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Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President

William G. Bowen
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 184
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  • Book Info
    Lessons Learned
    Book Description:

    Lessons Learnedgives unprecedented access to the university president's office, providing a unique set of reflections on the challenges involved in leading both research universities and liberal arts colleges. In this landmark book, William Bowen, former president of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and coauthor of the acclaimed best-sellerThe Shape of the River, takes readers behind closed faculty-room doors to discuss how today's colleges and universities serve their age-old missions.

    With extraordinary candor, clarity, and good humor, Bowen shares the sometimes-hard lessons he learned about working with trustees, faculty, and campus groups; building an effective administrative team; deciding when to speak out on big issues and when to insist on institutional restraint; managing dissent; cultivating alumni and raising funds; setting academic priorities; fostering inclusiveness; eventually deciding when and how to leave the president's office; and much more. Drawing on more than four decades of experience, Bowen demonstrates how his greatest lessons often arose from the missteps he made along the way, and how, when it comes to university governance, there are important general principles but often no single right answer.

    Full of compelling stories, insights, and practical wisdom,Lessons Learnedframes the questions that leaders of higher education will continue to confront at a complex moment in history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3758-8
    Subjects: Education, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. ONE Preamble and Context
    (pp. 1-6)

    Hard as it is even for me to believe, I have lived in and around presidents’ offices for more than forty years. Much of that time (1967–1988) was spent as provost and then as president of Princeton University. Those years in Nassau Hall, the last sixteen in the president’s office, were often tumultuous, almost always instructive, and rich in associations as well as experiences. The Vietnam War provoked a sweeping and highly productive reexamination of principles of governance that remain highly relevant; the war also raised probing questions about the role of the university in society. The civil rights...

  4. TWO Governing
    (pp. 7-23)

    At the end of the day, the president is responsible for producing good results in shared governance settings that must seem byzantine to many, inside as well as outside the academy—because in some ways they are! A president’s chances of succeeding in such settings are directly related to the specific governance structure within which he or she operates. Much variation in structures and procedures notwithstanding, there is one absolutely key characteristic of any well-functioning academic community: there must be widespread understanding, certainly among trustees and key faculty members, of how responsibility and influence are shared—and reasonably widespread acceptance...

  5. THREE Administering
    (pp. 24-34)

    Much of the rest of this book is about “administering”—which some prefer to call “managing,” and which is roughly equivalent to getting important things done reasonably efficiently. I devote separate chapters to topics such as achieving important strategic goals, building the faculty, increasing the “inclusiveness” of the university, handling dissent, and fund-raising and alumni relations. In this chapter I talk about “administering” at a more general level, focusing on the recruitment of able colleagues and the establishment of an effective administrative structure.

    I am skeptical that it was ever possible in modern times for a university president to accomplish...

  6. FOUR The University in Society: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe”
    (pp. 35-58)

    In all that it does, a university (and certainly its president) needs to have a clear understanding of the special place that the university occupies in society. This chapter is about the twin norms of openness to all points of view and institutional restraint that are at once seemingly antithetical to each other and yet actually mutually dependent.¹ The university stands, in words E. M. Forster once applied to the Greek poet Cavafy, “at a slight angle to the universe.”² It is a most unusual institution. In its openness to ideas of all kinds and in its nonpartisan, independent character,...

  7. FIVE Setting Academic Priorities: Annual Budgeting
    (pp. 59-65)

    Having been brought into university administration initially to reform an antiquated budgetary process in what now seems like another age, I have thought a good deal about questions of both process and principle—the two subjects of this chapter.

    In discussing the formation of the Priorities Committee, I have already alluded to the most important lesson I learned about process: it is invaluable to lock in one room a set of people representing different constituencies who will help you (the provost or president) confront the reality that limited resources imply the need for trade-off s. “When resources are limited, principles...

  8. SIX Setting Academic Priorities: Strategic Decisions
    (pp. 66-83)

    In addition to constructing annual budgets, universities set academic priorities by making longer-term strategic decisions. I want now to highlight, and discuss in some detail, two major decisions Princeton made during my time in Nassau Hall: to become coeducational and (later) to invest heavily in the life sciences. Each of these decisions is replete with lessons that are, I think, transferable to other situations and many different settings. I then discuss briefly strategic decisions related to investments in graduate and professional programs before commenting more generally on the president’s role in setting expectations and managing the pace of change. I...

  9. SEVEN Building the Faculty
    (pp. 84-97)

    Building the faculty is a never-ending task, and a task that is critically important. During my time in the president’s office, I devoted more time and energy to working with departments to add faculty strength than to any other activity. And it was time well spent. Over the long run, the quality of a university depends critically on what one hopes will be the ever-growing capacities of the faculty—the teaching and research abilities of individual faculty members, to be sure, but also their collegiality and commitment to the university at large.

    The first lesson I learned about building the...

  10. EIGHT Undergraduates: Admissions, Financial Aid, and Inclusiveness
    (pp. 98-118)

    Strategic decisions of many kinds have to be made in crafting an undergraduate class and in creating a structure within which students can relate to each other and to the university at large. There was a time when colleges and universities thought about admissions mainly in terms of enrolling enough students of reasonable quality to allow the place to function. Similarly, concern with residential life was focused on creating a campus setting that would be attractive to potential students and otherwise relatively unproblematic (free of riots). “Selective” colleges and universities were not all that selective until after the end of...

  11. NINE Fund-Raising and Alumni Relations
    (pp. 119-132)

    A distinguished neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield ’13, once described Princeton as “an incurable beggar, but stronger than all her patrons.” These days, both public and private colleges and universities are indeed “incurable beggars,” and a college or university president must play a leading role in raising the funds needed to build and sustain educational excellence. Several commentators (including Derek Bok) have suggested that fund-raising has become much more all-consuming than it used to be. There seems to be almost no time between the end of one campaign and energetic planning for the next, and I know of no real way around...

  12. TEN Life in a President’s Office—and When to Leave
    (pp. 133-143)

    One of the most frustrating aspects of life in a president’s office is the recurring sense that there is just too much to do—and never enough time to do all that clearly needs to be done. There is no real answer to this problem but two things can help: (1) making sure that you have excellent colleagues who can share the work; and (2) establishing some simple rules as to things that you will not do.

    I am very fortunate to have a wife who has always been a real partner. Mary Ellen was (is) superbly well organized, highly...

  13. ELEVEN Epilogue: Why Colleges and Universities Matter So Much
    (pp. 144-148)

    A final lesson I have learned—and learned again and again—is what a privilege it has been to be closely associated with colleges and universities all of my adult life. These institutions are tremendously important to the country for the most mundane reason: they are powerful engines of economic opportunity. They are vital to maintaining our competitive position in an increasingly knowledge-dependent world economy. They are important too to the social fabric of the country: they are engines of social mobility as well as economic progress.

    Compelling as they are, these basic propositions are not what I want to...

    (pp. 149-154)
    William G. Bowen
    (pp. 155-160)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 161-168)