A Bountiful Mind
Chancellor Emeritus Bowker, mathematician and educational innovator who helped create the modern City University of New York
Albert Hosmer Bowker, who as chancellor from 1963 to 1971 transformed the City University of New York by starting new campuses in every borough, establishing doctoral degrees and creating the SEEK program, which opened the college door to tens of thousands of students, died Jan. 20 in a retirement home in Portola Valley, Cal. CUNY’s second chancellor was 88.
Bowker had an illustrious career before and after his CUNY tenure, as a statistician and professor, graduate dean at Stanford University, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and founding dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. He was the first U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education and helped select two New York City public school chancellors.
“Al Bowker was a giant in the history of public higher education for New York City and the nation,” said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. “He was deeply committed to the education of students regardless of their income or background. He helped create top-ranked academic programs, nationally acclaimed educational innovations and new facilities that have benefited millions of New Yorkers. He took a loose confederation of municipal colleges and created the foundation for the 21st century integrated City University we have today. His legacy will long endure.”
“One of the primary reasons the University hired Dr. Bowker was to create a first-rate graduate school at CUNY, just as he had done at Stanford,” said Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., chairman of the Board of Trustees. Although the 1961 state law that created CUNY had authorized a division for doctoral studies, there had been little follow-through. “Today the CUNY Graduate School has many doctoral programs ranked nationally at the highest level. Dr. Bowker’s accomplishments will be remembered with deepest appreciation.”
Born in Winchendon, Mass., in 1919, Bowker earned his B.S. in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1941. When World War II started, he plunged into military work, first with an MIT team that examined whether statistical methods could improve weather forecasting. He switched to the wartime Statistical Research Group (SRG) at Columbia University, taking graduate courses while working on bombsights, methods of firing various weapons and, with a different team, measuring how ships try to evade bombardment by aerial torpedoes.
After the war, Stanford recruited Bowker, then still a Columbia graduate student, to help it specialize in the emerging field of statistics. In 1948 it created a statistics department and named him chair, although he would not receive his doctorate until 1949.
By the mid-1950s Bowker was dean of the graduate department. In 1962, he and Gerald J. Lieberman published “Engineering Statistics,” an influential book that they revised in 1972. “I once estimated that about 10 percent of the engineers in America must have studied out of it,” Bowker told the journal Statistical Science.
Then CUNY called. New York City was in ferment, changed by the forces of World War II and its aftermath. The Board of Education said the city immediately needed 25,000 more college graduates and called for even more with education beyond high school.
“With his mumbling speech and rumpled suits, the 51-year-old scholar may not have suggested the image of an urban savior,” a 1970 Time magazine article said. But he was just what the new University needed. “Carefully consulting with community groups to determine local needs, Bowker pushed CUNY into offering a host of services for the city.”
2007, Bowker recalled: “When I took over the chancellorship in 1963, the [seven existing] institutions…seemed to be catering to primarily white students…who were in the upper part of their graduating class in high school…And the population of New York was changing, as more and more minorities, blacks and Puerto Ricans, were moving in. So it seemed absolutely essential, both educationally and politically, to try and develop some programs that would integrate the colleges… racially.”
Bowker made two key decisions. First, he changed admission practices. He had been involved with drafting a master plan for higher education in California, which offered a place to every high school graduate in a community college, state college or state university. He wanted something similar for New York City.
Speaking with CUNY-TV in “Bowker pushed for a ‘100% Admission Plan’ as the means to immediately gain significant minority inclusion,” John Aubrey Douglass wrote in his 2007 book, The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities.
‘Graduates of the city’s secondary schools could all go to CUNY, but not necessarily to the campus or program of their choice,” Douglass wrote. “The hope was to create a greater sense of differentiation within CUNY’s array of institutions, including its nascent community colleges, thereby maintaining the excellence of some portion of the university. Through its admissions process, CUNY administrators proceeded to assign students to a specific academic program.”
Simultaneously, Bowker secured a 1966 law that created the Search for Education Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program in senior colleges and College Discovery in community colleges. “I did not want a system in which all the minority students are in the community colleges, and none in the senior colleges,” he told CUNY-TV. “So, SEEK was intended in part to make sure that that didn’t happen. It happened to some extent. But…the racial divisions would have been much greater without SEEK.”
impoverished neighborhoods with shaky high school transcripts, these programs offered tutoring, mentoring, remedial coursework, free books and a stipend. Bowker gambled on their motivation, and the students continue with great success more than 40 years later. “I consider it one of my major accomplishments,” Bowker told CUNY-TV.
Douglass wrote that Bowker's measured “100% Admission Plan” collided with the politically charged groundswell for open access to the senior colleges: “Constituent and government pressure…caused City University to move toward an open admissions policy for all campuses and most programs.” Bowker was obliged to implement that more controversial method in the late 1960s.
Targeting students from In a Sept. 25, 1991, resolution granting him chancellor emeritus status, the Board of Trustees said Bowker had “extended higher educational opportunities to unprecedented numbers through open access and the establishment, implementation and oversight of” SEEK and College Discovery. It credited him with having “helped set a new admissions pattern of public institutions of higher education throughout the nation, and franchising the socially deprived and the educationally under-prepared.”
Bowker moved deftly on another front, demanding that the state and city boost operating and capital funding. He told CUNY-TV about encountering Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had lavished money on expanding the State University system, at an evening event. “And somebody said, ‘What do you think about the City University?’ And [Rockefeller] said, ‘Well, I don't know much about it.’ And I said, ‘I'm here, and I'll tell you.’” Bowker said he added: “‘You did it for [SUNY]. You’ve got to do it for us.’ And he did. But it was much easier to get him to do it with strong minority support.” Bowker marshaled the forces to do just that.
“It was…very important for me to dramatize the needs of the university,” Bowker told Statistical Science. “One year I threatened not to open in the fall with any new freshmen because we didn't have room for them. That was the year we got the construction fund passed.”
personally led the fight for legislative approval of the Construction Fund, operated through the Dormitory Authority, and subsequently secured approval of plans for the vast expansion and renewal of the physical plant and facilities of The City University and the eventual cost of $2 billion,” states the University's resolution granting him emeritus status.
With the new facilities, funding and admission programs, enrollment jumped quickly, rising from 143,291 in 1967 to 208,129 in 1971.
‘He conceptualized and Then-board Chair James Murphy called Bowker “the first great builder of The City University…[He] transformed CUNY from a University of slum buildings to a model urban University with first-rate campus facilities... Above all, however, we owe to Albert Bowker the rebirth of the idea of The City University as the alma mater of the ambitious poor and of the striving disadvantaged, the University of opportunity for latecomers, for the children of the working class and for the members of the minorities.”
After leaving CUNY, Bowker tackled another difficult job as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley from 1971 to 1980. With Berkeley’s reputation tarnished following years of Vietnam-era student protests, he strengthened academics and campus civility. He closed weak academic departments, opened programs in health sciences and energy studies, and put women’s intercollegiate athletics on a par with men’s. Faced with deep state budget cuts, he began private fundraising that rose to $25 million a year by the time he left.
In 1981, after the Carter administration created the U.S. Department of Education, Bowker became the first assistant secretary for post-secondary education. He was founding dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland from 1981 to 1984, then its executive vice president until 1986. He returned to CUNY as vice president for planning at its research foundation from 1986 to 1993, focusing on ways to increase research funds.
The New York City Board of Education asked him to chair search committees that led to the selection of Chancellors Richard R. Green in 1987 and Joseph Fernandez in 1989.
According to UC Berkeley, Bowker is survived by his son, Paul Bowker of Redding, Cal.; twin daughters, Caroline Anne Bowker and Nancy Kathleen Bowker, both of Palo Alto, Cal.; and five grandchildren. His first marriage to Elizabeth Rempfer ended in divorce. In 1964 he married Rosedith Sitgreaves, a professor of education and statistics at Stanford. Both predeceased him.