In Memoriam

President to President, a Personal Memoir

issue 02 | summer 2017
In Memoriam - Summer 2017

In the spring of 1998, when I was a candidate for the Denison presidency, I had completed the final interviews with the professors comprising the campus search committee, with representatives of the alumni, staff, and student body, and with the board of trustees itself. I was about to exhale after several exhausting days and head for the airport when the board chair said, “Wait, there’s one trustee who would like to spend an hour with you alone.” And in walked Bill Bowen.

On the face of it, this was an intimidating prospect. This was THE Dr. William G. Bowen ’55, president emeritus of Princeton University, which he had served with distinction from 1972 to 1988. And now, a decade later, he was the veteran president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, someone who shaped the agenda and directed philanthropic support for much of American higher education. What COULD he want that required a private hour?

What he wanted was to talk history—my academic discipline—and to talk scholarship. Dr. Bowen, it quickly became apparent, had read all of my published books and many of my articles in professional journals, and he wanted to know more about my scholarly trajectory. How had I come to make a profession of American history? Why had I chosen to focus my scholarship and teaching on American ethnic and race relations? What were the research questions that I still had on my agenda as a historian? What Bill was trying to unearth was whether the prospective Denison president was a genuine scholar, a potential leader of the faculty, and a likely inspiration to students, and not only an institutional CEO. It was a 100% Bill Bowen moment.

Denison—and I—lost a great friend and advisor when Bill Bowen passed away last autumn. At the time of his death there was no larger figure in American higher education thought and practice than Dr. Bowen. But Bill never, ever forgot Denison, where he had been an outstanding student, campus leader, and enthusiastic intercollegiate tennis player, and which he served twice as trustee, from 1966 to 1975 and again from 1992 to 2000. Nor did he forget its presidents. I recently found his first letter to me, received just a few weeks after Tina and I had moved into Denison’s Monomoy Place. There are lots of things he could have asked the new president as a leading trustee. But the main thing he wanted to know was “how were we settling in?”

Bill was a humane and caring man and one with a clear memory of his own experiences as a university president at Princeton. Throughout our fifteen years at Denison, Bill and Mary Ellen Bowen (also a Denison alumna herself) both repeatedly wanted to know how Tina and I were doing, not just in our public roles, but as a couple, as parents and grandparents, and as members of the Granville as well as the Denison community. When our daughter, a young mother in Texas, struggled with and subsequently succumbed to breast cancer, no one shared more kindness than the Bowens. In 2011, when Bill published his last book, Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President, he took special pains to reflect on what he had learned as a Denison trustee about “the different pressures that beat on the president of a small liberal arts college.”

In another volume, The Board Book: An Insider’s Guide for Directors and Trustees, written just after Bill left active Denison trustee service and was designated a life trustee, he recommended that it was a good thing for a college board to have an experienced academic or two among its members, “trustees with a deep knowledge of the field in question.” But this could be a problem, too. I feared it might be at my first Denison board of trustees meeting when, after my opening observations on the state of the college, all eyes turned to Dr. Bowen with the clear expectation that he would validate my remarks—or not. I needn’t have worried. Bill was judicious in how he handled himself as a board member. He never assumed the persona of “Ivy League President,” but to both board and Denison president he was “colleague.” Usually he spoke in order to place something about Denison in the larger context of higher education. This was helpful. It had the effect of underscoring points that I or members of our senior staff had shared with the board. I soon came to find Trustee Bowen a valued supporter.

Over the past months, as I reflected on Bill’s life and contributions, it became apparent to me that many of Denison’s—and, as its president, my—priorities from the late 1990s until my retirement in 2013 can be traced through the themes Bowen explored in his highly-regarded published writings. On the one hand, this is because Dr. Bowen’s writings helped shape the agenda for higher education nationally and because he was a valuable counselor to me personally as well as to Denison trustees. On the other hand, Bill was generous in acknowledging that he learned much from observing Denison close up and over a long period.

Early on, Bill saw to it that Denison was included in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s “College and Beyond” database, rich information about the students and graduates of a select but varied group of U.S. colleges and universities including four diverse public institutions, 13 elite private universities (including half of the Ivy League), four women’s colleges (survivors of the historic “Seven Sisters”), and seven coeducational national liberal arts colleges. Four of the latter were located in the northeast, but the other three were Denison and its neighbors Kenyon and Oberlin. Later, when he was exploring intercollegiate athletics, Bowen assembled a second and overlapping data base. Again, Denison was a participant. Bill had not only experiential knowledge of Denison, but thorough information about how Denison admitted, enrolled, retained, graduated, and dispatched to graduate school and careers men and women from the 1950s into the 21st century. Bill learned much about Denison and, in turn, we learned much from him.

No one helped those of us charged with leading Denison think more clearly about both racial and socioeconomic diversity than Bill Bowen. In The Shape of the River (1998), Bill and his coauthor Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, showed conclusively that the pursuit of racial diversity had been a success both for students—majority as well as minority—and colleges. It put to rest any doubts that affirmative action policies had failed individuals, institutions, or society. But for me, as the brand new Denison president, it also underscored how incomplete our institutional efforts had been to enroll a more representative student body since the college had made a very public commitment to be more inclusive thirty years earlier. By the time Bill’s sequel, Crossing the Finish Line, with co-author Matt Chingos—which addressed not so much college admission as college completion—appeared in 2009, Denison had moved decisively to enroll talented young people of many different backgrounds. The college had embraced the Posse program, which brought—and continues to bring—outstanding students of diverse families and experiences from inner-city environments to Granville, where they have thrived. We had fully implemented a holistic admissions review process that emancipated us from complete dependence upon standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT, which research has shown privilege those from leafy, suburban secondary school campuses and college-educated parents. And, through challenging experience, we had learned that taking advantage of our increasingly diverse campus community required more than enrolling representative numbers, but also demanded assurance that the experience each student has on the Denison campus is an enriching and fulfilling one.

Nothing surprised me more in my experience in the Denison presidency than how much attention I came to give to intercollegiate athletics. In part, this came from early recognition that at places like Denison, varsity athletic squads can involve a quarter or more of the student body and intercollegiate club teams even more. I often publicly noted with some wonder that Denison routinely had 550 men and women participating in its 23 NCAA-sanctioned sports, while down the road, our neighbor Ohio State with more than 55,000 students had about 900 on varsity athletic teams. I discovered it was hard not to give attention to this important experience in many students’ lives, and in time I came to serve twice as North Coast Athletic Conference president and on the NCAA governing body for our division, the Presidents’ Council. My experiences in these roles and with athletics at Denison were, I share without hesitation, framed by Bill Bowen.

In The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001), co-authored with James Shulman, and Reclaiming the Game (2003), written with Sarah Levin, Bowen raised the alarm that some of the more worrisome trends in Division I “big-time” college athletics were in danger of trickling down to the undergraduate colleges that populate Division III. He worried about the potentially corrupting effects of athletics upon college admissions, the increasing imposition of sports practice and competition upon the time and energies of student athletes, and the emergence on campus of an “athletics culture” that set student athletes apart from their classmates. And I came to worry about those issues, too, sticking up for the values of our North Coast Athletic Conference and NCAA Division III, which aimed at keeping athletics a healthy part of liberal education and our student athletes typical of our student bodies. When the Mellon Foundation created the College Sports Project in 2005 with the goal of encouraging the integration of intercollegiate athletics into the core educational missions of American liberal arts and sciences colleges, I was happy, with Bill’s encouragement, to serve as a keynote speaker at its first national meeting, sharing the (positive!) Denison athletics story.

Dr. Bowen’s influence will ripple through Denison for a long time. Bill was convinced that colleges were better working together than apart—even rival colleges. Under Bill’s leadership, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation championed the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA), a consortium of thirteen liberal arts colleges in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, of which Denison is a founding member, as well as the more recently-established Five Colleges of Ohio, Inc., consisting of friends and competitors Denison, Kenyon, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, and The College of Wooster. Through these tight associations we’ve learned how to provide better experiences for our students while mitigating costs. The Five Colleges share library and information resources, engage in joint purchasing arrangements, and are beginning to think about collaborative “back office” operations. The GLCA provides shared off-campus study opportunities, faculty enrichment and development programs, and collective promotion of the liberal arts and sciences. During my last years at Denison, the GLCA—with Mellon encouragement—created the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), which forges partnerships between GLCA institutions and the growing number of American-style liberal arts institutions in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Under Denison President Adam Weinberg’s leadership, Denison has found opportunities for both students and faculty to engage in new teaching and learning opportunities around the world through active participation in GLAA.

Over the course of many years, Bill and Mary Ellen Bowen were generous to Denison. What reveals the most about them is where they wanted their resources used. For Mary Ellen it was student welfare, especially though the Student Health Center. Bill and Mary Ellen amplified that support by putting at my disposal as president funds to meet emergencies in the lives of the young people who came to study and live at Denison. Late in my time at Denison, Bill and Mary Ellen created the Bayley-Bowen Faculty Fellowship, honoring the long, warm connection between them and Bill’s Denison classmate and fellow life trustee David H. Bayley ’55 and Dave’s late wife Chris. This award, designated specifically for up-and-coming junior faculty members, was in keeping with Bill’s belief that the key element of a Denison experience is great teaching, and with his conviction that Denison needs to nurture teacher-scholars, lifetime learners who always are growing in their craft.

Well after I retired from the Denison presidency, Bill’s door was always open to me—as it was to so many in higher education. A visit to New York City was never complete without a stop at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. After stepping down from the Foundation presidency, Bill chaired the board of the spinoff not-for-profit Ithaka Harbors, the parent of Bill’s successful experiments in information management in the arts and humanities: JStor (the electronic archive of scholarly journals), ArtStor (the virtual museum of much of the world’s great visual art), and other ventures to preserve and disseminate culturally and academically valuable materials. As such, he simply moved his office across the back courtyard from Mellon headquarters to an adjacent Upper East Side brownstone. When I was in the city, I could pretty much count on catching him there. Dressed in comfortable slacks and a sweater, Bill always want to know how was I doing, the same question he had asked when I arrived at Denison. He asked it of everyone.

Bill named Ithaka Harbors for the Greek-language poem “Ithaka” by the early 20th-century poet Constantine Cavafy, an international artist who live in Istanbul, London, and in his native Alexandria, Egypt. The poem is Cavafy’s musing on the homeward voyage of the warrior prince Odysseus of the Homeric epics. It’s easy to see how it provides a metaphor for education and self-culture. Bill Bowen saw it that way. So do I, and I used it as the centerpiece for my address at the Induction of the Denison Class of 2009 as they commenced their undergraduate education. In English translation, the poem begins:

    As you set out for Ithaka
       hope the voyage is a long one,
    full of adventure, full of discovery.
    Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
    angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them;
    You’ll never find things like that on your way
       as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
       as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit…

And near its end, shares:

    Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
    Arriving there is what you are destined for.
    But do not hurry the journey at all.
    Better if it lasts for years,
    So you are old by the time you reach the island,
    wealthy with all you have gained along the way,
    not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Bill Bowen—Bill Bowen of Denison—hope the voyage is a long one.

Published July 2017
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