October 27, 2016

Princeton President William Bowen Dies


William G. Bowen, who died last Thursday at his home in Princeton at the age of 83, not only shaped Princeton University, where he served as an economics professor, provost, then president for 15 years, but also the world of U.S. higher education, which he wrote about and influenced significantly throughout his long, productive career.

Mr. Bowen was Princeton University’s 17th president during an often tumultuous period from 1972 to 1988, overseeing the first admission of women and major expansions in academics. From Princeton he moved to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where he served as president from 1988 to 2006, leading its support for the humanities, undergraduate and graduate education, the arts, and culture. 

“Bill made an astounding array of contributions to the way that we understand and improve higher education in this country,” the Mellon Foundation noted in a tribute to Mr. Bowen. “He did so with infectious enthusiasm and exceptional intelligence.”

As Princeton president, Mr. Bowen led the university through years of steady academic growth. In part on the strength of a five-year, $410.5 million capital campaign (original goal: $275 million), he was able to enrich the arts and humanities and enlarge the faculty, while expanding Firestone Library, doubling the art museum’s capacity, and strengthening the University’s standing in life sciences and computer science.

Besides being a staunch advocate for coeducation at Princeton, Mr. Bowen sought to recruit more minority students and to change the longstanding dominance of all-male eating clubs on the social scene by introducing a residential college system for undergraduates.

Perhaps the most influential of more than 20 books he authored or
co-authored, Mr. Bowen’s The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admission (1998), written with former Harvard president Derek Bok, has shaped much of the nation’s thinking on affirmative action in college admissions.

Based on data on thousands of students of different races and concluding that race-conscious admission policies are effective, The Shape of the River has had far-reaching impact — from college admissions offices to the Supreme Court — where it has been cited frequently in rulings that support affirmative action.

Other issues that Mr. Bowen focused on at the Mellon Foundation and brought to the attention of the world of higher education through his books include the impact of athletic departments on college education, graduation rates, the rising costs of education and the power of digital technologies.

Mr. Bowen was born in 1933 in Cincinnati. The first member of his family to go to college, he graduated from Denison University in Granville, Ohio in 1955. He went on to Princeton University, where he earned his doctorate in economics in only three years and joined the Princeton faculty in 1958. He began a five-year term as provost in 1967 under Robert Goheen, and at the age of 38 succeeded Mr. Goheen as president in 1972.

He held a joint appointment as professor in the Economics Department and in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and continued to teach a section of introductory economics even after becoming University president. He was often seen wearing tennis shoes and riding around campus on his bicycle.

“Bill Bowen was a true giant of higher education,” said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber, as quoted on the University website. “First as provost then as president of Princeton, he enhanced this university’s research profile, diversified its student body, and added to its resources. He was a formidable leader, conversant and engaged with every aspect of Princeton’s operations, unflinching in his commitment to excellence, and fiercely devoted to this University’s defining values. Bill touched every corner of this great University, and his prodigious energy and intellect have benefited generations of Princetonians …. I owe Bill a great debt, as do many others who passed through this University that he loved so dearly.”

Mr. Bowen is survived by his wife Mary Ellen of Princeton; a son David Bowen of Scarsdale, New York; a daughter Karen Bowen-Imhof of Antwerp, Belgium; and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 1:30 p.m., Sunday, December 11 in the Princeton University Chapel. In lieu of flowers the family has suggested contributions to the Sir W. Arthur Lewis Fund at Princeton, which provides support for graduate students.