William G. Bowen

William G. Bowen, Ph.D. was the president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988 and the president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He is one of the most important experts on the intersections of higher education, public affairs, and economics. Bowen was a significant scholar who focused on arts and humanities, education-government relation, affirmative action, equity, technological changes, college structure, costs and free speech of higher education in the United States. He contributed to higher education within his studies and his career. He was one of the most important figures in recent American educational history.

“Q&A with William G. Bowen.” by Tim Goral. University Business

The National Endowment for the Humanities bestowed the National Humanities Metal in 2012 to William G. Bowen for his tireless advocacy on behalf of education. Bowen contributed by promoting arts and humanities education. He also developed Princeton University’s library facilities and expanded the museum’s capacity to hold artifacts. He led the ARTstor that provide academic image resource categorizing arts, humanities, sciences and architecture for educators, while promoting the JSTOR. The JSTOR would later go on to become a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources. Harvard president Neil Rudenstine stated when speaking of Bowen that, “he’s made a special effort to advance the humanities (Lambert).”

Bowen was a professional scholar who studied and published on the issue of education-government relation which made him qualified to speak on this topic. In an interview at Princeton’s Nassau Hall, Bowen laid out his vision for the relationship between universities and the government. His interview focused on President Carter’s 1980 budget proposal in which he canceled the National Direct Student Loans program. Bowen argues that people in higher education should speak clearly and loudly to the government to show them their real opinions but without causing direct conflicts. Moreover, Bowen believed that different types of institutions should work together to serve the society instead of focusing on financial gain.

In retrospect, the most influential book about affirmative action written by William G Bowen and Derek Bok published in 2000 was The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Bowen focused on the issues of affirmative action and minority participation in higher education, and appealed colleges and universities to achieve educational benefits of diversity and to reduce racial stratification in American life. In the book, Bowen used twenty-eight private and public colleges and universities (45,000 respondents) as database to provide evidence of racial issues in higher education. In Chapter 2, titled “The Admissions Process and ‘Race-Neutrality’”, Bowen’s reference data showed that a strict race-neutral standard would reduce 50-70 percent of black enrolment at their selective institutions (Bowen 50). Based on the admission process within SAT score, he criticized the selection bias in college admissions that raised problems in the context of unequal educational opportunities and unfair treatments. Bowen wrote, “college grades are by no means the full measure of educational attainment; still less do they determine accomplishment later in life” (Bowen 89). Moreover, he also showed the African- American students had lower graduation rates when compared to the White students. He considered the racial implications of higher education itself and emphasized the aims and achievements of higher education. This led him to pay attention to the employment, earnings, job satisfaction, civic participation, and satisfaction with life of both female and male African-American. Then, he goes on to point out that C&B schools (the twenty-eight selectivity schools whose students had SAT score between 1150-1300) have contributed to help African-Americans to achieve their better lives and to be better citizens. He argued that affirmative action could bring more educational benefits that were based on more diverse institutions and provide more opportunities to deserving students to attend top universities. Bowen’s timely argument about affirmative action policies which pointed out the social issues, and it has been affected or eliminated in many states in the 20th century. Therefore, this book received many famous reviews that came out to agree or criticize their opinions.

In 2000, a journal reviews of Bowen’s book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions, was written by Timothy Bates, focused on how Bowen used econometric models to discuss the issues of race-sensitive college admissions which will have a big influence on the study of affirmative action. He admired this fascinating book since it was a landmark document. The authors contributed to solve some very difficult issues. Even though the book has some shortcomings, such as some conclusions that they made over their analysis data (Bates).

Bowen continue to work on the issue of stratification in higher education in 2005. Bowen co-wrote a book (Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education) about the relationship between “excellence” and “equity” in higher education. Bowen argued that many poor students did not have the same opportunities to enroll in American’s elite institutions. Additionally, it was necessary to improve the precollegiate preparation of students from racial minorities and lower-income families due to the crisis of higher education in America. Indeed, the authors wrote, “What is clear is that to continue to achieve excellence—defined, we repeat, as educating large numbers of people to a high standard and advancing and disseminating knowledge—we must enrich the pool of candidates for higher education by addressing equity objectives. There is no other way” (Bowen 72). Bowen focused on the equity within gender, race, religion, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status in higher education. He pointed out some solutions, such as reformation of the admission process, resetting federal financial aid, and improving government support of public institution. The authors encouraged their nineteen selective institutions to continue race-sensitive admissions policies and to enroll more students who from racial minorities and lower-income families.

Nine years later, Bowen wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post where he claimed that institutions should perform their obligations and take a stand on positions related to many important social issues. Bowen argued that all the educational institutions need to put more effort into helping disadvantaged students, and into controlling educational costs without pushing for additional governmental support. The government should not create an environment which causes battles among institutions and diminishes core values and the original mission of higher education. Bowen paid special attention to the free speech of institutions, educational costs, less-privileged students, and the economic issues involving higher education.

Bowen also paid attention t technological changes in higher education. In 2013, William G. Bowen co-wrote a book, Higher Education in the Digital Age. He and Kevin M. Guthrie believed that online courses (MOOCs) could reduce the cost of higher education without negative consequences on student learning. They discussed the “costs and productivity in higher education” and the “prospects for an online fix.” Bowen argued that the “cost disease” in higher education is a crisis which increases students’ cost burden. Therefore, he laid out his opinion that technology could transform traditional higher education by providing research data on the costs of online education. Bowen’s opinion included that the online technological platform would bring significant changes to the structure of higher education in America.

At the time of Bowen’s retirement, he wrote a reflection book about what he has done in his lifetime and how he overcame a variety of challenges when he was the president of Princeton University. In Lessons Learned: Reflection of a University President, Bowen shared his experiences of team building, managing dissent, financial planning, academic priorities, etc. These experiences provided exposure to lessons and future issues that a variety of educators may face in higher education. He was a wise, intelligent, and knowledgeable scholar who contributed to higher education and worked until the end of his life. 

William G. Bowen fully made his mark as one of most influential American scholar of higher education. Bowen promoted arts and humanities in higher education that improved students’ quality and appreciation of life. His ideas about education and government relations improved the communication between academic institutions and the government. Bowen argued that affirmative action benefited diversity and reduced racial stratification. He focused on the equity of gender, race, religion and socioeconomic status in higher education that encouraged academic institutions to enroll different types of students. Last but not least, Bowen believed technological changes would reduce college costs and increase accessibility to all students. William G. Bowen died October 20, 2016. Mr. Bowen’s contributions to higher education continue to influence decisions about education that will benefit and improve the academic experience for students for many generations to come.




Lambert Craig. “William G. Bowen.” National Endowment for the Humanities. www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/william-g-bowen.

Bowen, William, and William McCleery. “An Interview with Princeton’s William Bowen: Universities and the Government: The Diplomatic Age.” Change, vol. 11, no. 3, 1979, pp. 31–35. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40163351.

Bowen, William G., and Derek Curtis. Bok. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton University Press, 2000

Bates, Timothy. “Southern Economic Journal.” Southern Economic Journal, vol. 66, no. 4, 2000, pp. 1011–1012. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1061543.

Bowen, William G. Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. 2006.

Bowen, and William G. “Demanding Universities to Divest Is Often Bad Policy.” The Washington Post, 27 Mar. 2015, www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-37801901.html?refid=easy_hf.

Bowen, William G., and Guthrie, Kevin M. Higher Education in the Digital Age. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Bowen, William G. The Federal Government and Princeton University; a Report on the Effects of Princeton’s Involvements with the Federal Government on the Operations of the University. Princeton University, 1962.

Bowen, William G. Economic Aspects of Education: Three Essays. N.J., Industrial Relations Section, Department of Economics, Princeton University, 1964.

Goral, Tim. “Q&A with William G. Bowen.” University Business, vol. 16, no. 11, Nov. 2013, pp. 8–10. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.gsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=95757615&site=ehost-live. www.universitybusiness.


Here’s more information:

Bowen’s information at Princeton University:

“William G. Bowen, 17th President of Princeton University, Dies at Age 83.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, www.princeton.edu/news/2016/10/21/william-g-bowen-17th-president-princeton-university-dies-age-83.

Bowen’s video interview:

Press, Princeton University, director. YouTubeYouTube, YouTube, 16 Sept. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtN-GtCrFs0.

University, Princeton, director. YouTubeYouTube, YouTube, 18 Feb. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ0IOf6xzlY.

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