William G. Bowen Remembered: Ever the Teacher

A memorial service celebrated the life of William G. Bowen this past Sunday, December 11, 2016 at Princeton University. Bowen, who died October 20, 2016 was president of Princeton from 1972-1988, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1988-2006, and the author of more than 20 books, many about higher education. By common consensus, he was a great leader in higher education, based on his contributions, separately and together, as a university president, foundation head, and scholar for 50 years. His work contributed enormously to America as a free and pluralistic society.

It’s impossible to replicate the brilliance, skill, and character of such an extraordinary figure, or even to capture him in words. Yet it’s worth reflecting on some of his contributions and qualities for lessons to be learned.

Bowen worked for five decades to extend opportunity to traditionally excluded groups. As Princeton’s provost and president, he helped make that university open to women, and more welcoming to women, African-Americans, Jews, Hispanics, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and other minorities. Justice Lewis Powell relied on Bowen’s writing in 1977 regarding the educational value of diversity to uphold affirmative action in university admissions in the 1978 case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

Bowen’s defense of educational pluralism had barely begun. Based on a systematic study of the academic and later careers of more than 45,000 students at 28 selective schools, his classic co-authored (with former Harvard president Derek Bok) 1998 book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, found that race-sensitive policies were successful in educating minority students and in providing the benefits of diverse learning communities. The Supreme Court cited the book in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) in again upholding the use of race-conscious admissions policies, this time based on a somewhat broader rationale. The Bowen-Bok book informed the arguments of many authorities upon which the Court also relied.

Bowen continued to learn, and to teach, regarding equality and the road to it. A co-authored 2005 book, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education, studied data from 19 selective private and public universities and colleges and concluded that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds did not have equal opportunity to be educated at selective schools and proposed policies to address this problem. A later study found that major public universities were doing too little to ensure that students, especially minorities and those from low socio-economic backgrounds, graduated in four or six years.

Bowen worked to extend opportunity until he died. After Justice Antonin Scalia advanced the thesis that blacks might be better off attending “a slower-track school where they do well” during a December, 2015 oral argument, Bowen wrote in the New York Times that social science evidence overwhelmingly discredited the hypothesis on which Justice Scalia and others relied. And one of Bowen’s last speeches, to the Philadelphia Bar Association, in June, 2016 less than four months before his death, lamented that “racial prejudice remains a potent force” and pointed to disparities that make blacks more likely to be incarcerated, unemployed, less well educated, underpaid and less wealthy. Much work remained. It was “much too soon to be tired,” he concluded.

Bowen was also a forceful and eloquent champion of free exchange and discussion. He was a strong advocate of peaceful dissent but resisted efforts to silence unpopular speakers. During the mid-1970s, as Princeton’s president, he defended the right of speech for ideas he found repugnant because “the University must remain a place where even the most heretical ideas can be discussed in ways that help sharpen our insights and deepen our understanding.” On other occasions, he explained why universities needed to provide a place for members to discuss, not silence, differences, such as when he criticized Haverford students for making demands that led a graduation honoree to withdraw rather than encourage his presence to “engage in a genuine discussion.” Universities should be the “home of the critic” or of varying critics, a role that would be compromised if the university became a frequent critic itself.

Bowen believed in empirically-based study and his scholarship often analyzed intimidating mounds of data. Bowen’s attraction to data did not signal an aversion to the humanities. Rather, this recipient of a National Humanities Medal in 2012 was their promoter and often drew from literature (“The Shape of the River,” “Ithaka,” “At a Slight Angle to the Universe”) and history in his writings. His long-time collaborator, Neil Rudenstine, a scholar of Renaissance literature and fellow academic leader, called Bowen “a humanist who works with the tools of a social scientist.” Bowen’s commitment to data was the natural orientation of a great social scientist, and of someone who wanted to understand reality and to formulate solutions to real problems. Unlike those who use data to support pre-conceived commitments (or, increasingly, ignore or misstate it), Bowen’s integrity committed him to follow facts where they led and to confess error on the rare occasions when events disproved his predictions.

Bowen’s integrity, along with his courage, optimism, work ethic, and commitment to service were among the anchors of his strong character. In addition, as Macalester President Brian Rosenberg wrote, Bowen had “an almost matchless capacity for empathy” particularly for those from groups society often disadvantaged. He also had an instinctive or reflective (or both) ability to identify ways he could help individual human beings, a desire to do so, and a quickness to act. Many, many others were much closer to him than I but the unsought kindnesses, large and small, over more than four decades from this extraordinarily busy person marked him as an exceptionally generous and caring person.

Bowen made a great difference, to humankind and to individual human beings, and his example teaches, and should inspire, us going forward. As he often said, “Onward.”

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