Remembering William G. Bowen

Photo courtesy of Haverford College.

The Board of Trustees, along with the staff, former staff, and former trustees of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are saddened by the death of William G. Bowen, president of the Foundation from 1988–2006.  As much of the higher education world knows, Bill made an astounding array of contributions to the way that we understand and improve higher education in this country.  He did so with infectious enthusiasm and exceptional intelligence that made working with Bill—because he never saw others as working for him—a great joy and inspiration. 

Bill’s 18 years at the Foundation were a formative chapter in the history of a Foundation that had been created less than twenty years before he arrived.  Working with Paul Mellon, and board chairs Bill Baker, John Whitehead, Hanna Gray, and Anne Tatlock, Bill strengthened the Foundation’s focus on supporting the humanities, undergraduate and graduate education, and arts and culture.  He also led the Foundation to make significant investments in new directions, anticipating evolving landscapes, and tackling issues that others felt were imponderable. 

Many of these directions were driven by Bill’s intense focus on conducting research while serving as president.  He had an abiding belief that knowledge is in fact power, can awaken awareness and prepare the minds of grantmakers and grantees to be more effective, and can direct philanthropic funding towards big challenges in more effective ways.  The story is often told about how the vision for JSTOR—the archive of back issues of scholarly journals now considered the core library resource at over 10,000 educational institutions around the world—“popped into his head” as he sat as a trustee in a meeting at his alma mater, Denison University, during a 1993 discussion about whether to expand the library building to accommodate the deluge of bound periodicals.  But his mind was prepared for that insight by research that he had been doing with colleagues as early as 1989 on the future of the library. However many important operating and governance responsibilities Bill was juggling at the foundation and on the boards on which he served, he was always doing research, because he knew it mattered. 

In an era where many have urged philanthropy to become more strategic, Bill always approached each problem analytically and with an eye on where Mellon had a comparative advantage.  After 9/11, the Foundation helped a wide range of cultural institutions rather than adding its resources to those who were understandably drawn to helping the families of victims; doing so enabled countless cultural institutions to survive the reverberations of that terrible time.  Earlier, upon his arrival at the Foundation, when thinking about the paucity of minority professors in academia, he and Henry Drewry asked, “where is it that our lever can be effective?”  In creating the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, Bill and his colleagues looked to the long-term solution of encouraging talented undergraduates from a wide diversity of backgrounds to pursue advanced academic work, partnering them with mentors, and supporting them in their academic paths.  In every program at the Foundation, he created a culture of focus and differentiation based on analysis. 

The themes to which he continually returned in his work were neither simple nor peripheral.  They were the issues that will continue to be central to higher education:  the cost of producing an education; the governance of crucial institutions; the allocation of opportunity.  He was always at work on these topics, sending emails at all hours of the day and night, seeking critique of his writing and methodology.  He often quoted one of his teachers as saying, “there’s no limit to the foolishness that you can do working all by yourself.”  Bill respected and nurtured the talents and work of others and never ceased striving to make his own work analytically stronger and more relevant to pressing issues.  He made his first (and very significant) mark on the field of labor economics in higher education in a 1964 article with William Baumol on how the costs of labor-intensive industries like higher education will rise higher than other industries in which technology brings productivity increases.  But as digital technologies began to offer new productivity-enhancing possibilities (both in library services like the Mellon-fostered JSTOR, Artstor and ITHAKA and in the still emerging potential of online learning), Bill kept working on the problem.  He was determined that it would be a great outcome to disprove his famous model if it made our educational system more efficient, effective and fair.  He devoted much of the last few years of his life to careful study of when such directions could actually be effective and what it would take for the conservative culture of academic institutions to adapt accordingly.

Bill never hesitated to defend excellence and was devoted to the work of academically strong institutions, but was convinced that access to educational opportunities were scarce societal resources and could not be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s values.  His work with Derek Bok on the award-winning study of the long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions was cited extensively by the Supreme Court in rulings that upheld affirmative action; his subsequent work outlined the need to recognize that differences in wealth and income continue to disadvantage poorer students in the admissions and graduation process.  He worked tirelessly to counter these disparities not by giving free rein to his emotional reactions but by carrying out rigorous evidence-based research that could not be ignored. 

Bill worked with and encouraged colleagues across the country; for countless students and colleagues working with Bill was the most intense and rewarding intellectual exercise of their lives.  He taught all of us with both seriousness and laughter.  His leadership of the Foundation will reverberate through the directions he set, the projects he created, and most of all through the work of his colleagues, friends, and students whom he nurtured throughout his lifetime and who will miss him dearly.  He would be pleased to know that we all will honor him by working tirelessly on issues that matter, knowing that he would appreciate that more than anything else.  We will miss this intellectual giant and friend to many, who lived life with warmth, meaning and purpose.  We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Mary Ellen, and their children David Bowen and Karen Bowen-Imhof, as well as to their five grandchildren.