NEWS | Princetoniana | March 3
Former U. president publishes book on leadership
Published: Thursday, March 3rd, 2011
William G. Bowen GS ’58, former president of the University and president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has recently published a book titled “Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President.”“It is not a history and it is not a memoir,” he said in an interview. “It is an account of lessons from in and around presidents’ offices. The book is an attempt to answer the question, ‘What, if anything, did I learn?’ ”Bowen said the project was inspired by several years of requests from people who wanted him to write a memoir. He wanted to see if he could be helpful to other people by talking about mistakes he had made and issues he had faced, he said.Bowen attempted to itemize the learning process of university presidents by dividing the book into topics based on lessons he learned in office, such as “Plan carefully, execute rapidly.”“I explain this in some detail in the book in reference to when Princeton became coed,” he explained. “When we studied coeducation from every imaginable angle, we parsed out its costs and its consequences. Once the decision was made, we acted instantly. There were a lot of reasons why that was important. I was confident that it would be the women students themselves who would sell coeducation to any doubting alumni and others. And they did.”Another lesson Bowen describes in his work is that “Progress begets needs.”“When you make progress, you realize there is so much more to do, and excellent people always want to do more,” he noted. “It is hardly surprising that the University has continued to develop and thrive.”Bowen pointed to his success in building the University faculty as one of the highlights of his time in Nassau Hall.“Good people recruit other good people,” he said. “There wasn’t a single defining moment, however. One of the quite splendid things about a university such as Princeton is that it is constantly evolving, and the projects of today are the projects of tomorrow.”Bowen also said that his biggest challenge during his tenure was having to always make the most out of limited resources and finding the most effective way to deploy the resources that were at his disposal.According to Bowen, the challenges of today’s administrators remain much the same.“The biggest challenge for Princeton is to continue to find its own niche and to contribute to education worldwide by doing better and better the things that it does in research, teaching and graduate education,” he said. However, Princeton is a very different place from most of today’s higher education institutions, Bowen noted, and he singled out the national fiscal problems as the biggest challenges currently facing major state universities that educate the majority of America students. These institutions cannot sustain enrollment in many cases, he explained, let alone increase it.Bowen was also one of the creators of JSTOR, a nonprofit service that provides access to a digital archive of academic journals and scholarly articles for students and researchers. The organization, he explained, grew out of an experience he had as a trustee at Denison University, his alma mater, when he met with a librarian who spoke about needing more money to build stack space for journals.“I thought that there must be thousands of libraries worldwide that are having the same problem,” he said. “We really ought to be thinking about a giant scholarly archive in the sky that would benefit libraries, students and faculties across the world ... We launched the enterprise just as the Internet was really coming into its own and people could truly appreciate it.” Bowen said his next major project lies in studying the explosion of online possibilities for teaching and learning all over the world. He said he plans to examine how a particular kind of online learning can be used at various places in the country to increase educational effectiveness and reduce costs.“It is now possible to have interactive modes of learning that could not even be imagined before,” he said. “Those will, in time, have a big impact on how students learn.”In the meantime, he said, his one piece of advice to current students at Princeton is to take full advantage of their time here.“Don’t fritter your time away,” he said. “Work hard, do a variety of things, study a variety of subjects. Take full advantage of the intellectual resources that Princeton offers, which are unparalleled. I’ve always believed that thinking for yourself and thinking independently are very important. Don’t just go with the crowds. This is characteristic of any good university — it encourages students and faculty to think hard for themselves,” he said. Bowen graduated from Denison in 1955 and earned a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton in 1958. He then joined the University’s faculty, was appointed provost in 1967 and served as president from 1972 to 1988. He served as president of the Mellon Foundation from 1988 to 2006. He remains a life trustee of Denison and sits on the board of Ithaka, the parent organization of JSTOR and several other digital ventures.