William G. Bowen, 17th president of Princeton University, dies at age 83

Oct. 21, 2016

William G. Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 and a leader in higher education for more than half a century, died Thursday, Oct. 20, at age 83. A University-commissioned portrait of Bowen by Everett Raymond Kinstler, shown above, hangs in the Nassau Hall Faculty Room.    Everett Raymond Kinstler, American, born 1926; William G. Bowen (b. 1933), Ph.D. 1958, President (1972–88), 1976; Oil on canvas; 114.5 x 90 cm; Princeton University, commissioned by the Trustees (PP564); © Everett Raymond KinstlerWilliam G. Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 and a leader in higher education for more than half a century, died Thursday, Oct. 20, at his home in Princeton. He was 83.

Bowen was 38 when he was installed in office in 1972 as Princeton's 17th president, succeeding Robert F. Goheen. A professor of economics and public affairs, Bowen worked energetically to build the University's academic reputation — creating new departments, emphasizing the arts and life sciences, and attracting first-rate professors — while tripling the size of the endowment. He also continued Goheen's efforts to diversify the student body and oversaw the establishment of the residential college system.

Said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber: "Bill Bowen was a true giant of higher education. First as provost and 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.

"When Bill left the presidency, he expanded his sphere of influence still further, writing a series of landmark books about higher education distinguished by their intellectual vigor, boldly chosen topics and genuine impact. Several deserve to be considered classics of the field. 'The Shape of the River,' which he co-authored with Derek Bok, may be the most important book ever written about the value of affirmative action in collegiate admissions.

"Bill was ever the teacher, and he mentored large numbers of scholars, policy experts and higher education leaders. I feel fortunate to have been in that group. 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."

After retiring from Princeton, Bowen served as the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for nearly two decades. He wrote a number of acclaimed books about higher education, including a groundbreaking work on race and admissions policies. He also collected numerous honors, including a 2012 National Humanities Medal for his work in economics and higher education.

Bowen, shown here in 1963 as an associate professor, spent the early parts of his career studying labor economics, the economics of education, the economics of the performing arts and the problems of stability and growth. (Photo courtesy of the Princeton University Archives)


Bowen was born on Oct. 6, 1933, in Cincinnati, where he remained through high school. While attending Denison University, Bowen was Phi Beta Kappa, co-chairman of the student government and Ohio Conference tennis champion. In 1955, he graduated with a bachelor of arts in economics. 

Bowen's years at Princeton began that same year when he arrived as a doctoral candidate in economics. He received his Ph.D. in 1958 and then joined the faculty. Studying labor economics, the economics of education, the economics of the performing arts and the problems of stability and growth, he quickly advanced from an assistant to associate to full professor. 

As a professor of economics and public affairs, he held a joint appointment in the Department of Economics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He continued to teach even after becoming the University president, leading a section of the introductory course "Economics 101." 

He published many books and reports during his time on the faculty, including "Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma," a landmark study of the economics of culture co-authored with fellow Princeton economist William Baumol in 1966.

In 1967, Bowen began a five-year term as provost, serving as a deputy to Goheen, planning and overseeing the move to coeducation and outreach efforts toward underrepresented students, expanding financial aid and working to form the Priorities Committee, a committee of faculty, students and staff that serves as the mechanism for recommending fiscal and programmatic priorities.

Bowen, shown here when he was provost, describes the investigation and deliberations surrounding the issue of coeducation, and then the rapid implementation of a plan once the decision was made in 1969. From left, Bowen was at a logistics meeting on admitting women with Trustee James Oates Jr., President Robert F. Goheen and Financial Vice President and Treasurer Ricardo Mestres. (Photo courtesy of Princeton University Archives)


In 1972, he became president. His installation remarks described the University's ideals in terms that still ring true: "We are now, as we have long been, a center of learning — a place to which new students, with new enthusiasms and new perspectives, come again each year to work with scholars who are engaged in the age-old pursuit of knowledge. It is our conviction that in this process of learning and of discovery much more is gained than command of disciplines and intellectual power … The fostering of personal values, a sense of continuing obligation to others — these too are part of the idea of this University."

In his 15 years in office, Bowen exhibited boundless energy and attention to detail. In addition to handling University matters, teaching, fundraising and trips to testify before Congress or travel overseas, he found time to play tennis and squash.

Bowen presided over the creation of the residential college system, a 63 percent growth in the size of the faculty, the establishment of 46 endowed professorships and the construction of five new buildings. He also oversaw the creation of the departments of comparative literature, molecular biology, computer science and electrical engineering, as well as the programs in women's studies, applied and computational mathematics, population studies and the ancient world.


The arts also flourished with his encouragement — academic programs in the creative arts were expanded, and Alexander Hall (home of Richardson Auditorium), the Princeton University Art Museum and 185 Nassau St. (now home to the Lewis Center for the Arts) were expanded or renovated.

In the course of a major investment in the life sciences, the University built Lewis Thomas Laboratory and recruited a number of stellar faculty members, including molecular biologist Shirley M. Tilghman, who became the University's 19th president in 2001.

Bowen also excelled in his roles as a financial officer and fundraiser. The Princeton University Investment Company, which manages the University's endowment accounts, was established, and the endowment grew from $625 million to $2 billion during Bowen's tenure. A major fundraising drive, "Campaign for Princeton," exceeded its goal of $275 million, eventually bringing in $410.5 million in five years. The reports he wrote on managing the needs of the university in an age of financial restraint were circulated widely by the American Council on Education.

At Alumni Day in 1976, Bowen (from right) stands with Pyne Prize winners Sonia Sotomayor and J. David Germany; Eric Lander, Freshman First Honor Prize winner; and University Trustee R. Manning Brown. (Photo courtesy of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, March 8, 1976)


Bowen announced his resignation in 1987, citing his 20 years in Nassau Hall and the need for new and fresh perspectives in charting the University's path. He looked upon his time at Princeton as challenging and exceedingly rewarding.

"It was at Princeton, as a graduate student, that I came to appreciate the excitement, the pure joy, of scholarship — the special pleasure to be derived from new ideas. Later, I learned how satisfying it could be to work hard for causes in which I believe so deeply, in company with colleagues of extraordinary ability and dedication," he said at the time. "And it is here that I have formed the friendships of a lifetime."

One of those friends was 1958 Princeton alumnus and trustee Gordon Wu. In 1993, a new building for materials science and engineering research on Prospect Avenue was named in Bowen's honor as requested by Wu, Bowen Hall's major donor.

After leaving Princeton, Bowen continued to be involved in academia. From 1988 to 2006, he served as the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. At the foundation, he created several important new programs, such as an in-house research program to study doctoral education, collegiate admissions, independent research libraries and charitable nonprofits, thereby improving the organization's ability to award grants in those areas. Under his leadership, the foundation also sponsored the creation of the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, the JSTOR electronic archive of academic journals and the ARTstor digital database of art works. 

"President Bill Bowen was an extraordinary leader at Princeton and in the broader higher education community for over 50 years," said President Emerita Shirley M. Tilghman, who led the University from 2001 to 2013 and is a Princeton professor of molecular biology and public affairs. "His enduring commitment to excellence in teaching and research and to access for all students drove his work at Princeton as well as his leadership of the Mellon Foundation. He leaves a remarkable legacy for Princeton to build upon."

Bowen continued to carry out work related to the impact of technology and higher education through his association with ITHAKA, which provides services to the academic community centered on digital technologies, and which he co-founded in 2004 with Kevin Guthrie, a member of Princeton's Class of 1984.

Princeton presidents Harold T. Shapiro (1988-2001), Christopher L. Eisgruber (2013-present), Shirley M. Tilghman (2001-2013) and William G. Bowen (1972-1988) gather before Eisgruber's installation as president in 2013. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)


Bowen has published widely on higher education and is the author or co-author of more than 20 books. Earlier this year, he co-authored, with Michael McPherson, a book called "Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education." His 2013 book "Higher Education in a Digital Age" focuses on the economic challenges facing higher education and how technology might help address them. 

His 2011 book, "Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President," draws upon his leadership of Princeton and offers insights into the challenges that almost every college or university president faces — from cultivating relationships with trustees and recruiting administrative team members to setting academic priorities and fundraising.

With Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, Bowen wrote a pioneering study on the use of race-sensitive admission policies, "The Shape of the River: Long Term Consequences on Considering Race in College and University Admissions." The book, published in 1998, examined the academic, employment and life histories of more than 45,000 students who attended 28 academically selective U.S. colleges and universities, addressing issues raised by critics of race-sensitive policies. They concluded that the policies succeeded in educating minority students and in creating diverse learning environments. "Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education" (2005) expanded on Bowen's commitment to the importance of seeking diversity in building faculty and student bodies. Bowen also wrote about issues surrounding collegiate sports, leadership in higher education, graduate education and income-based affirmative action.

Bowen, a professor of economics and public affairs, continued to teach after becoming University president, as seen in this 1985 image. (Photo by Robert Matthews, Office of Communications)

The official citation for the National Humanities Medal awarded by U.S. President Barack Obama honored Bowen "for his contributions to the study of economics and his probing research on higher education in America. While his widely discussed publications have scrutinized the effects of policy, Dr. Bowen has used his leadership to put theories into practice and strive for new heights of academic excellence."

Bowen received numerous honorary degrees, including one from Princeton in 1987. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Bowen was also chairman of the board of Ithaka Harbors, Inc., and served on the boards of JSTOR and Merck & Co, Inc., and on the Boards of Overseers of Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund.

Bowen was recognized with the 2008 José Vasconcelos World Award of Education from the World Cultural Council for his work promoting the use of technology in education, and for creating educational opportunities for individuals who historically were disadvantaged in the college admission process by race, gender or socioeconomic background. (Photo by Brian Wilson, Office of Communications)


Bowen is survived by his wife, Mary Ellen; their children David Bowen of Scarsdale, New York, and Karen Bowen-Imhof of Antwerp, Belgium; and five grandchildren.

Bowen will be buried in the Presidents' Plot at Princeton Cemetery. A campus memorial service is being planned for later this fall. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested contributions to the Sir W. Arthur Lewis Fund at Princeton University, which provides support for graduate students.

Jamie Saxon contributed to this report.

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William G. Bowen: Reflections of a University president from Princeton University on Vimeo.

In 1993, a new building for materials science and engineering research on Prospect Avenue was named in Bowen's honor as requested by 1958 alumnus Gordon Wu, Bowen Hall's major donor. (Photo by Nick Donnoli, Office of Communications)


Bowen, shown here in 1981, led a 63 percent growth in the size of the faculty, with the arts and life sciences flourishing. (Photo by John W.H. Simpson, courtesy of the Princeton University Archives)


Bowen speaks at the 1980 Commencement. (Photo by Robert Matthews, Office of Communications)