William G. Bowen, an economist who helped design the program that admitted women to Princeton University and who later served as university president for 15 years and became one of the country’s most influential thinkers about affirmative action and the role of higher education, died Oct. 20 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 83.
The cause was colon cancer, the university said.
Dr. Bowen, the first member of his family to attend college, brought an egalitarian sense of purpose to academic life when he joined the Princeton faculty in the 1950s.
As the university’s provost in the late 1960s, in charge of academic and budgetary matters, he was a principal architect of plans to introduce coeducation to the previously all-male Ivy League campus. Despite opposition from some alumni, faculty members and students, women began to join the Princeton student body in 1969.
“When we studied coeducation from every imaginable angle, we parsed out its costs and its consequences,” Dr. Bowen told the Daily Princetonian in 2011. “Once the decision was made, we acted instantly. There were a lot of reasons why that was important. I was confident that it would be the women students themselves who would sell coeducation to any doubting alumni and others. And they did.”
In 1972, when Dr. Bowen was 38, he was named president of the prestigious university, the nation’s fourth-oldest institution of higher learning. Two women who entered Princeton during his tenure, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, are now Supreme Court justices.
As president, Dr. Bowen opened other doors at Princeton as well. In an effort to reduce the influence of exclusive, all-male “eating clubs” that had dominated campus social life for decades, he introduced a system of residential colleges for undergraduates.
He led a fundraising campaign that added $410 million to the university’s endowment — more than $130 million over its original goal. He broadened programs in biological sciences, computer science and the arts.
He approved expansions to the college library and art museum and increased the size of the faculty by more than 60 percent, with an emphasis on hiring women and minorities. While serving as president, he also taught introductory courses in economics and was known for riding around campus on his bicycle.
After stepping down from the Princeton presidency in January 1988, Dr. Bowen became president of the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports educational and cultural initiatives. He continued to cultivate a reputation for innovative thinking about education and published several books, including the influential “The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admission” (1998), written with former Harvard president Derek Bok.
Examining decades of evidence, Bok and Dr. Bowen concluded that affirmative action efforts at selective colleges had been anything but a failure. African American students admitted through such programs generally succeeded academically and, after college, were more likely than their white classmates to become civic leaders.
“Allegiance to this country’s ideals,” Dr. Bowen said in a 2004 speech, “requires that American higher education do more than it is doing at present to support the aspirations of high-achieving young people from modest backgrounds.”
William Gordon Bowen was born Oct. 6, 1933, in Cincinnati. His father was a salesman.
After graduating in 1955 from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, Dr. Bowen went to Princeton for graduate school, receiving a doctorate in economics in 1958. He stayed on as a faculty member.
In one of his early books, “Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma” (1966), written with William J. Baumol, Dr. Bowen showed that the production costs of theater, dance and classical music would rise because of “inexorable forces pushing up costs.”
More recently, Dr. Bowen was instrumental in developing JSTOR, a digital archive of scholarly journals. He wrote other books about academics, including two that were critical of the growing prominence of athletic departments on college campuses.
In 2006, he was co-chairman of a panel examining rape accusations against members of the Duke University lacrosse team. The team members were ultimately exonerated, but Dr. Bowen cited a toxic culture of arrogance and entitlement among athletes and coaches.
“If you allow them to hang out together, to live together,” he said, “you get a group of people largely cut off from the values of campus.”
Dr. Bowen retired from the Mellon Foundation in 2006. He was awarded a 2012 National Humanities Medal by President Obama.
Survivors include his wife of 60 years, the former Mary Ellen Maxwell of Princeton; two children, David Bowen of Scarsdale, N.Y., and Karen Bowen-Imhof of Antwerp, Belgium; and five grandchildren.
In 2011, Dr. Bowen was asked how students could get the most out of their college years.
“Don’t fritter your time away,” he told the Daily Princetonian. “Work hard, do a variety of things, study a variety of subjects. . . . Don’t just go with the crowds. This is characteristic of any good university — it encourages students and faculty to think hard for themselves.”