Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 6, 1988 as part of the Daily Princetonian's special William G. Bowen issue upon his departure from the University.
Prince: With regard to the admissions policy, how should the university decide who should get in or should not get in? - -""
Bowen: This is a very large, very complicated subject. I don't think it lends itself to a capsule answer. The admission process has to serve a number of objectives. The first and most important is to attract to Princeton people with simply extraordinary ability. To place high standards with high admissions. And when we satisfy high standards, we serve high ambitions to attract exceptional people. And the word exceptional has many dimensions to it. Academic is clearly the most important to the university. It is underscored. So the admission office, and I think, properly, necessarily, looks first at academic qualifications. It looks at academic qualifications to identify those people of simply stunning potential. It also tries to identify a large group of candidates who are not so very, very, very, very outstanding, but still exceptionally strong. That number will inevitably be greater by a considerable number of places. And so you begin to look at other qualifications as well. You try to find people with some zest for life. People who are going to become more interesting, not less interesting — who have some capacity for providing leadership in some fashion or other — some capacity to make a difference. Now when I say leadership, I'm not, of course, speaking simply of public life. Leadership is exercised in the arts, in essentially every sphere of life. We're of course interested very much in diversity, and for two reasons. One is because it's important in terms of educational qualities because students just don't learn very much if they're surrounded by people just like them. So to enhance the educational interests of the institution, you have to attract a diverse group. You have to work hard to attract an interesting, diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, interests, regions of the world. But then there's also another reason besides simple educational enrichment. One of the things I believe very deeply is that this university ought to do what it can to make opportunity real. To make opportunity real means that you're going to have to make a special effort, I think, to find people who have not had as easy a time as others have had. Certainly it seems to me a compelling reason to pay special attention to the credentials of minority groups. And that's what we have done.
Prince: Do you think Princeton is appropriately diverse?
Bowen: I don't think anyone can say what appropriately diverse is. The admission office has been right in not achieving narrowly based numerical goals. We have always thought the detailed composition of the class ought to be a function of the quality of the pool. And if this particular year this particular group of candidates — whether it's a minority group of candidates or a group of candidates from the northeast — is particularly strong, then their numbers will rise that year. And that's as it should be. We will never put in quotas; that's a simplified numbers game. That's why I think the conflict is appropriately divergent and slippery. And over time it's desirable for this university to see its pool become ever richer in many respects. We still have a considerable distance to go in attracting larger numbers of women candidates vis-a-vis men, particularly in certain fields. This is clearly the case in engineering. The country is not yet yielding the pool of minority candidates to apply, so I guess what you think would be optimal in some long range, long term perspective is satisfied.
Prince: If Princeton were to have a football team as poor as Columbia's, would you ever appeal to the Ivy League group for help?
Bowen: That's hard to conceive. Never is a strong word. I would certainly be extremely reluctant to make that change here. I think that Columbia's condition is very poor. It's been hard to provide the context within which to report the situation.
Prince: Has Princeton's image fundamentally changed during your tenure?
Bowen: Oh yes, dramatically. It has changed in many, many ways. One way is that it is seen by large numbers of people — not everyone — as much, much more open in a real sense than it was 15 to 20 years ago. I mean the general character of life, faculty, the very nature of the place. Let me give you a very specific example. The decision to move the opening exercises of the university and the baccalaureate services out of the 11 a.m. Sunday hour was an important decision. It seems like a small thing, and in certain respects it is, but it was very important. Moving the services to the afternoon was a very clear way of saying that this is an institution that when it worships, it worships broadly.
Prince: What do you think your role has been in these changes?
Bowen: I've worked hard to help bring those changes, as have many other people. But they've been important to me personally — part of my agenda for Princeton — so of course I'm pleased that we've made some progress. I don't think for a moment that our work is done, and plainly it isn't. In imany respects, the university has not changed as much as it still needs to change. I think certainly the F. Scott r Fitzgerald image hangs on. I think that, there too, real progress has been made if you compare the social scene, social life, as it was in the 50s and the early 60s. Certainly the residential colleges have had a great deal to do with encouraging all sorts of interaction in the freshman and sophomore years, which was just not occurring in anything like the same , capacity that they do now. That's been an important step forward. Similarly, the fact that so many of the clubs are open clubs is a major change. The fact that independence is a respected and chosen option by people who just want to be independent, rather than what happened to you if you couldn't do anything else, which is the way independence once was. But are we where we ought to be in that area. Absolutely not!
Prince: Over the course of your tenure, has there been a philosophy, a grand scheme, or a big picture that has driven a lot of your decisions and actions here?
Bowen: In a sense I suppose so, but it's quite simple, not complicated. It's that first we are an arts and sciences university with arts and sciences and university underscored. That our contributions will be qualitative, not quantitative. That our aspirations are high. That we are and ought to be never satisfied. That we always try to be better. That we always try to improve perceived deficiencies, to identify new deficiencies and to attract extraordinary people.
Prince: Do you have any regrets?
Bowen: Oh, so many mistakes. It would take us until tomorrow morning if I were to count them.
Prince: What were some of them?
Bowen: Well, I think that I didn't understand as early as I should have how very difficult it was going to be to strengthen Princeton in the life sciences. And I think I did not understand soon enough what an extraordinary commitment was going to be required if we were going to get anywhere. I've made lots of mistakes in personnel decisions. I think one of the things I've learned is to be less hard on myself when it comes to initial decisions and a little better at correcting my mistakes. And I think the real test is not are you always right the first time, because, if you're always right the first time, you're not taking any risks. You're being too conservative and playing it too safe. If you're going to take risks in the hopes of getting great results, you have got to be prepared to be wrong. And if that's the case, then you have got to acknowledge you were wrong and you've got to be able to do something about it. And I am no better than I ever was in making all of those initial decisions, but I think I understand a little better what the real test is.
Prince: Is there such a thing as a Bowen legacy?
Bowen: No, no, I certainly hope not. The university is not — and never should be — the legacy, the shadow of one person. It's just not a good idea.
Prince: Obviously, Princeton has been a great part of your life for many years. Now that you're leaving the university for the Mellon Foundation, will that leave a vacuum in your life? And if so, what will take its place?
Bowen: I will miss many aspects of my current life here very, very much. No question about that. I think especially I will miss — because there really is no substitute — my friendships with so many students over the years. There's a vitality. The irreverence of young people is wonderfully humbling, refreshing and stimulating, and there isn't any substitute for that. And then, of course, all the friendships with colleagues and faculty I've worked with very, very closely for a long, long time. Parents. And so, indeed, I'm sure I will also miss the sometimes chaos of the place. I really quite enjoy the stimulation of having to try to do lots of things more or less at once. I will find other things to occupy my time. I'm very excited about the prospect at the Mellon Foundation. That's just a blessing. That's all.
Prince: Princeton is often linked with the phrase "In the nation's service." I wonder if you think that is an anachronistic goal?
Bowen: No, I don't think it is an anachronistic goal properly understood. It's not a phrase that I happen to use, but it isn't because I don't believe in the substance, for I do. I think service is a very important aspect of Princeton, and it is one of the things that it ought to believe in.
Prince: Does it believe in it?
Bowen: Yes. Not everyone, but many certainly do, and to a considerable extent. I think a continuing interest in Washington intern programs, community service. The extraordinary appeal of the Student Volunteers Council. And then if you look and see what people do with their lives, I think you find that a lot of our graduates go on to positions of service. Fields ranging from legal aid, health, religious callings, government.
Prince: How about the investment bankers and financial analysts?
Bowen: Well, it would be a failure if we did not have our entry into those ranks, too. There are some terrific people doing those jobs. They are important jobs, and I certainly don't mean to demean them. And many people who work in those locations do many other things as well. They do different things at different points in their lives. The ideal of service, I think, has a very significant hold on Princetonians, and it should. But I would broaden it beyond nation. I guess that's one reason why that one particular phrase is not the phrase that I would choose today. We are more and more an international university.
Prince: It seems like we're at a juncture. A lot of higher education is becoming accelerated, preprofessionalized, but Princeton's maintained a commitment to a liberal arts education. Is that anachronistic or threatening?
Bowen: No, I think it is neither anachronistic nor threatening. It's a great strength of the place. Sometimes you pioneer by holding on to what was, and still is, important. Pioneering does not always mean finding a new gimmick or a new emphasis. I mean recognizing a new truth in an old concept. And that's certainly the way that I feel about the liberal education, about the goals of a Princeton liberal education. I think, among the many temptations to which we have been subjected, moving away from the emphasis on the arts and sciences, learning for learning's sake, has never been one. In fact, I think that one of the reasons why we have had some real success in building the academic and intellectual muscles of Princeton over the last decade or so has been because we have not dissipated lots of time and energy arguing whether we ought to become a locus of professional schools or whether we ought to become more "relevant" in some sense.
Prince: On a tangent, how do you feel about the pass-fail option?
Bowen: I think that it serves a useful purpose in some situations and programs of some students, but I would certainly not want it ever-present, always the norm. It isn't here and that's the way it should be. I think the much deeper question is how we encourage students to take courses that are somewhat frightening. I think one of the themes is how to encourage students to be, even within the arts and sciences, more adventuresome. It certainly involves the teaching of science, where I think we can make progress.
Prince: In the presidential election, have any candidates sparked your interests?
Bowen: I never discuss partisan politics in this office. After January 8, you can talk to me and I will be glad to. I've had to give up a more activist role in politics. I've, of course, continued in the area of education to make a contribution to public debate over student aid and other issues of that kind. This office . . . shouldn't be identified with candidates or parties. It's just not right.
Prince: Don't you think the issue of education can become a partisan issue?
Bowen: Of course, and if people read partisan conclusions into what you believe, well then they will. And that's not reason for saying what you believe, and that's never stopped me. I've not hesitated to say what I've thought about the current Secretary of Education and the way he's discharged his role. But that was not for me an issue of politics, but an issue of education.
Prince: Do you have to wait for an issue to affect this university to act?
Bowen: In a large sense, yes, or the world of higher education, not necessarily this university. I think one of the opportunities a person has here is to uphold national standards; freedom, power, and international for that matter. Our recent effort, what will become of it I don't know, to slow the pace of control over freedom in universities in South Africa. That seems to me very much an academic issue.
Prince: Do you think generally the university is proactive or reactive?
Bowen: It's of course both, and it always will be that. Especially in recent years we have been able to be more proactive in a number of areas. The arts, where we've really pushed very hard. Life sciences is another clear example. It was just so clear to all of us that we really had to get out in front in a clearheaded way. You could not just improvise or just respond to this proposal or that. It wasn't going to work. The earlier days that I was in this office, the economic climate was so dreadful that it was really not possible to operate in that way. What you can do is very much a function of the setting. That's why individuals are often blamed too much or given too much credit.
By Julie Ann Sosa '88 and Laura Lazarus '88