Ever the Teacher

Ever the Teacher

by William G. Bowen

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In one of his commencement talks as President of Princeton University, William G. Bowen called upon the assembled graduates to find ways, in their lives, to blend "the powers of the mind and the promptings of the heart."This collection of his presidential writings--drawn from annual reports, opening exercises addresses, commencement remarks, and other speeches and


In one of his commencement talks as President of Princeton University, William G. Bowen called upon the assembled graduates to find ways, in their lives, to blend "the powers of the mind and the promptings of the heart."This collection of his presidential writings--drawn from annual reports, opening exercises addresses, commencement remarks, and other speeches and essays--reflects a blend of analysis and advocacy that speaks both to public policy issues affecting all of American higher education and to the deeper meanings and values of Princeton.The writings selected for inclusion here represent roughly half of the total archive annotated in Appendix B. They range from brief extracts to complete documents, and they are organized under such topics as the university in society; purposes of education/liberal education; graduate education, scholarship, and research; faculty; diversity, opportunity, and financial aid; the economics of the private research university; and a final chapter titled simply "Reflections."Throughout his fifteen-year tenure, President Bowen remained a teacher in the introductory economics course at Princeton, and his principal identification was always as a member of the faculty. His writings, as he saw them, were an extension of his teaching: an opportunity to communicate important ideas in ways that would sharpen his own understanding at the same time that they provoked others to think hard about the questions being raised. As such, his writings were a source of insight and illumination for many "students," of various descriptions, who listened, and read, and learned from what he had to say.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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9.90(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.40(d)

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Ever the Teacher

By William G. Bowen


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09692-6



The University in Society

Princeton's president is also the presiding officer of the Board of Trustees, and President Bowen keenly felt the trustee's obligation to protect the integrity and independence of the university as a center of learning. Thus it is not surprising that a central and recurring theme of the Bowen presidency concerned the nature of the university and its roles and responsibilities in the larger society.

This theme was developed most fully in the September 1985 Opening Exercises address, entitled "At a Slight Angle to the World." That address begins this chapter, followed by what are, in effect, three case studies:

• an excerpt from the 1975 annual report that discusses the implications for freedom of speech of a visit to Princeton by Dr. William Shockley, a scientist at Stanford whose views on matters of race were offensive to many;

• a statement issued in January 1978 in response to a proposed boycott at Princeton of textiles manufactured by the J. P. Stevens Company, which was alleged to have engaged in unfair labor practices; and

• the opening statement from a May 1985 forum on divestment and South Africa.

The chapter then looks at relationships between the university and the federal government, turning first to a 1987 speech to the Princeton Club of Washington that asked whether higher education is "just another special interest?" and then to a 1982 paper on the role of the federal government that was prepared at a time when many in Washington were proposing a substantial redefinition of that role.

The final section in this chapter reviews the role of the university and the role of the government from the perspective of President Bowen's visit to China in November 1974 as a member of the first delegation of college and university presidents to travel in China following the enormous dislocations of the Cultural Revolution. The talk, delivered at the Princeton Club of New York, is fascinating both for its initial impressions of an elusive and reclusive China and for the light shed by those impressions on American universities and the society they serve.

At a Slight Angle to the World


... I wish to explore with you the nature of the University — and, more specifically, its relationship to the society it seeks to serve. I want to begin by contrasting the openness and independence of the University you are entering with the much more authoritarian character of higher education in other times and places.

If you had attended Princeton a century ago, the faculty who taught you would have been chosen, at least in part, on the basis of their religious beliefs as well as their competence as teachers and scholars. You would have found that there were real limits to the range of opinions thought acceptable.

Colleges and universities in this country today enjoy a degree of autonomy, and especially of freedom from the application of political as well as religious tests, that is almost unique when viewed historically or when compared with universities right now in most other parts of the world.

The treatment of the Chinese universities during the Cultural Revolution is the most extreme recent example of ideological domination of higher education. I was in the People's Republic of China in 1974, after the start of efforts to resuscitate the universities, and even then, when I asked one university president to identify his principal problem, he was quick to respond: "Getting the faculty to think right."

In Chile, immediately following the coup of 1973, the universities were purged of known Marxists and put under the control of military rectors. One of the many faculty members subsequently dismissed had committed the "crime" of producing research critical of government figures on economic growth and income distribution. By that test, economics departments in this country would be depopulated overnight!

The Greek universities suffered severely under the juntas from 1967 to 1974; and then, when civilian rule was restored, militant students called for "catharsis" — the purging of professors who had collaborated with the military dictatorship. They denounced as well, it was reported in the New York Times, "professors they considered too conservative politically or too strict academically." Many other examples could be cited to demonstrate that even democratic forms of government often provide no assurance of freedom for universities from ideological intervention.

In all universities, at all times, the same fundamental questions have to be answered. On the basis of what criteria are students and faculty to be chosen? What subject matter should be taught and studied? Should one or many points of view be presented? Who should decide what are the "right" answers to controversial questions? In short, what educational philosophy should be followed? And, how should society exercise its strong and altogether legitimate interest in the way universities function?

You will not expect me (I hope!) to provide anything purporting to be comprehensive answers to those large questions today. I will try only to give you some sense of how responses have changed over time, and some understanding of the principles that underlie how this University — now your University — seeks to serve the societal purposes for which it was chartered.

Underlying all else are of course the values of the society itself. A distinguished faculty member of ours, Professor Bernard Lewis, has recently published a brilliant book called The Jews of Islam in which he describes the interactions between these two religious traditions over nearly thirteen centuries. Early on he observes that "tolerance is a new virtue, intolerance a new crime. ... Until comparatively modern times, Christian Europe neither prized nor practiced tolerance itself, and was not greatly offended by its absence in others. The charge that was always brought against Islam was not that its doctrines were imposed by force — something seen as normal and natural — but that its doctrines were false."

A reading of Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger's classic history of the development of academic freedom in the United States, with its European roots, underscores the relevance of Professor Lewis's observation for universities. Whereas it is common today simply to assume the right of free inquiry, the driving assumption throughout most of history has been a very different one. The medieval academic community, for instance, while self-governing in many respects, took for granted "the right of some authority to exercise censorship and proscription in theology and on such conclusions of philosophy as were deemed to encroach upon theology." Heretics were expelled — and sometimes burned.

In America, the struggles for religious tolerance and academic freedom were closely entwined. Both were affected profoundly in the second half of the nineteenth century by the work of Charles Darwin and, more generally, by the growing acceptance of the scientific method. The ensuing debates over doctrine and the nature of Truth itself were often exceedingly painful. American universities were also affected powerfully by the impressive accomplishments of the German universities and by the growing interest in higher education of the federal and state governments, as reflected in the establishment of the land-grant universities.

Private universities were of course particularly susceptible to pressures from their own constituents. The increasing generosity of individuals of means meant that colleges and universities were beginning to be subject to the strong will of donors. A famous case of this kind occurred at Stanford when in 1900 an outspoken critic of big business, Professor Edward A. Ross, was forced to resign at the direct instigation of Mrs. Stanford herself.

The tensions associated with World War I affected many campuses, including this one, as 1 learned just this spring through a profile in the Princeton Alumni Weekly of an extraordinary alumnus of ours, Henry Strater '19. Strater, a pacifist as an undergraduate, joined with several other students to bring the most famous anti-war personality of the time, William Jennings Bryan, to speak at Princeton. Mr. Strater offers this recollection. "The president of Princeton called me into his office when he found out about Bryan. President Hibben said that he couldn't allow Bryan to speak on campus because he had already committed Princeton to a war policy. Eventually we were able to have Bryan speak at a little church that adjoined the campus, and he spoke to a full house."

Ahistorical as so many of us are these days, we may forget that the famous statement on academic freedom adopted by the American Association of University Professors and subsequently endorsed by many educational associations was not drafted until 1915, was not endorsed by the American Council on Education until 1925, and was not approved in its final form until 1940. And then, of course, the sad legacy of the McCarthy period in America in the early 1950s is a forceful reminder of how easy it seems to be, even in the second half of the twentieth century, to slip back into efforts at thought control.

Let me now move to the present and outline as briefly as I can the philosophy and policies that guide us today, the reasons for them, and what I believe is required if they are to be kept secure.

Princeton's obligations to society are to educate students for responsible citizenship and to advance the frontiers of knowledge. The educational philosophy adopted to achieve these goals has three principal roots: first, an unqualified commitment to the most vigorous possible search for truth in all of its cultural, spiritual, social, and physical manifestations; second, a belief that openness to conflicting viewpoints and free debate is central to this search; and, third, a faith in the individual and a corresponding insistence on the importance of fostering independent thinking.

Implicit in this educational philosophy is acknowledgment of the ever-present possibility of being wrong, a willingness to change one's mind, and an ability to respect viewpoints other than one's own — in short, a reasonable degree of intellectual as well as personal humility. It is salutary to remember the number of errors and even crimes that have been committed in the names of Truth and Conscience.

For many years, one of the faculty members at Princeton who most successfully challenged students and faculty alike to reexamine their assumptions and confront their prejudices was H. H. Wilson of the Politics Department. Professor Wilson once described education as "the opposite of indoctrination." He explained: "In all societies efforts are made to use the schools for indoctrination, to propagandize, to inculcate beliefs, to produce cheerleaders for the status quo. Learning how to think is a wholly different operation from being told what to think. ... The teacher expresses respect for the student; the indoctrinator holds the student in contempt." This is not to say that Princeton abjures efforts to distinguish right from wrong, truth from falsehood, but rather that it believes, with John Milton, that given an opportunity, truth and right will eventually triumph over falsehood and wrong.

Viewed against either the norm today worldwide or even against our own recent past in this country, the concept of education that I have just outlined is a very radical one: teachers and students alike are to be permitted — and, in some sense, even encouraged — to be critical of the very individuals, organizations, and agencies that are providing their sustenance. It is certainly not hard to understand why anyone in a position of authority would be tempted to use educational institutions to indoctrinate, to insist that they hew to the party line, to be sure that faculty "think right." Indeed, the interesting question is the opposite one: what accounts for the rather peculiar willingness of our society to support institutions that can be the home of so much contrariness?

There are, I think, two explanations. First, we are fortunate to live in a country in which democratic values predominate; in which a Constitution and its "Bill of Rights" protect dissenters. The second explanation is more practical but no less important. The freedom to think freshly, and for one's self, is essential to deeper understanding of all subjects, to scientific and technological progress, and to the full development of the capacities of our people. In short, teaching and research are done better when they are unfettered than when ideological constraints are applied, and the society has a very pragmatic interest in the quality of a place like Princeton.

What is required of us if this philosophy of openness is to be sustained? I would like to suggest four elements that, working together, seem to me to constitute the essential foundation for the independence of the University and the effective exercise of freedom within it.

First is clarity on our part concerning our mission and integrity in carrying it out. This includes an unwillingness, especially in recruiting and promoting faculty, to subordinate the single-minded pursuit of excellence and integrity to anything else. Cronyism or favoritism of any kind (related to friendship, to shared political sympathies, to religious affiliation, or even to the apparent advantages of "comfortable" relationships within a department) have no place in the appointment process.

Second is an unwillingness to be "bought." Governments and private donors alike must understand that support cannot be conditioned on ideological conformity. The University is not for sale. Furthermore, to allow such assertions of independence to be powerful realities, the University must have flexible resources of its own. Inevitably, and with the greatest regard for the "not for sale" principle, many funds provided to the University will reflect the greater interests of grant-making entities and other donors in some aspects of the University's mission than in others. Accordingly, the University must have the funds to achieve at least some balance in its activities and to retain, finally, the capacity to determine what kind of place it is to be. As someone once said: "To be great, an institution must be free; and to be free, it must be solvent."

Third, the University as an institution must exercise a significant degree of institutional restraint if its individual members are to enjoy the maximum degree of freedom. This seeming paradox is somewhat complex, and I want to take a few minutes to explore its ramifications.

The idea that the university as an institution should consciously distance itself somewhat from the political and social conflicts of the day developed only in this century, and as a concomitant with greater academic freedom for faculty and students. From medieval times through the early 1900s, it was normal for universities in their institutional capacities to serve as defenders and propagandists of the official religious and political systems, and for administrators, faculty, and students to be expected to support these positions. This earlier pattern emphasized more institutional involvement in the outside world, and less individual freedom of expression. Religious, political, and intellectual radicals have always found refuge in the interstices of the university, but until very recently they have often been liable to discrimination and expulsion. The relatively recent reversal of this relationship — restraining collective university positions on issues of public policy but expanding the range of individual opinions — has proved to be critically important in the building of modern research universities with the highest academic standards.

Institutional restraint, then, has been an essential corollary to the strengthening of freedom of expression for individuals. The reluctance of universities to take institutional stands on issues has not stemmed from indifference, from any sense of being in a privileged position "above the fray," or from any lack of awareness that all the institutions of the society are implicated in its imperfections and should seek to avoid adding to them. Rather, this reluctance has been viewed as a positive thing: a direct demonstration of the institutions' openness to all points of view. Internally, the absence of an institutional statement of "orthodoxy" lessens the risk that faculty or students will be favored in some way — or will think that they may be favored — by taking the "right" position on a controversial question.


Excerpted from Ever the Teacher by William G. Bowen. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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