Former University President William Bowen GS ’58 died on Thursday.

Bowen died of colon cancer. He was 83.

He became the University’s seventeenth president in 1972, succeeding Robert Goheen '40, the president under whom Bowen had served as provost since 1967.

As president, Bowen oversaw a number of very important changes in the University’s history, including overseeing the expansion of the number of women in the student body after women were first admitted while he was provost; overseeing the establishment of residential colleges; and overseeing the establishment of alternative dining options for upperclassmen.

Bowen also supported the efforts of Sally Frank ’80 to force holdout eating clubs to admit women through litigation.

Bowen later recounted that he almost turned down the provostship, his springboard to his eventual presidency, due to the difference in opinion at the time between him and Goheen on the issue of coeducation — Bowen was in favor — but Goheen encouraged him to take it anyway, telling him that criticism improves the University.

Bowen said he applied Goheen’s approach to dissent even after coeducation was passed, giving ample opportunity to dissenters to voice their opinion and listening to their concerns instead of forcing unanimity. Later, despite his view that divestment was “too easy” compared to the work of effecting real change, he said he respected the dissent of a large number of students in the late 1980s calling for the University to divest from apartheid as the kind of dissent that is critical to the life of the University.

Bowen also oversaw the nascent Priorities Committee after he had helped to form it as provost, recalling later that the 1970s were a time of financial difficulty for the University and that a “surgical” approach to determining the University’s priorities was needed, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach to balancing the budget, which he eventually accomplished.

After his presidency, Bowen wrote a number of books, including the influential “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions,” in which he argued for the value of affirmative action but took a more empirical approach than many previous accounts of affirmative action. He also served as president for a time of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Before becoming provost, Bowen became an assistant professor in 1958, specializing in labor economics but also writing about a number of different topics, including the economics of education and of performing arts. He advanced to associate and then full professor before becoming provost and also served as the Director of Graduate Studies at the Wilson School from 1964-66.

Bowen was born in 1933 in Cincinnati and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics in 1955 from Denison University in Ohio before matriculating to the University’s Ph.D. program in economics.

More to come...

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