William G. Bowen, member of the Denison class of 1955 and former president of Princeton University, will receive the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony today, Wednesday, June 10, at 2 p.m. (EDT), for his “contributions to the study of economics and his probing research on higher education in America. While his widely discussed publications have scrutinized the effects of policy, Dr. Bowen has used his leadership to put theories into practice and strive for new heights of academic excellence.”
Watch the live stream at 2 p.m. (EDT) at whitehouse.gov/live.
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 1955 and, moving with impressive speed, earned his doctorate 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 there until 1988.
Bowen 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,” said 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.”
While at Mellon, Bowen undertook several research projects, one such project was “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions,” 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.”
A second project resulted in the book “The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values,” which Bowen coauthored with James Shulman, also waded into a controversial area: college athletics and their effect on the educational mission. 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), and indicates that intercollegiate sports might have even greater effects on schools that do not give athletic scholarships than on ones that do. 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.”