Bill Bowen: 1933–2016

20 October 2016 | Story Yusuf Omar. Photo John WH Simpson, courtesy of the Princeton University Archives.
Dr Bill Bowen
Dr Bill Bowen

6 October 1933 – 20 October 2016

Dr Bill Bowen, the renowned labour economist who led a charge for breaking down exclusionary barriers at elite universities, and an important benefactor of poor students from UCT, passed away on 20 October 2016. He was 83.

An outstanding scholar, Bowen became the President of Princeton University at 38. His tenure was marked by championing the cause for poor and minority students to access elite colleges, for which he advocated both from his office and through his writing.

Bowen’s seminal 2000 book, The Shape of the River, argued an empirical case for the importance of affirmative action in college admissions. Bowen led Princeton to ending the ban on admitting women to the Ivy League college, and was a trailblazer for advancing the humanities and access to higher education across the globe.

In 1985 Professor Stuart Saunders, then Vice-Chancellor of UCT, spent a month touring universities in Europe, Israel and the United States to raise funds, chiefly for black students.

“Of all the presidents I met in the United States from the early 1980s, he was the one who impressed me the most,” Saunders wrote in his memoir, Vice-Chancellor on a Tightrope. “He showed a deep insight into the problems of South Africa and the particular problems facing the University of Cape Town, and the meeting was the beginning of a firm friendship and of consistent support by him for the university.”

Bowen became the president of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation after leaving Princeton in 1988. Under Bowen’s stewardship, Mellon directed funding to UCT and then, at Saunders’ bidding, to other universities. This funding ran into the millions, enabling poor black students especially to access the university. The Mellon Foundation remains a crucial source of funding for UCT students and researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds, from undergraduate through to doctoral level.

“UCT has lost an important friend,” said Registrar Emeritus Hugh Amoore, who had many interactions with Bowen over the years.

Bowen was conferred a Doctor of Economic Sciences degree, honoris causa, by UCT in 1996 and, in typically modest style, he insisted the ceremony be low key and away from the public gaze.

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