Last week, we learned of the passing of Bill Bowen *58, a renowned economist who served as president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988. The Board hopes to honor and recognize Bowen, whose tenure turned Princeton into a more inclusive and financially healthy institution, one that would offer more opportunities to students over the decades that followed. Bowen’s efforts to create the residential college system, add four academic departments, fundraise prolifically, and staunchly defend freedom of expression have improved Princeton for the better. Following Bowen’s passing, the Board encourages students to re-examine the ideals of academic rigor and inclusivity that inspired these reforms, and consider how these ideals can further be actualized in the coming years.
A first-generation college student who graduated from Denison College in 1955, Bowen charted an unusual path to Princeton. It was perhaps his relatively humble background, as the son of a Cincinnati calculator salesman, that bolstered his commitment to diversity on campus. Throughout his career, including after leaving Princeton to become president of the Mellon Foundation, Bowen was a proponent of affirmative action and financial aid. As president, he fought to recruit more low-income and minority applicants and reduced the importance of legacy in admissions.
As he explained to the New York Times upon leaving office: “The objective was to make this place as open as it could be to the widest array of talent ... I worked to keep Princeton independent, hiring people on their merits, not on their point of view, pedigree or religion.” Bowen understood that a culture of elitism and social exclusivity, both in admissions and faculty hiring, undermined the University’s ability to be a bastion of productive research and discussion. The creation of the residential college system made a campus previously dominated by exclusive eating clubs more welcoming to students from all backgrounds.
Bowen’s instinct for reform was coupled with excellence as an administrator. When he took office in 1972, the school’s finances warranted radical saving measures such as cutting staff and mowing the lawns less frequently. Bowen brought Princeton to a position of financial strength by making expenditures more structured and transparent and establishing the Princeton University Investment Company to manage the endowment. During his tenure, the endowment tripled and a major fundraising drive achieved almost one-and-a-half times its goal.The improved financial health of the University allowed for significant expansion in multiple areas. Under Bowen’s leadership, the University was able to create departments of comparative literature, molecular biology, computer science, and electrical engineering, and expand the faculty by 63 percent. In addition, the University acquired new property, including the Forrestal Center, and built five new buildings, including the Lewis Thomas Laboratory for Molecular Biology.
In a modern context, one of Bowen’s most meaningful accomplishments was his lifelong defense of free speech on campus. The New York Times reports that Bowen told them in 1987 that, “We don’t invite people here because we agree with them ... The right question, well phrased, can be far more effective than preventing people from speaking.” More recently, Bowen delivered the 2014 commencement address at Haverford College, after former University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau withdrew in the face of student protests. At a time when multiple commencement speakers were being protested, Bowen characterized Mr. Birgeneau’s decision not to deliver the commencement address as a “a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford — no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect.”
The Board admires Bowen’s commitment to freedom of expression, particularly in light of ongoing debates about free speech on this campus and our own repeated affirmations of the importance of open expression. We encourage today’s Princetonians to continue to apply Bowen’s rigorous defense of this University as an intellectually stimulating environment rich in diversity of viewpoints and to always seek to challenge opposing views, even those one finds reprehensible, rather than seek to shut them down on face.
Additionally, in 2015, Bowen challenged another popular campus activist strategy, that of calling for divestment from objectionable causes. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, he contended that “[t]aking an institutional stand on political issues of many kinds threatens the primary educational mission of the university, which is to be avowedly open to arguments of every kind and to avoid giving priority to partisan or other political viewpoints. The university should be the home of the critic — indeed, the home of critics of many different persuasions — not the critic itself.” This mirrors the Board’s stance on a recent campaign at Princeton.
During our time at Princeton, we have witnessed many national tensions erupt on campus, forcing the University community as a whole to grapple with issues of diversity and inclusion. Bowen showed that it is possible to make campus more inclusive for people of different backgrounds and different viewpoints without compromising the fundamental neutrality of the institution itself. Bowen’s work has come to an end after over fifty years, but his contributions remain relevant as we chart a path forward.
The Editorial Board is an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief.