Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President

Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President


Lessons Learned gives 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-seller The 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 Learned frames the questions that leaders of higher education will continue to confront at a complex moment in history.


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 movement added to the sense of urgency so many of us felt as we tried to alter the university’s persona in fundamental ways while retaining those elements of its character that remain basic to the intellectual power of the place. Then, there were more locally driven debates over issues such as coeducation and how to build faculty strength (especially in the life sciences) in the face of high inflation, high unemployment, escalating energy costs, and depressed stock prices. It was a stimulating setting for someone learning, as I was, about life in a president’s office.

During those same years, I served as a trustee of Denison University in Ohio, where I had been an undergraduate, and thus had the opportunity to see the somewhat different pressures that beat upon the president of a small liberal arts college. After leaving Princeton, I went to the Andrew W.

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