The prince of Princeton

Vice-chancellors and their American counterparts, the presidents of colleges and universities, are not the stuff of legend. Clark Kerr, who created the modern University of California in the 1960s, is an exception, but Dwight Eisenhower is better known as a five-star general and president of the United States than as president of Columbia University, and Woodrow Wilson better known as the commander-in-chief who took the United States to war in 1917 than as president of Princeton.

In higher education circles, however, the name of William Bowen - universally known as "Bill" - is one to conjure with. Lessons Learned draws its material from his 15 years as president of Princeton, but its title indicates the style:

this is an instruction manual on how to run a successful research university, rather than a memoir. Reminiscence plays the role of supporting evidence only, and there is a striking absence of gossip, let alone any settling of scores. If the Tory universities minister, David Willetts, has time to read anything these days, he would learn what it takes to run a successful higher education system; and those complacent figures who sit on the governing councils of so many UK universities would learn a great deal about running one institution.

It is a bit of a misrepresentation to suggest that Lessons Learned gets its authority from Bill Bowen's time as president of Princeton alone. For one thing, by the time he became president in 1972, at the absurdly young age of 38, he had already served five years as provost, the second most senior post in the university. In that position, he had had to handle student and staff hostility to the Vietnam war - it is hard to imagine that Princeton students ever got to the point of confronting armed National Guardsmen, though they did - and he had spent an inordinate amount of time and energy persuading the Princeton old guard that it was high time to become co-educational.

After he stepped down from running Princeton, Bowen became president of the Mellon Foundation, and spent almost two decades not only disbursing enormous sums of money to support the arts, research in the humanities and social sciences, better provision for graduate students and a host of other projects, but also writing a stream of books on almost every issue that confronts modern universities. The Mellon Foundation's resources allowed him and his co-authors to gather information that few others could have obtained - it is hard to tell Mellon that you don't want to part with embarrassing information at the same time as you ask the trustees for several million dollars.

Among the achievements of those years, two stand out. The Shape of the River, which Bowen co-wrote with Derek Bok, who recently retired
as president of Harvard, came out in 1998. It remains the best thing yet written on the successes and limitations of race-based affirmative action. On the one hand, it confirms the view of pessimists who say that 18 is too late in the day to make much difference to academic achievement, and that students who arrive performing in the bottom third graduate performing in the bottom third. On the other hand, in universities with very high graduation rates, affirmative-action students graduate at very nearly the same rate as their peers, though elsewhere the gap is great and seems to be growing. And if affirmative action does not do an enormous amount for the academic achievement of students who benefit from it, attending a leading university makes a huge difference to their economic prospects. Anyone who thinks that the United States does race the way Britain does class will draw his or her own conclusions.

A second book put an even fiercer cat among the pigeons: a decade ago, The Game of Life pointed out what all enthusiasts for the role of sports in American universities indignantly try to deny - that even the most successful universities lose vast sums on their athletics programmes, that athletes on average do considerably worse academically than non-athletes, and more surprisingly that the obsession with athletics creates greater problems in liberal arts colleges and small establishments with not very high sporting standards. The reason, once understood, is obvious enough. At a huge college such as the University of Michigan, young people who are in essence professional sports players form only about 5 per cent of the student population; they have no great impact on the place as an academic institution. But a small liberal arts college may admit a third or more of its students with a leg-up from a coach.

None of this would have carried any weight with readers if Bowen had not been such a successful head of such a successful university. It is worth remembering that when he assumed the presidency, Princeton was not the well-heeled entity it later became. Bowen was a great fundraiser, not least because he enjoyed doing it. Unlike so many of us who find it faintly embarrassing to go cap in hand even if we think that we have a terrific case, he had a seemingly unfeigned conviction that innumerable alumni were waiting to help. All that was required was that they should understand how they could make an institution that they already admired even better.

Delicacy of touch was needed, too. One of Bowen's achievements at Princeton was to turn it into a world-class competitor in the life sciences. The university's mathematics and physics departments were always excellent; but getting to the same place in molecular biology demanded a readiness to bet the store. One place where resources were to be had was Saudi Arabia, but a Princeton that had newly become co-educational, and had turned its back on the anti-Semitism endemic in the Ivy League before 1950, was anxious not only about the terms of any gift, but about the possibility that even the negotiating process would be humiliating to women and Jewish faculty members. It was not, but only because it followed scrupulous planning.

There are aspects of Bowen's success that he plays down; he says that nobody can run a university without the support of close friends whose advice he trusts. What he does not say is that he had a talent for securing that sort of friendship. Bowen was notorious for writing thank you notes to anyone who had done anything for which he might conceivably be grateful, dictating them as he walked to the car, on the way to a football game, while he was waiting for a plane. His advice on how to be a successful leader of a university is invariably spot-on. He may overestimate how easily anyone else can take it. l

Alan Ryan was warden of New College, Oxford, until 2009