'Kaleidoscope' conference remarks by President Emeritus William G. Bowen

Prepared for "Kaleidoscope: An Alumni Conference on Race and Community at Princeton University"
Nov. 10, 2006

I am delighted to be here, and to be part of this splendid gathering. The subject of this conference is enormously important, not just to Princeton, but to the nation.

I have been asked to do two things: (1) Discuss Princeton’s experiences, from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s (when I declared liberation for the faculty and moved to the Mellon Foundation) in becoming a much more diverse, much more inclusive, institution; and (2) Describe some of the principal findings of the research I have done (with others) on race-sensitive admissions (Shape of the River) and, more recently, socio-economic status and educational opportunity (Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education).

My team’s research is ongoing, I might add, and if there is time I would be glad to tell you a little about our current efforts to understand patterns of educational attainment (not just access) at leading public universities in the US.

Diversity (Inclusiveness) at Princeton: Mid-'60s through late '80s


1) The Princeton that I entered as a graduate student in the mid-'50s, and in which I taught until I became provost in 1967, was so different from the Princeton of today in the composition of its student body that it is hard to believe it is the same university; in many respects, it is not the same university. It is a far better place in which to learn and study today.

2) Princeton in the '50s and '60s was overwhelmingly white, all male, and overwhelmingly Protestant—and all of these dimensions were ripe for change, and ripe to change together. There were also, excepting the Graduate School, relatively few foreign students.

3) It would be nice to be able to claim that those of us in Nassau Hall had, in the jargon of today, a “Strategic Plan” in place that articulated clearly how we were going to make Princeton a far more open, far more inclusive, university than it had been historically. But that would be the worst kind of revisionist history. A colleague and great friend of mine, Aaron Lemonick, dean of the faculty during many of the years I was president, was fond of saying: “Life is what happens to you when you are planning something else.” So true. In fact, as Bob Goheen has explained eloquently in the recent video describing his 70 years of association with Princeton, many of us—most of us—were astonishingly naïve and uninformed, especially about the racial crisis that engulfed America during the King years. But we learned, as the nation learned, and we were inspired, as the nation was inspired, by the protests of brave people and by the not-so-subtle forms of discrimination and blatant unfairness that were everywhere to be seen—once we opened our eyes.

4) President Robert Goheen is the person who deserves the credit for having launched efforts to address so many of these issues—certainly on racial diversity and coeducation. Another crucial player in the events that were to unfold was Neil Rudenstine, who served so ably as dean and then provost up through my time in Nassau Hall. And all of the responsible “officials” during the years in question would agree with me, I’m sure, when I credit faculty and student involvement with these issues—both when it was cheerful and amicable and when it was contentious—with helping to move Princeton forward. I should also say a word about alumni, who were often unfairly chastised for holding Princeton back. Of course we had our share of naysayers, but the overwhelming majority of alumni just wanted the University to be better—and to play its appropriate role in the evolving saga of race and class, gender and religion, in America. The trustees, in my experience, were an unflagging source of support for sensible change.

5) I make no claim today to getting the history right, in its fine detail, and I hope you will forgive me for painting with a broad brush as I comment—at more or less break-neck speed—on the various dimensions of “inclusiveness” that were so important then and that are so important now.

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

I start with race. It was of course the civil rights movement that woke up Princeton, as well as most of the rest of the country, to the gross disparities in opportunity, including educational opportunity, that were associated with race in America.

Under the leadership of President Goheen, Princeton proceeded in the 1960s to recruit more African-American students—at first rather timidly and then more and more aggressively. The numbers were very small in the early years, and the class of 1971, which I always think of as the Jerome Davis-Gene Lowe class, contained only 14 or 15 African-Americans. 

The impact of even this small number of minority students was profound—it was certainly not an easy time for those students, as the splendid documentary by Melvin McCray '74 demonstrates so vividly. Nor was it an easy time for deans and others, including many white students at Princeton, who had so much to learn about what it takes to achieve real inclusiveness. Princeton learned, the hard way, that it was not enough just to enroll some small number of minority students and assume that all would be well. Much work had to be done to meet their academic, social, and personal needs. Numbers mattered, and those of us who were part of the early days of minority recruitment at Princeton can certainly identify with the “critical mass” argument endorsed by Justice O’Connor in the Michigan Supreme Court decisions. In retrospect, we clearly underestimated how hard it would be to overcome all the factors that made minority students feel unwelcome and less than a full part of Princeton. Mea culpa…. It took people like Carl Fields to really move us ahead.

The first wave of African-American students was, let me say, extraordinary in every way, and we owe so much to their ability, courage, determination, and good sense. The founding of the Association of Black Princeton Alumni (ABPA) in 1972—a visionary act at a time when the black population was still very small—proved to be tremendously important, and the leadership of people like Brent Henry '69 and Jerome Davis '71 meant more than most of us will ever know. The protests and demonstrations of those days were often difficult and painful for all concerned, but they resulted in a great deal of learning—among, I think, all parties. Looking beyond those early days, I think we should recognize the leadership provided by so many of the African-American graduates of Princeton, including, just this fall the role that Jon Barfield '74 played in opposing—unsuccessfully but skillfully and bravely—the Ward Connerly Affirmative Action Ban in Michigan—which I will say more about in a few minutes.

It was only later that Princeton acted aggressively to recruit students from other racial and ethnic minorities, including of course students from the rapidly growing Hispanic communities.  Again, early efforts were somewhat halting, and the class of '75 included less than 20 Hispanic students. But, in time, persistence brought another very able population of students to Princeton.

I also want to say at least a word about the many, many contributions of Asian students to Princeton and to Princeton life. It would be invidious to single out individuals, and I want to resist the temptation to do that—but I have to mention the phrase of Eva Lerner Lam '76, when she said eloquently (referring to her classmates and to the Princeton of her day) that “we are united by our differences.” I would add, “united and enriched by our differences.”

Just last week Gordon Wu '58 visited Princeton, and I was reminded of how important it was that he agree to allow us to name Wu Hall in his honor—and to allow us to inscribe his name in appropriate calligraphy at the entrance. The argument I used in convincing Gordon to let us place the calligraphy in its proper place was that this would be a way of symbolizing that those who care about Princeton, and provide for it, are by no means only the donors with “traditional” names like Pyne and Dillon. “Wu Hall” was a very direct way of saying that Princeton’s Asian population cared too, and also wanted to “give back.”  


Next, gender: Hail and farewell to the all-male Princeton that served so many people of earlier generations so well. The decision of the board of trustees in April 1969 to admit women undergraduates was of course critically important. That decision came on a divided vote by the trustees, with eight in opposition (one of whom later said that he thought every trustee should be allowed to change one vote that he had cast, and that if he were given that privilege, this was surely the vote he would change). The initial decision to embrace coeducation was followed five years later by a trustee vote in favor of “equal access”—which meant that the initial promise to keep the number of male undergraduates constant had to be set aside so that men and women students could compete for places absent gender-specific quotas. 

It is, I suspect, hard for some of you here today to imagine the all-male Princeton of days gone by. The first woman to occupy a senior administrative office was Joan Girgus, and I will never forget a story Joan told me about how well coeducation was accepted by the time she arrived in 1977. She was participating in an orientation session for incoming students when one of them asked her: “Dean Girgus, were you a Princeton undergraduate?” Joan replied that at Princeton we thought students should answer their own questions whenever they could, and that this was a question the student should be able to answer for herself. The student paused and then said, “Yes.  I know the answer. You had to have been a Princeton undergraduate because only a former undergraduate could be the dean of the college.” Obviously, coeducation was so well established by this time that the student simply could not believe that Princeton had ever been any other way. 


Religion is the next aspect of inclusiveness that I want to refer to. It is a more important aspect than some recognize. For whatever reasons, I always seemed to have disproportionate numbers of wonderfully talented and appealing Jewish students in my own sections of Economics 101, including a large number from Ramaz. As I got to know more and more of these students, and their families, it was evident to me that Princeton was not holding up its share of the bargain with them. The University still seemed to say, in many direct and some subtle ways, that the Jewish students, like the minority students, were “outsiders,” at Princeton only on Princeton’s terms.  

Fortunately, the dean of the chapel, an Episcopal clergyman named Fred Borsch '57, also understood the need to fix this problem. Fred and I arranged, with the critically important assistance of a charter trustee, John Coburn, to move important ceremonial events (Opening Exercises and then the Baccalaureate service) out of the Sunday morning “Christian” hour and into Sunday afternoon. Dean Borsch also made important changes in the appearance of the Chapel.

I also thought it would be important—symbolically and substantively—to broaden the composition of the individuals invited to give the Baccalaureate address, and I succeeded in persuading first Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame and then Gerson Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to speak at Baccalaureate. Gerson Cohen, coincidentally, had a marvelously accomplished daughter in the Princeton senior class the year he gave what I still regard as one of the best Baccalaureate addresses ever delivered at Princeton. Another step toward inclusiveness. And then, some years later (in 1993), Princeton opened the Center for Jewish Life, after having had a number of years of excellent experience with a Kosher dining facility.  

Socio-economic Status

The last dimension of diversity/inclusiveness that I want to mention has to do with socio-economic status. From Colonial America, Princeton has enrolled, in the language of another day, “poor but pious youth”; but it was only in the 1970s that the University committed itself unequivocally to a policy of meeting the full need of all students who were admitted. Again, we were helped by pressure from students, especially Mark Smith '71. 

More recently, under President Tilghman’s leadership, Princeton has played a leading role in substituting grants for loans in the financial aid packages and in enrolling a larger number of first generation college-goers.

In Sum…

Princeton is, in my opinion, far richer today because of the greater inclusiveness achieved along all of these dimensions. And I have not even mentioned my own group of alumni, the graduate student population, which is so wonderfully diverse and so powerfully international. Students from other countries were much in evidence when I was a graduate student, and of course the “internationalization” of Princeton at both undergraduate and graduate levels has increased dramatically since the 1950s.

There is much to be said for embracing the dictum of the architect, Robert Venturi '47, who said that what we must always seek [in architecture and in education] is “the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion.”

Lessons from Empirical Research

I turn now to the second part of my assignment, to summarize, ever so briefly, some of the conclusions from research that I have carried out since leaving Princeton on topics directly related to the subject of this conference. You will see that my days in Nassau Hall did a lot to shape my future research agenda.

'The Shape of the River'

Again, I begin with race. In the late 1990s, Derek Bok and I embarked on a major empirical study of the actual effects of race-sensitive admissions policies, as they could be discerned through a detailed analysis of a database built at the Mellon Foundation between 1995 and 1997 that contained the in-college records of basically all matriculants in the student cohorts that entered 28 academically selective colleges and universities (including Princeton) in 1951, 1976 and 1989.

In light of the increasingly contentious public debate over the role played by race in admissions, legislative actions in California and the state of Washington prohibiting any consideration of race, the sweeping Hopwood decision in Texas that threatened to overturn Bakke, and the strong likelihood that there would be a further Supreme Court review of affirmative action, the time seemed right for a comprehensive empirical review of how these policies had actually worked. We sought to "find the facts," as best we could. (I remember a Princeton trustee and a lifelong friend, Nick Katzenbach '43, telling me prophetically at the time President Bok and I began this research: “Remember, you are writing this book for one person: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.”)

Our findings were reported in "The Shape of the River: Long-term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions," and I will now summarize as succinctly as I can the principal lessons learned through this research, the debate engendered by it, and follow-on and companion studies. Five propositions stand out (this summary is taken from "Equity and Excellence," pp. 144-47):

(1) The presumed educational benefits of diversity have been strongly affirmed. Patricia Gurin and her colleagues at the University of Michigan assembled and assessed masses of evidence (including the findings in "Shape of the River") on the effects of diversity on both "learning outcomes" and "democracy outcomes." Gurin concluded: "We have documented a consistent picture from both our research and the research of other scholars that shows a wide range of educational benefits when students interact and learn from each other across race and ethnicity." 

(2) Race-sensitive admissions policies have increased substantially the number of well-prepared minority students who have gone on to assume positions of leadership in the professions, business, academia, the military, government and every other sector of American life—thereby reducing somewhat the continuing disparity in access to power and opportunity that is related to race in America. The evidence presented in the "River" shows that minority students admitted to academically selective colleges and universities as long ago as the mid-1970s have not only graduated at very high rates but have completed rigorous graduate programs, done well in the marketplace, and, most notably, contributed in the civic arena out of all proportion to their numbers. 

(3) The costs of race-sensitive admission policies have been modest and are well-justified by the benefits; most of the alleged negative effects of race-sensitive admissions are seen, on examination, to be minor or non-existent. Specifically:

(3a) There is no evidence that, overall, race-sensitive admissions policies "harm the beneficiaries" by putting them in settings in which they are overmatched intellectually or "stigmatized" to the point that they would have been better off attending a less selective institution.  This assertion withers in the light of the evidence. The most compelling and relentlessly consistent data in the "River" show that, far from being stigmatized and harmed, minority students admitted to selective colleges under race-sensitive admissions performed very well.  Indeed, the more selective the college they entered (holding their own SAT scores constant), the more likely they were to graduate and earn advanced degrees, the happier they said they were with their college experience, and the more successful they have been in their careers. This is precisely the opposite result from the one that proponents of the "harm-the-beneficiary" line of thinking would have predicted.
(3b) Evidence also disposes of the argument that substituting race-neutral admissions policies for race-sensitive policies would have removed from campus a marginal group of mediocre students, leaving only a distinctly superior "top-tier" of well-qualified minority students. Examination of the later accomplishments of those students who would have been "retrospectively rejected" under race-neutral policies shows that they did just as well as a hypothetical reference group that might have been accepted if admissions officers had given black students and white students with the same GPAs and test scores exactly the same consideration. There are no significant differences in graduation rates, advanced-degree attainment, earnings, civic contributions, or satisfactions with college. These striking results testify, we believe, to the excellent job done by admissions officers in "picking and choosing" among the large number of applicants from minority groups as well as other candidates who are well over the admissions threshold—many of whom are rejected.

(3c) Contrary to what is often supposed, eliminating race-sensitive admissions policies entirely would have increased the admission rate for white applicants at these academically selective institutions by less than two percentage points: from roughly 25 percent to 26.5 percent. At all selective colleges and universities with a plethora of well-qualified candidates, the "opportunity cost" of admitting any particular student is that another strong applicant is not chosen. A rejected applicant—and the applicant's parents—sometimes assume that he or she would surely have gotten in had it not been for "reverse discrimination." In fact, race-sensitive admissions policies have not reduced appreciably the chances of well-qualified white applicants to gain admission to the most selective colleges and universities—in many situations, recruited athletes receive larger admissions "breaks" and displace more other applicants than do minority students.

(4) Progress has been made in narrowing test-score gaps between minority students and other students, but gaps remain—and so does the need for race-sensitive admissions policies. At a group of liberal arts colleges and universities examined in 1976 and 1995, average combined SAT scores for minority students rose roughly 130 points at the liberal arts colleges and roughly 150 points at the research universities. Test scores of other students rose too, but by much smaller amounts. In short, test-score gaps narrowed over this period, and the average rank-in-class of minority students on graduation improved even more than one would have predicted on the basis of test scores alone. Still, test-score gaps remain, and more progress needs to be made. At the 10 institutions for which we have limited data on the 1999 entering class, there was a 137-point gap between the SAT scores of minority students and non-minority students.

(5) One unanticipated consequence of the publication of the "River" is that a number of African American students who attended the selective schools included in the study found the highly positive findings very reassuring—they served to counter hurtful "suggestions" that they did not really deserve to be there. After a presentation to the American Council on Education, a young black woman came up and introduced herself as a Harvard graduate. She said that she found the "River" "liberating" and added: "I guess I have been walking around with a kind of cloud over my head, which I didn't really understand was there, and it's gone now… We did pretty well, didn't we?" "Yes," I responded, "you did very well indeed." She nodded and said, with emphasis, "Thank you. I'm now ready to stand up and fight!" Also, I remember well a call I received in my office from Jerry Blakemore '76, who had been in my Economics 101 section, and who said simply, in commenting on the "River," “President Bowen, your book is about me!”

'Equity and Excellence:' Socio-economic Status

I turn now (hurriedly) to socio-economic status. Following publication of the "River" and two other studies focused on athletics, colleagues and I completed another large empirical study focused this time on the efforts of 19 academically selective college and universities (again, including Princeton) to educate well large numbers of students from modest socio-economic status backgrounds.  

What did we find? In brief:

(1) Aggressive outreach and recruitment efforts notwithstanding, only about 11 percent of the students at these schools were from the lowest income quartile, only about 6 percent were first-generation college-goers and only about 3 percent were first-generation college-goers who also came from the bottom income quartile.  

(2) Cutting through a mass of analysis, one main take-away is that, for those applicants who took the SAT, did reasonably well on it and applied to one of the selective institutions, family income and parental education, in and of themselves, had surprisingly little effect on admissions probabilities, yields, choices of majors, and subsequent academic performance and graduation rates.

Given the importance to American life of reducing disparities related to family circumstances, of increasing mobility, and of increasing the country’s stock of human capital in an ever more competitive world, I don’t this is an outcome that is good enough. I am proud to say that President Tilghman and Princeton have taken the lead in improving financial aid packages and in enrolling more students from modest backgrounds. This is unfinished business.

(3) We also spent considerable time studying the interactions between race and socio-economic status. The key question is whether focusing admissions and enrollment efforts solely on socio-economic status would simultaneously, as a kind of by-product, address the need for racial diversity. Since it is true that a far larger fraction of blacks than of whites come from the bottom income quartile, is easy to see why some people might be intrigued by this way of avoiding the issue of race. Americans have an insatiable appetite for the painless solution, and considering race continues to be painful for many people.

We carried out some complex simulations which allowed us to estimate the effects on minority enrollment at these schools of substituting for race-sensitive admissions one fairly aggressive way of doing more for candidates from low income backgrounds (giving them the same admissions advantage as is given to legacies today). The numbers are not encouraging. Replacing race-sensitive admissions with this kind of “legacy thumb on the scale” for low-income students would yield student populations with a few more minority students than would be there if neither race-sensitive admissions nor the SES thumb on the scale were used. But, the comparison with the outcome of a race-sensitive policy is sobering: substituting our SES “thumb” for race-sensitive admissions would cut the number of minority students in the typical undergraduate class at these institutions roughly in half: from just over 13 percent to 7 percent. The effects at the graduate and professional levels would be even more dramatic.

The Path Forward

This last set of findings has direct relevance for an extremely timely debate: the future of affirmative action. You probably saw that last Tuesday, voters in Michigan approved a ban on essentially all kind of affirmative action by public institutions, including universities, in that state. Colleagues at the University of Michigan are both disappointed and dismayed by this result, which could have very serious consequences for the ability of that great university to continue to enroll a racially diverse student body, especially in its graduate and professional schools.

My own current research is focused on educational attainment at the leading public universities, and especially the contribution these universities are making in educating more students from both modest economic circumstances and racial minorities. The Michigan results give me a new incentive to press on with that research as vigorously as possible.

The outcome of the Michigan referendum is sobering for those of us who believe, with Ronald Dworkin, that “the worst of the stereotypes, suspicions, fears, and hatreds that still poison America are color-coded.”

In speaking at a conference on educational opportunity held recently at the University of North Carolina, I referred to the last speech that President Lyndon Johnson gave, just about a month before he died, at a symposium on civil rights in Austin, Texas. He was desperately ill and had been told by his doctor not to attend the symposium and certainly not to subject himself to the strain of giving a major speech. But LBJ was determined. Let me conclude by quoting an excerpt from that talk:

“To be black, I believe, to one who is black or brown, is to be proud, is to be worthy, is to be honorable. But to be black in a white society is not to stand on level and equal ground. While the races may stand side by side, whites stand on history’s mountain and blacks stand in history’s hollow. We must overcome unequal history before we overcome unequal opportunity.”

This conference is for me a powerful reaffirmation of Princeton’s recognition of the importance of not forgetting where we have come from as we focus on what is clearly an unfinished agenda.

Thank you.