Commentary

Bill Bowen: Man of Achievement

October 24, 2016

Princeton U.
William Bowen was president of Princeton from 1972-88. He helped bring more low-income and minority students to elite colleges.
To the end, even fighting illness at age 83, Bill Bowen was in some fundamental way younger than the rest of us.

It is easy as one ages to recede from most battles and to focus less energetically on issues that have little direct bearing on one’s life. It is tempting as a former president of a university or foundation to leave the challenge of tackling difficult questions to others. Why continue to invite controversy and contention, why push ahead with the hard work of persuasion, when it would be far easier to read a good novel and leave the messiness to others?

To Bill Bowen, the important things always mattered, regardless of his age or his title. He cared in 2016 as passionately about the entrenched inequities in higher education as he did when he assumed the presidency of Princeton, at age 38. He cared as much about issues of academic freedom and free speech as he did in 1973, when he defended the right of William Shockley, a physics professor who believed blacks were genetically inferior, to say things that Bowen himself found deeply offensive. He argued as forcefully for the importance of the arts and humanities in our culture as he did when he assumed the presidency of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in 1988.

Beyond the brilliance, beyond the incomparable wit, there runs through the course of Bill's career an almost matchless capacity for empathy.
He never stopped caring, and he never stopped being the most thoughtful and articulate voice on these and a host of other issues central to our educational system and our civic life.

Perhaps even more impressive was his willingness to take on new challenges and explore new areas, even in what turned out to be his last years. Decades removed from the classroom, he became nonetheless better versed in the challenges and opportunities that technology brought to teaching than were most academics 50 years his junior. He was one of the first economists to explain, with William J. Baumol, the factors driving up the cost of higher education and the arts, and he was one of the first, a half-century later, to detail the bias against lower-income students in the admissions process at highly selective institutions.

Bill Bowen’s résumé is almost absurdly impressive: Princeton, Mellon, nearly two dozen books and countless articles and essays. Yet it fails to take the full measure of the man. Beyond the brilliance, beyond the incomparable wit, there runs through the course of Bill’s career an almost matchless capacity for empathy. As a first-generation college student, he did not begin from a position of privilege. But even when he did come to occupy such a position — perhaps because he came to occupy such a position — he retained the ability to see the world from the vantage point of those whom the systems of power did not treat fairly: women, racial and ethnic minorities, and students who could not afford the benefit of well-off public or private schools.

Bill Bowen was not a poet, and he would have dismissed with a self-deprecating witticism any attempt to compare him to a great artist, but the phrase that comes to mind when I try to capture Bill is one used by John Keats to describe what he called a "Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously": negative capability.

Scholars have debated the precise meaning of the term for two centuries, but I have always chosen to understand it in two ways. It alludes to a willingness to explore without preconception those subjects that yield least easily to straightforward answers, and Bill was more than willing to engage in such exploration. Maybe more important, it gestures at an ability to negate or escape from oneself and to see the world through the eyes of another whose choices and possibilities, whose history and desires, are different from one’s own.

The great poet or painter expresses this on a page or on canvas; Bill did so through the shaping of the institutions he led and through his enormously influential written voice.

Bill Bowen was the most important leader in higher education of the past 50 years. Given the impact of academe on everything from our economy to our civic culture to our claim to being a country of opportunity, it seems fair to suggest that he was also one of the most important figures in recent American history.

Outside the circles of academe, his name is not nearly as well known as those of innumerable politicians and business people. But whether they know his name or not, many people who have attended a college whose doors would have been closed to them previously, or who received financial aid that created a world of new possibilities, are better off because Bill Bowen cared about their lives.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.