Bowen, William Gordon

Bowen, William Gordon was installed as seventeenth president of Princeton on June 30, 1972, and began his presidency on the following day. In a simple ceremony in Nassau Hall's historic Faculty Room, witnessed by members of the Board of Trustees and representatives of the faculty, administration, students, and alumni, he took the oath of office on the Bible that originally belonged to President John Witherspoon.

Born on October 6, 1933, in Cincinnati, Ohio, he was valedictorian and class president at Wyoming High School and top-ranking scholar, student body co-chairman, and Ohio Conference tennis champion at nearby Denison University. He came to Princeton in 1955 as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in the Graduate School and the following year married Mary Ellen Maxwell of Cincinnati. In 1958, when he was not quite twenty-five, he took his Ph.D. and joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor of Economics and a research associate in the Industrial Relations Section, winning appointment a year later as Jonathan Dickinson Preceptor. He became director of graduate studies in the Woodrow Wilson School at thirty, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at thirty-one, and provost at thirty-three, and was elected president when he had just turned thirty-eight.

Bowen was regarded as an outstanding teacher by both his department and his students and for a number of years gave the introductory course, Economics 101. (As president, he has continued to teach sections of the course.) A tireless scholar, he wrote numerous books and articles. After publishing two early studies on the wage-price issue and on wage behavior in the postwar period, he brought out a report on the effects of Princeton's involvement with the government in the operations of the University, The Federal Government and Princeton University. Following a research trip to the United Kingdom in 1962, he published Economic Aspects of Education, which included a skillful analysis of university financing in the United States and Great Britain. A year later, he and William J. Baumol were named research directors of a Twentieth Century Fund study of the economic foundations of theatre, opera, orchestra, and dance in the United States. Their Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, published by the Fund in 1966, was described by one critic as a landmark study of the economics of culture. On leave of absence in 1966-1967 as a McCosh Faculty Fellow, he worked with T. A. Finegan of Vanderbilt University to complete The Economics of Labor Force Participation, which reviewers called the most authoritative work of its kind.

During his years as provost, Bowen was deeply involved in the University's conversion to coeducation, its program to increase the enrollment of minority group students, and its efforts to bring the budget more closely in line with income. Under his guidance, a priorities committee formed to advise on budget cutting outlined various ways to reduce Princeton's financial deficit, producing a report so impressive that the American Council for Education sent copies of it to 4,000 educational institutions as a model. Thanks to the committee's recommendations, and record support from Annual Giving, a balanced budget was achieved for the fiscal year 1971-1972 after two years of successive deficits.

Although Bowen's expertise in the economics of education was a significant factor in his election as president, the choice was further influenced by a general recognition of his enormous ~energy and broad intelligence, and, in the words of a faculty colleague, ``his easy manner, his delightful sense of humor, his ability to get along with people and to listen and to understand their point of view, and his ability to take quick and decisive action once his mind was made up.''

In his brief remarks at the installation ceremony in Nassau Hall in 1972, President Bowen said he found his induction ``a very humbling experience,'' having had an opportunity to observe at first hand ``the variety and intensity of the pressures that beat upon the office and the person holding it.'' But he was encouraged, he said, by the sources of strength the president could draw upon, and particularly by the power of the very idea of Princeton as a place of learning given life for over two hundred years by trustees, faculty, administrative staff, alumni, and students under the leadership of his predecessors -- all sixteen of whom were looking down upon the assembly from their portraits on the walls with, he noted, ``an occasional hint of skepticism in the eye.''

``I know [he continued] that Princeton future, no less than Princeton past, will draw strength from the great array of people who care about her and from the spirit that binds all of us together. This strength is represented here today in this historic room. Those of us gathered here, coming from different generations, different backgrounds, different regions, different vocations, possessing an extraordinary variety of viewpoints and perspectives, nevertheless share an abiding commitment to this University.

This is not to say that we shall always agree; nor should we. Contention is the life blood of any good university, for there has never been a single path to the truth and it is by testing ideas that we sharpen them and make them serviceable. But the spirit of our advocacy is as important as its quality. May all of us, and the many more whom we represent, continue to study and to think independently, to exercise our freedom, but always with mutual respect, with compassion as well as precision, with courage and good humor, and with the best interests of this University ever in mind. It is in this spirit that I now look forward to doing what I can, with you, for Princeton.''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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