Divestment is a complicated issue, but universities should resist efforts to have outside agendas forced upon them through divestment, former University president Bill Bowen GS ’58 said at a dinner discussion on Monday.
The action of divestment is too blunt to account for nuances and lets people engage in a form of activism that is "too easy" as opposed to the hard work of bridging divides and effecting real change, Bowen said.
Bowen recalled that during his University presidency from 1972 to 1988, some members of the campus community had wanted the University to divest from a towel company that had engaged in questionable labor practices. The protesters demanded that the administration stop providing the firm's towels in Dillon Gymnasium.
Bowen said his solution to the controversy was to sort the towels into one bin that had the company's towels, one that did not and one with a random selection of non-company and company towels.
"About 75 percent [of students] took the random towels," Bowen said.
Despite his views on divestment, Bowen noted that dissent is critical to the life of the University.Bowen said he was proud when the Alumni Council gave Sally Frank ’80, who litigated against the eating clubs to make them coeducational, an alumni award.
Bowen added that when offered the position of University Provost, he almost declined the position because of his view that coeducation should have been allowed on campus differed from that of the University President at the time. The then-President told Bowen that he should argue his views "full-throatedly," because the criticism improves the University, Bowen said.
Even when the vote to implement coeducation finally passed by a large margin, Bowen said he was glad there was a dissenter to show that alternative views were respected, being heard and taken seriously, as opposed to forcing unanimity on important issues.
Looking toward the future, Bowen said the University should be helping other less well-off universities and be cognizant of "spillover effects" that can occur when the University tries to be a leader in a certain area like financial aid.
Some peer universities with smaller endowments have stretched their budgets thin trying to compete with the University's financial aid policy, when they should be better funding other priorities, Bowen explained, adding that he believes University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 shares his concerns.
Bowen said he believed the University could benefit from modest increases in the size of the student body from time to time, since it is good for faculty to have enough students to teach.
According to Bowen, among the most important issues facing higher education in general is the inadequate preparation of college students at mid-level public universities. Unfortunately, massive open online courses have been unable to reach through to these students successfully, instead seeing the highest completion rates among highly educated people, he said.
"Coursera in that respect is no use," Bowen said, referring to the platform the University has used to distribute its online courses.
While students should be ambitious, they should not become so fixed on one goal that they neglect other opportunities, Bowen added, noting that during college he hoped to eventually teach undergraduate students at a non-research university.
"You shouldn't be too sure that you know exactly the right path," Bowen said.
The discussion took place at 6 p.m. at the Chabad House as part of its guest discussion series and was sponsored by Chabad at Princeton University.