'Lessons Learned'

December 8, 2010

William G. Bowen was president of Princeton University from 1972 to 1988, and he reflects on his experiences and the nature of the presidency in a new book, Lessons Learned (Princeton University Press). The book uses various issues he faced as president to discuss broader themes about leadership in higher education. Bowen, president emeritus of both Princeton and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, responded to questions about the new book.

Q: Toward the end of the book, you suggest that 8-10 years would be "a good target" for a president to accomplish an agenda. You served 16 years at Princeton, but these days, five- and six-year presidencies are increasingly the norm. Why do you suggest a bit longer as a target goal? Do you think something is lost when presidencies are shorter?

A: My experience is that more than five or six years is often needed to achieve important objectives. As I explain in Lessons Learned, building strength in the life sciences at Princeton was a major strategic objective, and it took us a decade or more to do what needed to be done: achieve clarity on the precise goals, recruit essential faculty leadership, plan for the construction of laboratory space, raise the large amounts of money required, and recruit additional faculty. We made several false starts (from which we learned important lessons), and it then took time to accumulate the necessary resources and recruit strong faculty leadership. Shorter-term presidencies also mean that searches are more frequent and that too much time is spent on transitions. But of course much depends on the age of a president (I was 38 when I became president of Princeton), on health, and a number of other factors that can be specific to the institution or the individual.

Q: With some regularity, college presidents are criticized for their compensation packages, and you write that presidents should be sure that their packages are "kept under control." Can you elaborate? Should presidents be earning seven-figure compensation packages? How much is too much -- especially when those setting salaries tend to come from the business world, where academic salaries may seem frugal?

A: I think that presidents should not allow their own compensation to become too high -- especially in comparison with the compensation paid other key officers and senior faculty. Colleagueship is very important and can be threatened by outsize salaries and other perks enjoyed by a president. And, yes, I am skeptical that seven-figure compensation practices are either necessary or appropriate. But we also need to be aware that some reporting of presidential salaries confuses rather than enlightens -- when, for example, there is a failure to distinguish annual compensation from a combination of annual compensation, deferred compensation, and pension payouts.

Q: You discuss several hot-button issues that divided some on the campus during your presidency (ROTC, South African apartheid, controversial speakers, and so forth). What lessons did you learn about approaching such issues that might apply to today's campus controversies?

A: First, it is important to anticipate, as best one can, issues that will become controversial -- to avoid being taken by surprise. Second, it is important to listen to what others are saying, especially when there are strong disagreements about the right course of action. Third, patience is required -- some debates just have to be allowed to run their course. Fourth, I found that close and continuing discussion with key faculty leaders was valuable in building consensus and avoiding the perception that the president was alone in taking a controversial position. Fifth, it is important, in my view, to articulate clearly the long-term principles that are at stake and to "stay the course."

Q: On many campuses today, faculty members complain that the tight economic times have led administrators to exclude them from key decisions -- and many administrators complain that faculty are too unrealistic or deliberative to be effective in such times. Do you have any thoughts based on your experience on how to bridge this divide?

A: Again, close, continuing consultation and informal discussion can be very helpful in bridging such divides. In my experience, "reasoning together" pays big dividends. Also, being explicit about the choices that have to be made, and examining the trade-offs carefully, can discourage exaggerated and wrongheaded claims of what is at stake. I do think that the financial pressures that beset higher education today raise real challenges for shared governance, and that continuing efforts have to be made to align incentives — for example, in deciding how to employ sophisticated online learning technologies and how to share any savings achieved in this way.

Q: You note in the book your efforts to promote diversity of various kinds at Princeton, and your post-presidential career has included considerable research and advocacy for inclusion and affirmative action. But Arizona just joined several other states in voting to bar the consideration of race in admissions at public institutions. Why has the general consensus among college presidents in support of affirmative action not translated into public support?

A: It is difficult for many people to understand the educational values of genuine diversity, and it is especially difficult to have an appreciation for diversity if you yourself have not had an opportunity to study in a truly inclusive setting. More generally, we are, I fear, at a point in our history when it is hard for many to see the over-arching importance of building a strong social fabric in the country.

Q: You served as a trustee of your alma mater, Denison University. How did your presidential experience shape your perspective as a trustee?

A: Having had the experience of serving as provost and president of another educational institution gave me insights into the cross-pressures that beat upon the president of any college. My experience helped me, I would like to think, explain to my colleagues on the Denison board that many of the problems that concerned us were generic. There is a danger, however, that one will over-interpret or over-generalize, lessons learned in a university setting that can be very different from a college setting. I always tried to be careful to say that what made sense at Princeton might or might not make sense at Denison.


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