithaka.”

Born in Cincinnati, Mr. Bowen completed his college degree at Denison University in Granville, Ohio in 1955 and earned his PhD in economics at Princeton only three years later. He joined the Princeton faculty as a labor economist, becoming a full professor in 1965. In 1967, he was appointed provost, helping President Robert Goheen oversee the University’s transition to coeducation. In 1972, the year Sonia Sotomayor arrived as a freshman, he became, at 38, the University’s president. How he dealt with the challenges of that tumultuous time is described in Lessons Learned.

On that September morning in 1981, Mr. Bowen ended his evocation of “Ithaka,” his “text for the day,” with reference to the “harbors” of Princeton and the “encountering of a new idea, wrestling with it, turning it over in your mind, testing your comprehension of it — and, finally, if you are fortunate, coming to understand it and to appreciate its beauty. But you have to be open to such experiences; no one can force them on you. Don’t miss, please, the pleasure, the joy of learning.”