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Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist

William G. Bowen

In a career stretching over nearly half a century, William G. Bowen has had a far-ranging impact on higher education in America, as both a thinker and an institutional leader. Described in the New York Times as an “incurable workaholic,” he has twenty books to his credit. Several of these raise challenging questions about such fundamentals in higher education as sports, admissions, and graduation rates. With a clear-eyed dedication to knowledge, excellence, and humanistic values, he has scrutinized many aspects of colleges and universities and, in some ways, transformed them.

Born in Cincinnati, Bowen completed his college degree at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in 1955 and, moving with impressive speed, earned his PhD in economics at Princeton only three years later. A labor economist, he joined the Princeton faculty, where he became a full professor in 1965. Two years later, Princeton chose him as its provost, and in 1972 made him the university’s president, at the age of thirty-eight. He served until 1988.

As provost at Princeton, Bowen helped begin the era of coeducation there in 1969; as Princeton president, he oversaw years of steady academic growth that enriched offerings in the arts and humanities while expanding museum and library facilities. He departed to lead the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where, until 2006, he guided research and grant activities that have an estimable impact in the field of higher education and include awards of about $300 million each year. “He’s an extraordinary institutional person, in the best sense of the word,” says former Harvard president Neil Rudenstine, who has worked with Bowen for many years at both Princeton and Mellon. “And from the beginning, he’s made a special effort to advance the humanities.”

Princeton had established a national reputation in mathematics and physical sciences, but, beginning as provost, Bowen worked to strengthen its standing in the life sciences. One result was the $30 million Lewis Thomas Laboratory for Molecular Biology, which opened in 1986 and was designed in part by architect Robert Venturi, several of whose buildings arose on the Princeton campus during Bowen’s presidency. Fueled in part by a successful five-year, $410.5 million capital campaign (its original goal was $275 million), Princeton, under Bowen, enlarged its faculty to expand undergraduate programs in the arts. The university also doubled its art museum’s capacity and enlarged the Firestone Library.

At Mellon, Bowen turned his attention to research and innovations that could help universities in general. He was the prime mover behind JSTOR, the digital library of academic journals and books, launched in 1995, which helps research libraries cope with the burgeoning size of their collections. He also helped start ARTstor, which helps educators access and use museum image collections. In addition, Bowen pursued research to help the foundation optimize the effectiveness of its granting apparatus.

One research project was The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (2000), which Bowen coauthored with former Harvard president Derek Bok. It marshaled empirical data on thousands of students of different races to rigorously examine the effects of affirmative action policies. The book has become a landmark in the national debate over affirmative action; its overall conclusion is that race-sensitive admissions policies are effective and deserve the support of society. Writing in Science, Robert E. Thatch called it “a monumental achievement,” and stated that “its foundation is so solidly anchored to a bedrock of data that it will be relied upon as a navigational beacon for years to come.”

The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001), which Bowen coauthored with James Shulman, also waded into a controversial area: college athletics and their effect on the educational mission. Armed with data from thirty selective colleges and on athletes admitted in 1951, 1976, and 1989, the authors indicate that intercollegiate sports might have even greater effects on schools that do not give athletic scholarships than on ones that do. The book explores the athletic subculture and punctures some widely held myths about sports (athletes, for example, actually graduate at higher rates than others, even in big time programs). It also suggests that a culture of imitation may be counterproductive—as when low-profile sports emulate those that draw crowds, women’s programs take their lead from men’s, and small schools try to echo powerhouses. An avid tennis player in his prime, Bowen could relate to the athletes personally as well as intellectually.

With such efforts, Bowen has tried to air out questions that vex everyone involved with higher education—and to do so with data, not merely more opinion. “He’s a humanist who works with the tools of a social scientist,” Rudenstine explains.

“And he is a person whose fundamental drive compels him to seek answers. Bill’s not happy unless he has a real project under way.”

— by Craig Lambert

Craig Lambert is deputy editor of Harvard Magazine.