William Bowen, Mellon Foundation president who led initial OCW funding, dies at 83

Photo of man standing at a Princeton University lectern, giving a speech.

Photo of William Bowen by Brian Wilson, Office of Communications, Princeton University.

MIT OpenCourseWare joins with our colleagues across higher education to mourn the passing of William Bowen. As president of the Mellon Foundation, he played a central role in the creation of OpenCourseWare.

More on the OCW story below. But first, those who didn’t know Bowen can get a glimpse of his life and reach in Brian Rosenberg’s eloquent rememberance in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

To Bill Bowen, the important things always mattered, regardless of his age or his title. He cared in 2016 as passionately about the entrenched inequities in higher education as he did when he assumed the presidency of Princeton, at age 38. He cared as much about issues of academic freedom and free speech as he did in 1973, when he defended the right of William Shockley, a physics professor who believed blacks were genetically inferior, to say things that Bowen himself found deeply offensive. He argued as forcefully for the importance of the arts and humanities in our culture as he did when he assumed the presidency of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in 1988.

He never stopped caring, and he never stopped being the most thoughtful and articulate voice on these and a host of other issues central to our educational system and our civic life…

Outside the circles of academe, his name is not nearly as well known as those of innumerable politicians and business people. But whether they know his name or not, many people who have attended a college whose doors would have been closed to them previously, or who received financial aid that created a world of new possibilities, are better off because Bill Bowen cared about their lives.

How did Bill Bowen come into the OCW fold? In 2000, MIT President Charles Vest had just received the revolutionary recommendation that would lead to OpenCourseWare. An Institute committee of faculty, staff and alumni felt that MIT should respond to the rapid growth of the Internet by giving all of its basic teaching materials away on the web for free.

President Vest quickly saw the wisdom and the enormous potential of the proposal, and set out to make it real. One of the first big questions: how to fund it? His first stop was none other than Bill Bowen. Vest describes their initial meeting:

I had breakfast in New York with Bill Bowen, the distinguished former president of Princeton University and current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bill is that rare combination, a deep thinker and an effective leader.

Over eggs, I said, “Bill, I want to tell you how MIT is thinking about using the Internet for education. Then I’ll have three questions. Do you think it’s a good idea? If you think it is a good idea, do you think foundations might fund it? And, if so, might The Mellon Foundation be interested?”

Normally when one approaches a foundation for support, the answer, if not “No,” is a request to send a letter. Then one might be asked to do a draft proposal with an approximate budget. Finally, one might be asked for a full-blown proposal, to which the ultimate response seems most likely to be rejection. In this case, Bill looked at me and said, “Don’t take this idea anywhere else. Let’s go to work to figure out how to fund it.”

Vest tells an expanded version of this story, with more recollections of Bill Bowen, in the following video from a 2011 panel discussion (clip starts at 13:20).

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