William Bowen, 17th President of Princeton University, Dies at 83

William Bowen. Photo by Brian Wilson, Princeton University Office of Communications.
William Bowen. Photo by Brian Wilson, Princeton University Office of Communications.

William Bowen, president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 and a leader in higher education for more than half a century, died Thursday night, Oct. 20, at his home in Princeton. He was 83.

Bowen was 38 when he was installed as Princeton’s 17th president in 1972. A professor of economics and public affairs, he worked to build the university’s academic reputation — creating new departments, emphasizing the arts and life sciences, and attracting top professors while tripling the size of the endowment. He also worked to diversify the student body and oversaw the establishment of the residential college system.

“Bill Bowen was a true giant of higher education,” Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber said in a statement about his death. “First as provost and then as president of Princeton, he enhanced this university’s research profile, diversified its student body and added to its resources. He was a formidable leader, conversant and engaged with every aspect of Princeton’s operations, unflinching in his commitment to excellence, and fiercely devoted to this university’s defining values. Bill touched every corner of this great university, and his prodigious energy and intellect have benefited generations of Princetonians.”

After retiring from Princeton, Bowen served as the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for nearly two decades. He wrote a number of acclaimed books about higher education, including a groundbreaking work on race and admissions policies, “The Shape of the River: Long Term Consequences on Considering Race in College and University Admissions.” The book, published in 1998, examined the academic, employment and life histories of more than 45,000 students who attended 28 academically selective U.S. colleges and universities, addressing issues raised by critics of race-sensitive policies. Eisgruber said “The Shape of the River” may be the most important book ever written about the value of affirmative action in collegiate admissions.

“Bill was ever the teacher, and he mentored large numbers of scholars, policy experts and higher education leaders. I feel fortunate to have been in that group,” Eisgruber said. “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. I owe Bill a great debt, as do many others who passed through this University that he loved so dearly.”

Bowen was born on Oct. 6, 1933, in Cincinnati, where he remained through high school. While attending Denison University, Bowen was Phi Beta Kappa, co-chairman of the student government and Ohio Conference tennis champion. In 1955, he graduated with a bachelor of arts in economics.

Bowen received his doctorate in economics from Princeton University in 1958 and then joined the faculty. His research focused on labor economics, the economics of education, the economics of the performing arts and the problems of stability and growth. He held a joint appointment in the department of economics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He continued to teach after becoming the University president, leading a section of the introductory course Economics 101. He also published many books and reports during his time as a faculty member.

In 1967, he began a five-year term as provost, planning and overseeing the move to coeducation and outreach efforts toward underrepresented students, expanding financial aid, and working to form a committee of faculty, students and staff that makes fiscal and programmatic priority recommendations for the school.

Bowen served as president of the university for 15 years. He presided over the creation of the residential college system, a 63-percent growth in the size of the faculty, the establishment of 46 endowed professorships and the construction of five new buildings. He also oversaw the creation of the departments of comparative literature, molecular biology, computer science and electrical engineering, as well as the programs in women’s studies, applied and computational mathematics, population studies and the ancient world. Academic programs in the creative arts were expanded, and Alexander Hall, the Princeton University Art Museum and 185 Nassau Street were expanded or renovated.

The Princeton University Investment Company, which manages the University’s endowment accounts, was established during his tenure as president, and the endowment grew from $625 million to $2 billion.

Bowen announced his retirement in 1987, citing 20 years in Nassau Hall and the need for new and fresh perspectives in charting the school’s path.

Bowen authored or co-authored of more than 20 books. Earlier this year, he co-authored, with Michael McPherson, “Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education.” His 2013 book “Higher Education in a Digital Age” focuses on the economic challenges facing higher education and how technology might help address them. His 2011 book, “Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President,” draws upon his leadership of Princeton and offers insights into the challenges college and university presidents face.

Bowen was awarded a National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012 for his contributions to the study of economics and his research on higher education in America. He received numerous honorary degrees, including one from Princeton in 1987. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Ellen; their children David Bowen of Scarsdale, New York, and Karen Bowen-Imhof of Antwerp, Belgium; and five grandchildren.

Bowen will be buried in the Presidents’ Plot at Princeton Cemetery. A campus memorial service is being planned for later this fall. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested contributions to the Sir W. Arthur Lewis Fund at Princeton University, which provides support for graduate students.