William Bowen, 1933-2016

A prominent educational leader who served as president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 has died

November 10, 2016
Obituary: William Bowen, 1933-2016
Source: Princeton University Archives

William Bowen was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 6 October 1933 and studied economics at Denison University (1955), where he was both co-chairman of the student government and Ohio Conference tennis champion.

He moved to Princeton University as a doctoral student and joined the faculty after obtaining a PhD in 1958. An expert in the economics of education and the performing arts as well as the problems of stability and growth, he quickly climbed the ladder from assistant to associate and then full professor of economics and public affairs.

In 1967, Professor Bowen became provost of Princeton under the presidency of Robert Goheen, where he played an important role in the introduction of co-education – the first 130 female students were admitted in 1969 – and in widening access.

He succeeded Dr Goheen in 1972 and, during his 17-year tenure, succeeded in tripling the size of the endowment. He also oversaw the creation of departments of comparative literature, molecular biology, computer science and electrical engineering, as well as programmes in women’s studies.

Princeton’s current president, Christopher Eisgruber, described Professor Bowen as “a true giant of higher education” who “mentored large numbers of scholars, policy experts and higher education leaders. I feel fortunate to have been in that group. Bill was always ready to offer counsel about the toughest issues facing higher education, and he did so with a combination of knowledge, insight, generosity and wit that will be missed by all who knew him.

“His prodigious energy and intellect have benefited generations of Princetonians. When Bill left the presidency, he expanded his sphere of influence still further, writing a series of landmark books about higher education distinguished by their intellectual vigour, boldly chosen topics and genuine impact. Several deserve to be considered classics of the field.”

His publications included The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (with Derek Bok, 1998), Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President (2011), Higher Education in the Digital Age (2013) and Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (with Michael McPherson, 2016).

After retiring from Princeton, Professor Bowen served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1988 to 2006. He was honoured by President Barack Obama with a National Humanities Medal “for his contributions to the study of economics and his probing research on higher education in America”.

He died on 20 October and is survived by his wife Mary Ellen, a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.


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