After marching through Prospect Avenue with the rest of the 1986 P-rade procession, former University president William Bowen GS ’58 weaved through the crowd in search of one female alumna whom he had asked to stay behind. When he finally found Sally Frank ’80, he offered to walk her back to the main campus, past the eating clubs that Frank had sued for shutting women out of their bicker processes.
The subtle yet highly visible statement Bowen made on that occasion is emblematic of his leadership and legacy at the University. In an emailed statement to the ‘Prince,’ Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell described Bowen as a thoughtful and bold innovator who left a legacy as a champion of women, minorities, and the poor.
“Bill was only 38 when he was named president of Princeton, where he helped lead the institution into the era of coeducation — something that we take for granted amid our majority-female campuses across America today. His dedication to affirmative action and equality for all lifts his name as a role model and beacon of hope for those who follow in his path,” Mitchell noted.
After taking office, Bowen made it a priority for the University to break away from the notions of exclusivity, elitism, and privilege that it had been associated with for two centuries, Frank said. According to University Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, not only was Bowen instrumental in reforming the residential college system and forging the way for an inclusive financial aid program, but he was also an unyielding proponent of a more colorful and gender-balanced university community.
Yet not everyone was enamored with the University’s emerging new look. During Bowen’s first days in office, his progressive ethos attracted vehement opposition from a small but fiercely vocal collective of alumni and students. Prolific in words and bountiful in budget, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton established Prospect magazine, which soon became a widely circulated campus publication. With the singular mission of fighting progress in the admission of women, CAP often openly and aggressively challenged Bowen’s initiatives in its columns, describing co-education as a blight that plummeted the University’s academic standards. In a ‘Prince’ feature published in 1983, Thomas Jones ’72, an outspoken CAP founder and member, described Bowen as having presided over a period when the University began to walk “the path of mediocrity ... [becoming] just another state university.”
“It was a challenging agenda; he had to overcome concerns of the faculty and the student body. It took deftness to make progress in ways that in fact expanded diversity that received acceptance,” Durkee said.
Despite opposition, Bowen consistently and steadfastly refuted voices of bigotry against a gender that couldn’t have called Princeton home a few years prior. As Durkee recalled, Bowen spent numerous hours communicating with alumni of earlier years about the changes on the University’s campus. In addition to his persistence in keeping women in the admissions picture, Bowen also cared profoundly about women’s lives on campus, according to Frank. From introducing salad bars at dining halls to installing curtains in every room of Pyne Hall — the dormitory reserved for women at the time — Bowen put forth a streak of unprecedented initiatives, small and large. He was also receptive to the suggestions of women on campus, placing locks on bathroom doors and dormitory basements, which were not properly secured at the time. More significantly, Bowen accepted the petition of Frank and other students to establish a women’s studies certificate.
“These are not things that a group of men in ’69 would’ve thought of,” Frank said.
When Frank’s lawsuit against Tiger Inn and Ivy Club went up to the Supreme Court, Bowen expressed support for Frank’s initiative amid a pool of mixed reactions from other administrators.
“He knew that this was out of my love for Princeton, that I was trying to make the University better and not to destroy it,” Frank said.
Bowen showed similar commitment to increasing racial diversity on campus. In his tenth commencement address, Bowen said to the incoming freshmen class that “we must set high standards for ourselves and for our community — being clear, for example, that any racial slurs or innuendoes are unacceptable.”
In what was perhaps Bowen’s greatest contribution to affirmative action, he co-authored a book with former Harvard University President Derek Bok. The book, titled ‘The Shape of the River’, was first published in 1998, and presented a data-driven argument for affirmative action, especially at high-powered and selective institutions. The same book was referenced in Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, the pre-read for the Class of 2019, which expanded arguments for affirmative action into a book that discussed racial divisions and stereotypes in a much broader context. Though he may have left the presidency in 1988, Bowen’s work has held great sway with the University community to this day.
Bowen’s earlier works about the positive impacts of affirmative action were cited by Warren Burger in the landmark Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The case established race as a constitutional factor in college admissions.
Nonetheless, Bowen also stood his ground when it came to questions of freedom of speech, especially controversial speech. In the latter half of 1973, Whig-Clio announced that it would host a debate on the inheritability of intelligence. The debate would feature Roy Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, and William Shockley, a Nobel prize-winning physicist and outspoken white supremacist. Yet, despite a barrage of student protests, charged slogans, and bomb threats, the debate took place. As then Professor of Sociology Marvin Bressler noted, the university must be a forum for all opinions.
A similar situation transpired when the People’s Front, a student organization, staged a sit-in in Nassau Hall, demanding that the university to divest from companies that did business with South Africa. In a controversial step, Bowen responded that though the University stands in solidarity with students who condemn apartheid, such a decision would have minimal impact on South Africa and only negative financial impact for the University.
Frank, who also partook in the sit-in that year, said that on this note, her impression and appreciation of Bowen’s decision changed significantly over the years, especially after she graduated.
“It was different when I was out there protesting,” Frank said, “but later, I felt that he really was thinking about what’s best for the university.”
In an emailed statement to the ‘Prince,’ the National Endowment for the Humanities described that throughout his life, Bowen grounded his work in the belief that the humanities should be accessible not just to the elite, but to all, especially women and minorities.
“The National Endowment for the Humanities mourns the passing of William G. Bowen, a distinguished humanist and social scientist who transformed the academic landscape,” the statement reads.