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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2011

Lessons Learned

Reflections of a University President

William G. Bowen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011; 168 pp; ISBN: 978-0-69114-962-2, cloth $24.95 USD.

Reviewed by Emöke Szathmáry

One might expect Lessons Learned to be a long autobiographical tome given the accomplishments of its author, William Bowen (Mellon Foundation, 2011). He is a labour economist who received his doctorate from Princeton in 1958 when he was just 25 years old. He then joined the faculty of Princeton and by 1972, at the age of 38, Bowen was president of the university.

He remained in office for 16 years, at which point he left Princeton to head the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He held that post for 18 years. Among his many successes is the founding of JSTOR in 1995 as a not-for-profit organization to digitize scholarly journals and make them available over the internet. Bowen is also the author and co-author of some 20 books to date, almost all on issues that have confronted North American universities over the past 40 years.

Though the list of Bowen’s achievements is long, his Lessons Learned is nevertheless, a relatively short book. The small volume focuses on challenges to higher education as they were manifest at Princeton during his time in senior administration. Accordingly, the book includes the handling of issues that preceded his presidency during the five years that he was provost, and it draws on findings arising from studies undertaken long after he left Princeton, some of which were the topics of his books. Bowen’s approach allows him to gauge the effectiveness of actions he had undertaken in the past, and thus the lessons he has learned from his choices.

Though I was curious about Bowen’s reflections, I was skeptical that this book would have value for Canadian academics. After all, “Princeton is a wealthy, private, research university of high standing with a long history,” as he notes on page 4, and the first two adjectives in that quotation do not apply to Canada’s universities. Princeton also differs from most of its American counterparts because its undertakings are in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. It lacks professional faculties such as medicine and law.

Perhaps because Princeton is basically an arts and sciences university with just three professional schools, it is highly centralized — a feature more typical of Canada’s primarily undergraduate institutions than of its comprehensive or medical-doctoral ones. Further, almost a third of Princeton’s students are working on advanced degrees, some 98 per cent of the undergraduate students live in campus residences, and according to the university’s website, the ratio of undergraduate students to faculty is 6:1.

There is also one other major difference: Princeton’s board of trustees (akin to a board of governors) has final authority for all matters, including major changes in admission policies. At most Canadian universities, admission criteria would fall under the ultimate authority of the academic senate, or its equivalent. In sum, the differences with Canadian universities are many, and yet the more I read the more familiar Bowen’s observations became.

The most important lesson arising from this book for me is that there is a generic culture to universities. It matters not whether one is a member of a university in Manitoba, Ontario, or New Jersey, among other places. The specific culture of any given university, however, reflects its local circumstances and its history, thus Bowen’s lessons are embedded in a series of stories that reflect Princeton’s ethos.

For example, not everyone will be interested in the details of the controversy over the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Princeton in the early 1970s — that is, at the time of the Vietnam war — but most will be interested in how its resolu­tion, which took more than two years, relates in part to circumstances, but mostly to the understanding of shared governance on a university campus. At the heart of the process was discussion, con­sultation and sometimes heated debate with constituencies on and off campus. Indeed the matter of discussion, whether within well-structured and well-functioning faculty committees or with experienced faculty at open meetings, recurs at several places in the book.

Bowen highlights the constructive role of active faculty engagement most particularly in the matter of governance, but it is this aspect of Princeton’s character that also earned a caution from university presidents whom Bowen consulted about his book. What worked at Princeton, they warned, may not work as well elsewhere, because specific university cultures do vary, and “if faculty malcontents are allowed to dominate campus governance, they drive away the faculty you want to involve.” (p. 21)

Every one of Bowen’s 11 chapters addresses themes that are worth contemplation if one wants to understand how university presidents consider issues and what they grapple with. Bowen is unusually forthright in several instances, including what he says about presidents’ compensation. He provides examples of controversial speakers on campus, and emphasizes less the right to speak than the right of a campus community to hear, regardless that dissidents would shut out a speaker. His best example of the value of “straight talk” by those in charge (p. 72) is contained in just a footnote. It tells how a senior administrator handled ongoing dissent among administrative staff on the matter of Princeton’s becoming co-educational, though they knew that the trustees had decided in favour of admitting female students.

Bowen’s thoughts on the importance of building faculty are worth reading. They reminded me of McMaster University in the mid-1970s and 1980s, when the president, provost and dean of graduate studies were all involved in the faculty appointment process, in addition to the more typical departmental ones. In my experience, much supports Bowen’s “holistic” (p. 86) view of recruitment and retention, the importance of weighing departmental and university needs equally with the “… ‘absolute’ merits of a candidate” (p. 93), and his nuanced toleration of some salary differentials based on market considerations and merit.

Regardless of one’s view on the appropriate degree of involvement of senior administrators in the process to appoint, to advance, and to keep faculty, most academics would agree with Bowen that once trustees receive a recommendation, they should not second guess the suitability of the candidate. Their responsibility lies in assuring that proper procedures exist and are pro­perly executed, rather than in questioning nominees’ qualifications. Bowen addresses virtually all issues that contemporary universities deal with, from annual budgeting to strategic decision-making. I have no quarrel with his conclusion that balancing of budgets is as much of an art as it is a science, and universities are wise to recognize that funds spent today will impact what can be provided in the future. It is true that institutional strategic plans are often developed, though these can be slow to yield the successes their planners seek.

The author illustrates this conundrum in his candid recounting of what went wrong with Princeton’s new focus on the life sciences in the 1970s. The institution’s approach was gradual for almost a decade, providing incremental funding and investing in junior faculty. Talented young faculty, however, tended to leave for better facilities elsewhere, and to achieve the strategic dream, Princeton had to change its course of action. The major investments that collectively brought success included recruiting leading life scientists, building new laboratories, creating a new department, and committing more faculty positions to it.

Building on this scale, while adequately maintaining other academic and support units, requires fund-raising and friend-raising. Bo­wen did this well, and was pleased to learn that people will give generously to what they admire and, if I may add, to what they believe in. His cautionary comments on fund-raising are also well chosen, not only because institutional values and institutional mission must govern the kinds of gifts that are accepted, but also because gift agreements must be carefully drafted to avoid future misunderstandings.

Alumni are typically a great source of institutional friendship and support, but Bowen acknowledges that communication with prickly grads can rapidly become stressful in the internet age. So can dealing with undergraduates, among whom advancing educational values and building community have never been easy, even on a residential campus. Given the role of universities in contemporary society, I expect that balancing the competing demands of inclusiveness and accommodating differences among students, will long remain aspects of university life.

What did I like most about Bo­wen’s book? I found his spare language and blunt honesty refreshing. The view from the top differs from that of other vantages, and Bowen provides valuable insights on the handling of challenges faced by university presidents. I enjoyed his quip that a president should leave office “when there is still a semblance of a band playing” (p. 142), but what resonated the most was his understanding of universities and their importance to the world. Bowen’s book is worth reading, and wise academics will reflect on the lessons he learned.

Emöke J.E. Szathmáry was president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba between 1996 and 2008. As president emeritus and professor she is continuing her academic appointments in the department of anthropology as well as in the department of biochemistry and medical genetics.