Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Bill Bowen (1933-2016)
William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton University, died last week. Bill was already a professor in the Economics Department when I arrived on the faculty in 1965. Two years later he became provost—technically the second person to hold that new office, though effectually its creator—before being elevated to the presidency in 1972. He was the seventeenth president of our venerable institution, and served until 1987. This meant that I was an observer of his entire administrative career here. I was never a member of the Administration, but I served on various consequential committees and chaired an important academic department during that time, so that I have a reasonably informed basis for my high opinion of the man and his work.
Large and noble educational institutions respectful of long tradition and governed by the fiduciary principle generally move like battleships in port—which is to say, slowly and carefully. But move they do. There is no standing still. They are getting either better or worse. And they move in large part animated by a vaguely defined “leadership”. My father was of the cynical opinion that the divine protection of the Church was proved by the mere fact of its continuing existence through centuries of malfeasant leadership. But if you happen to be a part of some large earthly enterprise whose mission you applaud, even but a small cog in the machine of human betterment and fulfillment, it is inspiring, encouraging, and beneficially challenging to know that the people at the top, including particularly the person at the very top, are of outstanding character and capacity.
I believe that a large part of our persistent national malaise, an acute phase of which has flared up during the current election campaign, arises from the want of access to such credible belief. So I have a nearly sacred obligation to acknowledge the great good fortune of having spent a professional career under the leadership of four presidents very different in their accidental qualities but very alike in their essential excellence.
The death of a man of Bowen’s eminence and achievements naturally attracts obituary attention commensurate with its subject. I have seen several impressive notices already, and more will appear. This brief appreciation is not of that sort. I am not a theoretician of American higher education, and I do not feel qualified to comment on a career that many knowledgeable people would say became more rather than less important after Bill left Princeton and went to the Mellon Foundation. But I have never seen anyone put more into a job than Bowen put into his. The man was an indefatigable worker to judge by my accidental observation. As an early-morning swimmer I habitually passed by the back side of Nassau Hall on the way to the pool in the pre-dawn dark. I always knew when the President was out of town: the lights were not blazing in his offices. On several occasions I travelled with the President and others to alumni conclaves hither and yon. I noted that he spent practically every minute of the return flights writing longhand against a clip-board: hand-written notes thanking hosts or otherwise following up on particular matters from the meeting or event.
I once drew him up short by telling him that he had an “abbatial” style—that is, the style of a Benedictine abbot. Religion was not a big thing with Bill, and I doubt that he had much pondered the medieval monk as his role model. But the analogy remains in my opinion just. He prided himself on knowing the name of every faculty member—no mean feat. And though his first and apparently ruthless concern was always with “quality” and “absolute distinction” in his faculty, I came to hear over the years of several instances in which he made discreet, helpful interventions in relief of drastic faculty health or family emergencies—and that was only in the small plot of the institution in which I myself toiled. He was expert, too, at letting other people have his own way. As Lyndon Johnson was to the U.S. Senate, Bill Bowen was to the Board of Trustees.
He was not an easy man to get one past, but I did it one time, when he was still Provost. To understand and forgive the anecdote you must realize that even I was once young and even Princeton had its mildly wild side around the cultural revolution of the late Sixties. My very dear friend Jim Magnuson was then a playwright in residence as Hodder Fellow. Jim had among his trove of stage properties a tent-size crimson gown fashioned in a light corduroy material that had been prepared for a production of The Duchess of Malfi—doubtless for the duchess herself. It was decided that human felicity would be increased if I were to march in the Commencement procession wearing this garment. I did so. The truth of the matter concerning academic ceremonies is that you can do almost anything so long as you do it with pomp and apparent authority. Beside, one fake Renaissance garment is pretty much like another. A moment of inadvertent but felicitous eavesdropping at the end of the ceremony picked up the following.
Bob Goheen: What was that robe John Fleming was wearing?
Bill Bowen: Oh, Bob, that’s an old Oxford gown—said with apparent authority.