William G. Bowen was a wise man of higher education. He passed away recently at the age of 83. As articles appeared in the press assessing his many accomplishments, I decided to read one of his nineteen books: Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President. I wish I had earlier. It is full good observations and great advice. I also came away with a better sense of how he understood and practiced academic leadership. There are no blue prints or one best way. It is very helpful to hear from those who have sat at in the presidency and are confident enough to write about what they got right and what mistakes they made.
Bowen headed Princeton University from 1972 -1988. Under his direction, Princeton grew tremendously in size, stature and research productivity. He then led the Andrew Mellon foundation for many years. Along the way he created JSTOR, sat on several boards (TIAA-CREF, Dennison), investigated the Duke lacrosse scandal, and pressed for free speech, access to higher education, and student completion. Lessons Learned is more Princeton-centric than I would have preferred. It is leavened, however, by Bowen’s good will, humor, and his broad experience in other areas of higher education. It is not a memoir. Instead, it a personal message about how to lead a research institution with a strong faculty.
The politics of Vietnam and the 1970s were formative in Bowen’s conception of presidential leadership. The period was marked by bitter conflict, with threats external to the university and challenges of its own making. It truly was a crucible of passionate and conflicting ideas. Bowen’s commitment to free speech and the open exchange of ideas was not easy. However, he is thoughtful in his demarcation of personal positions and stances from those of an institution. For example, while he personally may not invest in a particular company, his institution might – and it is quite possible that he would support that decision. Further, Bowen was pivotal in making Princeton a coeducational institution.
Bowen lays great store in leadership’s commitment to thoughtful planning, discussion and organization. He seems to have taken many problems off the table, or at least limited their potential impact, by expending significant effort in creating appropriate and representative structures for shared decision-making. He is unerringly consultative and very comfortable making and owning decisions. He readily admits, too, that this was the culture that defined Princeton and shaped his thinking.
The to-do’s of effective university leadership set out by Bowen are not revolutionary. They read, in fact, as common sense at higher level. He explains the necessity of building and maintaining a strong administrative team with robust communication skills and a shared sense of purpose. Mistakes are inevitable, he notes, and the absence of mistakes means that insufficient risks have been taken. Be very thoughtful about how one allocate’s one time, bearing in mind that time is a resource just as valuable – if not more so – than compensation. Bowen states that quality cannot be purchased through higher salaries. Intrinsic motivation is necessary. He advocates for moderate salaries and for the genuine care of one’s colleagues. I especially am appreciative of the advice to work from one’s outbox.
Woven throughout the narrative are Bowen’s strong commitment to the values of higher education: mutual respect, the search for knowledge, and the myriad ways that an institution of higher education, like Princeton, can better students, faculty, staff, and the larger world. Bowen was a mission-driven educator. He also comes across as a heck of a nice guy. Higher education will miss him.