Former Princeton University President William G. Bowen dies at 83 (Updated)


William G. Bowen

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Former Princeton University President William G. Bowen, the product of a lower middle class family who worked his way to the top of academia by the time he was 38, died Thursday at home in Princeton, the university announced.
He was 83.
Mr. Bowen served as the 17th president from 1972 to 1988 coming from the ranks of the faculty to serve as provost under his predecessor Robert F. Goheen for five years before taking over from him. He assumed the presidency at a once-all male school still in the early stages of going coeducational, something he had advocated for and helped usher in. Mr. Bowen also pushed for a more diverse student body and faculty, and brought an economist’s eye to managing the budget.
He left Nassau Hall to become the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation until 2006, and continued to write books, more than 20 in all during his lifetime.
Yet perhaps it was his humble upbringing in a suburb of Cincinnati that laid the foundation for what would come. Born Oct.6, 1933, he grew up in Wyoming, Ohio. He once told an interviewer that his was a lower-middle class family, but he had worked hard enough to earn scholarships that enabled him to attend Denison University, a liberal arts school in Grenville, Ohio.
“I was the first college-goer, I think, in my family, which always gave me, I thought, a useful perspective on many of the issues that I came to confront,” he said in a 2009 interview as part of an oral history project at the university.
He majored in economics, earned his degree in 1955 and received his PhD from Princeton in 1958, the year he joined the faculty in the economics department with the likes of the eminent economist Jacob Viner.
“I think the main gift among many gifts that Princeton gave me was a real introduction to the world of serious research and ideas, which a college like Denison, good as it was, just couldn’t provide,” he said in the same 2009 interview. “That was a great gift and a gift that’s lasted me all my life.”
Starting in 1967, he served as provost under Mr. Goheen, someone he had first met on the tennis courts at Princeton on Mr. Bowen’s first day at the university back in the 1950s. Together, the two men — in many ways opposites, with Mr. Goheen the son of medical missionaries — forged a partnership and friendship to lead Princeton through the turmoil of the 1960s and beyond, including the campus strike in May 1970 against the Vietnam War.
“I mean, we worked very, very closely together and I can’t remember on fundamental issues, priorities, faculty hiring, student life — once the co-education direction was set — that we ever had a serious disagreement,” Mr. Bowen recalled in 2009.
“Well, we worked together very closely and frankly and candidly,” Mr. Goheen said in a 2004 interview with the university. Mr. Goheen died in 2008.
Perhaps the biggest decision of their time together was to admit female undergraduates. Mr. Bowen believed that Princeton needed to go co-educational.
“There wasn’t a real choice at the end of the day,” Mr. Bowen said in 2009. “Faculty — the best faculty — many of them would not have stayed, we wouldn’t have been able to recruit the students — male as well as female — that we needed. The university would have been anachronistic, and so for me, it was the issue because it did affect everything else.”
As current university vice president and secretary Robert K. Durkee recalled it, Mr. Goheen had made the call to admit women, but it was Mr. Bowen “who really made it happen.” Mr. Bowen made the case to the trustees for the change and then oversaw its implementation.
When the time came to find Mr. Goheen’s replacement, Mr. Bowen did not want the top job. In looking back, he called himself a “reluctant candidate” who had suggested other people for the position.
“I enjoyed the teaching and research that I did, along with playing a role in the running of the university, and I thought that I probably had a better job than the president’s job,” he said in an interview with the university, again in 2009. “So it was nothing that I pursued.”
In 1972, at only 38, he became president, the first non-Presbyterian to lead Princeton, a university founded in the 18th century by Presbyterians.
“I mean, when the trustees talked to me about being the president, I wanted to be sure they understood that I was not really a religious person, and did not come out of the Presbyterian tradition that they were so used to — that Princeton was so used to — and that that just needed to be understood, and that if that was disqualifying, well, fine,” he said in 2009. “But I didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.”
In Nassau Hall, he pushed for a more diverse Princeton, both among students and the faculty, sought to improve the humanities and “build the life sciences.” Harold Shapiro, who succeeded Mr. Bowen as president, described him as a “big change agent” at the university.
“The objective was to make this place as open as it could be to the widest array of talent,” Mr. Bowen told the New York Times in a 1987 interview. “I worked to keep Princeton independent, hiring people on their merits, not on their point of view, pedigree or religion.”
Mr. Bowen had his economist’s eye on finances. In that same New York Times story from 1987, the paper reported how Mr. Bowen reduced the number of staff and even cut back on grass cutting and window washing. Mr. Durkee recalled that the early 1970s was a difficult time financially, with high inflation.
The university, during Mr. Bowen’s tenure, saw its endowment top $2 billion, and raised $410.5 million during a fundraising campaign.
Mr. Bowen, a skilled tennis player, took an interest in toughening academic standards for athletes. Derek Bok, the former Harvard University president, recalled a conversation the two men had in the early 1970s, with Mr. Bowen, then still provost, telling him they must do something about Ivy League athletics. The league did toughen its standards for athletes, an issue Mr. Bowen remained concerned about in his post-Nassau Hall days.
“We got along swell for the most part,” said former men’s basketball coach Pete Carril, who used to play tennis with Mr. Bowen.
For Mr. Bok, he and Mr. Bowen were at the helm of two of the nation’s premier universities through the 1970s and most of the 1980s. Mr. Bok, who later wrote a book with Mr. Bowen, ran Harvard from 1971 to 1991.
“The only place we were rivals was on the tennis court,” Mr. Bok recalled. “And that was always one-sided because he always won.”
Friends recalled Mr. Bowen’s work ethic, how he set the bar high for himself and the people around him.
Former economics professor Richard E. Quandt, who had Mr. Bowen as a student in graduate school and later became his colleague, recalled the occasional phone calls at 7 a.m. on Sunday from Mr. Bowen about some matter needing attention.
“He never stopped working,” Mr. Quandt said.
“Bill touched every corner of this great university, and his prodigious energy and intellect have benefited generations of Princetonians,” said Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber in a statement.
Mr. Bowen, who had been fighting cancer, leaves behind his wife, Mary Ellen, a son, David, a daughter, Karen Bowen-Imhof, and five grandchildren. A memorial will take place later this year, the university said.