Brief comments on William Bowen and Haverford College commencement


William Bowen at Haverford commencement, May 18, 2004

William Bowen at Haverford commencement, May 18, 2004

Above, my view of William Bowen yesterday

At yesterday’s Haverford College graduation, one of the honorary degree recipients was William Bowen, former president of Princeton University and longtime head of the Mellon Foundation (from 1988 to 2006). He took the opportunity to talk about the controversy at Haverford over the granting of an honorary degree to former University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Birgeneau was one of four named honorary degree recipients, and after he was named, several dozen students and faculty wrote an open letter to him asking him to accept nine conditions surrounding the use of law enforcement against Occupy protesters at Berkeley in 2011. Birgeneau’s response was dismissive (“I do not respond to untruthful, violent verbal attacks”), and he eventually decided not to come to graduation. Given Bowen’s stature in higher ed, his commenting on the controversy was both perfectly understandable and instant news in higher ed.

Bowen’s relatively brief remarks focused on what he thought was the loss to Haverford from the events, and what he thought were mistakes both by at least some of the letter-writers and by Birgeneau in avoiding the chance for a constructive dialogue.1 You can read the gist of Bowen’s remarks at the Philly Inquirer article linked at the top of this entry. This echoed at least one graduating student who had spoken at an open forum on campus May 8:

While the tone of the letter was not as diplomatic as it could have been, [Birgeneau’s] describing the letter as a violent verbal attack does not seem to demonstrate that he was willing to engage in any type of dialogue.

A good portion of the family and friends in the audience applauded or stood at the end of Bowen’s remarks, but students reacted coolly. As you might expect at any college campus, there had been much discussion both about the core issues surrounding the offer of an honorary degree and about how the first to frame the issue (the letter writers) addressed it. Yet I sensed that whatever their views, Haverford College students were not happy with Bowen. I may be wrong about my general impression, but I know that graduating student quoted above was not pleased with Bowen’s remarks: they were from my daughter.

The reaction of students should not be a surprise, even for students who agreed with the substance of Bowen’s comments. Bowen was not speaking to the graduates, though he was speaking at their graduation. If he were, he was speaking down to them (and I think students perceived his first, unreported, remarks as equally patronizing). His remarks were clearly aimed at the public–the language referring to intemperate or immature statements by some students implied that Birgeneau’s reaction was similarly intemperate and surprisingly immature. But he didn’t say that about Birgeneau directly–he stated that he disagreed with Birgeneau’s withdrawal, a decision that disappointed Bowen. The reporting thus far has mentioned both criticisms, so Bowen was successful if he intended this framing to be the one that newspapers communicated. Addendum (5/20): Bowen’s interview with the Chronicle of Higher Ed confirms my reading of his intent.

If he had intended to speak primarily to graduates, I hope and suspect he would have spoken somewhat differently, but that’s an issue for a separate entry. So, too, is the question of whether honorary degree invitations are stamps of approval on all of the actions of their recipients, or the extent to which graduation ceremonies are entirely about the graduates’ achievements (brief answers to both issues: they can’t be). I am on vacation this week, taking private time to celebrate the achievement of a family member, something you may observe by the relative distance from the camera of the subject at the top of this entry and the subjects below.

Smith and Dorn

Haverford Physics professor Walter Smith and new graduate Kathryn Dorn, Haverford College campus, May 18, 2014



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  1. Bowen’s speech was actually his second. After Birgeneau’s withdrawal, Bowen received the approval to talk about this, in addition to the first speech he had written before the controversy. At yesterday’s commencement, he referred to the more public remarks on Birgeneau as his “second bite at the apple.” Trite, if a venal speechwriting sin. To mark the transition between his first set of remarks and the remarks about Birgeneau, he put away one manuscript and then pulled another from another pocket. []