RIP, William G. Bowen — and the Bowen Report, Too

Why he predicted a faculty hiring boom and why we eagerly believed it

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

November 22, 2016

W illiam G. Bowen deserves enormous praise for an astonishing variety of achievements in higher education. Bowen, who died in October at age 83, presided over coeducation at Princeton. As president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he co-authored one of the most influential arguments for diversity and affirmative action in academe. When he turned his attention to the role of technology in higher education, he helped to create JSTOR, the now-indispensable digital repository of scholarly journal articles.

Those are but a sprinkling of the career highlights of one of the most thoughtful and inventive educators of the age. If Bowen had been a rock musician, his greatest hits would have filled at least a double album.

But Bowen also received his share of not-so-flattering attention, thanks to his 1989 book: Prospects for Faculty in the Arts & Sciences (Princeton University Press), which he wrote with Julie Ann Sosa, then a graduate student in economics at the University of Oxford. Known across academe as "the Bowen Report," the book became notorious for its Panglossian forecast of better times for academic job seekers. It soon symbolized the misguided optimism of a generation of would-be professors who kept waiting for their ship to come in, and eventually starved by the shore.

Bowen’s reasoning in the book wasn’t overly complicated. He and Sosa argued that a coming increase in the number of college-bound students would soon necessitate the hiring of many more new professors. The authors forecast a faculty shortage, especially in the humanities and social sciences, where they said graduate-student enrollment levels were particularly unprepared to meet the coming influx.

Today higher education is increasingly seen as a personal investment. This shift from the public to the private took hold during the 1980s and 1990s.
The Bowen Report proved persuasive, but it also proved wrong. Faculty and administrators — and especially graduate students! — continued to wait for an academic job-market recovery that never came. Bowen himself soon admitted that he had made a mistake.

So we certainly shouldn’t celebrate Bowen for that book. But how much should we blame him for it?

He and his forecast were typical of his times. Bowen was an optimist born of an optimistic age. He got his first teaching job in 1958, at the end of the first wave of the biggest hiring boom that American academe has ever known. Fueled by government investment during the Cold War, higher education grew spectacularly after World War II. Research money poured into academe, as the government entrusted universities to invent technology to win the arms and space races. The inrush of dollars dispersed across fields and enriched institutions across the land.

At the same time, the nation invested heavily in higher education for students. Beginning with the GI Bill, which subsidized college for returning WWII veterans, the government made college available to millions of people who could never afford it before.

Other motives also emerged for sending more Americans to college. The National Defense Education Act, passed in the wake of Sputnik, funded higher education for more students as a means to stay ahead of the Soviet Union. The federally guaranteed student-loan program, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, was part of the Great Society effort to end poverty and raise living standards.

In short, the ’50s and ’60s were boom times for colleges and universities. It was the one time in the history of the American academic profession that demand for professors eclipsed supply. Anyone who could finish a doctorate during that generation could become a professor. You could even choose the region you wanted to work in.

William Bowen came of age during that heady time. He finished his Ph.D. in economics in three years, which was faster than average during the ’50s, but not by much. With degree in hand, he joined what was then the largest faculty generation in the history of higher education. Ubiquitous prosperity buoyed the prospects of all its members.

Bowen’s generation expected full academic employment. It was their norm, after all, and it was buttressed by continuing national investment in both research and students. True, no previous generation had enjoyed such abundance, but the playing field had changed structurally, and in ways that bespoke permanence.

Then the bottom fell out of the academic job market in the 1970s. The causes were complex, and remain debatable. The cost of the Vietnam War surely played a role, and protests against the war politicized higher education as never before. Many legislators lost their eagerness to fund an enterprise that they now believed opposed them.

Faced with this sudden constriction of the academic job market, university administrators strapped in to ride out the hard times. Bowen was already one of them. He was named Princeton’s provost in 1968, and in 1972 he succeeded to the university’s presidency. In 1988, Bowen left Princeton to become president of the Mellon Foundation, one of higher education’s most important benefactors. Members of his generation now bestrode the academic hierarchy, and their patient approach guided plans for the future.

Two generations later, we know that the plan to outlast the famine was wrong. Hard times never abated, and the faculty job market never loosened up. Universities have continued to struggle for support. So have graduate students. (As Mellon president, Bowen went on to devise an important lifeline for them in the form of a fellowship program that inspired the funding models used by graduate schools today.)

During these straitened times, the market for professors transformed in ways that Bowen, for all his perspicacity, did not anticipate.

When Bowen’s large cohort of professors retired, their tenured positions were mostly not replaced by new tenure-track hires. Nor did the anticipated increase in undergraduate enrollment — which Bowen had relied upon in his projections — lead to more tenure-track jobs. Instead, we have witnessed the adjunctification of academe: the rise of a new generation of contingent faculty working full- and part-time in non-tenure-track positions. "We just couldn’t see it coming," Bowen later admitted in an interview with The Chronicle.

Why didn’t Bowen spot the erosion of the tenured professoriate? I have a theory about that. One of the foundations of Bowen’s positive outlook was his enduring belief in higher education as a public good. Government investment in higher education during Bowen’s formative years reflected the same conviction on a large scale.

Today higher education is increasingly seen as a personal investment. This shift from the public to the private took hold during the 1980s and 1990s. It poses continuing problems for educators who are asked to demonstrate the bottom-line value of the training we offer.

I’m not sure Bowen ever accepted that change as permanent. I suspect that, deep down, he believed that an enlightened public would once again embrace the collective, social value of higher education, and support those who provide it. We could call that belief irrational — but for my part, I want to share it.

In an interview with The New York Times, Bowen suggested that a good policy maker must "formulate the question correctly," and then "assemble the evidence you need to make an informed choice."

Did he? In light of today’s cold facts, the rosy predictions in the Bowen Report don’t make much sense. But hindsight is always clearer than foresight. Bowen’s peers accepted his predictions at the time.

We could say that it was easy to sell the Bowen Report because educators were desperate for good news. Surely that’s true, but that means the report’s readers — which included my generation — didn’t show much sense, either. Only now are we accepting that the golden age is gone. We are living a new normal, and graduate education has to change to meet it.

Ultimately the Bowen Report reflected its times. But those are times we must finally get past.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His latest book The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.