Biography and History

The provost of Princeton University is the general deputy to the president charged with overseeing, coordinating, and planning academic programs and producing the yearly budget with the assistance of the treasurer's office and the guidance of the Priorities Committee. The provost is also responsible for primary oversight of the library, the plasma physics lab, affirmative action programs, and (at one time) computing.

With the rapid expansion of the faculty and student body in the late 1960s and the rising administrative burdens caused by campus unrest, physical expansion, budget difficulties, and fund-raising challenges, President Robert F. Goheen '40 and the University administration decided to create the position of provost to begin in 1966. The provost would serve in the University administration as second-in-command to the president and take on some of the duties of the president, the dean of the faculty, and the treasurer.

Goheen had longtime dean of the faculty J. Douglas Brown GS '28, who could only serve one year before retirement, and economics professor William G. Bowen GS '58 in mind as the first two occupants of the position. Brown served as the first provost for the 1966-1967 year, and then Bowen was appointed at Brown's retirement. Bowen had already distinguished himself as a professor in the economics department, winning the confidence and enthusiasm of his students and his colleagues in the faculty. In 1962, he completed a study of Princeton's complex relationship with the federal government, highlighting his skill at representing complex problems clearly to other members of the University community. As provost, Bowen was widely credited with promoting coeducation and restoring financial order. He established the character and direction of the office in a response to a 1968 memorandum from President Goheen asking for his view of the functions of the provost. Bowen wrote, "As I now see our situation, the Provost should have four principal functions," which he listed as follows:

1. To serve as the general deputy of the president -- i.e., to assume on an ad hoc basis any responsibilities which the president chooses to delegate to him.

2. To act for the President in matters relating to the general supervision of the University in the absence or disability of the President…

3. To be responsible under the President for the allocation of University funds and for the coordination of activities and programs.

4. To be responsible, under the President, for academic planning.

At Goheen's retirement in 1972, Bowen became president and appointed Sheldon Hackney, a professor of history, the third provost. The provost acquired the key role of chair of the Priorities Committee of the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) in 1974. Hackney also experienced student unrest and challenging budget problems during his tenure. His skillful handling of student activists and his common sense, cooperative approach to administrative oversight led Tulane University to offer him its presidency in 1975. He accepted the post, allowing him to return to his native South. He became president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1993.

Albert Rees, a former professor of economics at Princeton who directed U.S. President Gerald Ford's Council on Wage and Price Stability in 1974 and 1975, followed Hackney. Rees used his extensive experience in finance and his prior service on the Priorities Committee to tighten the University's budget while making the committee more transparent. He left the University in 1977 (later becoming president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) and was replaced by Dean of the College Neil Rudenstine '56.

Rudenstine was recruited from his position as a professor of English at Harvard to become dean of students at Princeton after he received national press confronting student protesters at Harvard. His administrative talent was quickly recognized and he was appointed dean of the college when Bowen became president. When the provost's position opened in 1977, Rudenstine was a clear choice. In his decade as provost, he was praised as thoughtful, deliberate, and consultative. Correspondence and memoranda indicate that he was well-liked and trusted by faculty and perceived as a close complement to President Bowen. He mastered the budgetary process early on (sociology professor Marvin Bressler once called him a "closet economist") and oversaw the creation of the "table of needs" for the Capital Campaign in the early 1980s. At the conclusion of the campaign, he was most responsible for guiding the allocation of new funds, the creation of new academic programs and projects, and the planning of numerous buildings and renovations. The provost's intimate knowledge of allocation procedures and largely administrative facilities such as the library gradually caused the provost to become more involved with administrative services and computing, especially as these relate to academic departments and research facilities. Rudenstine also closely monitored the work of the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life (CURL), which established the college residential system for Princeton undergraduates in 1981. Having served with Bowen until their mutual retirement from Princeton in early 1988, his ten and a half years as provost was nearly twice as long as any other in Princeton's history. Rudenstine joined Bowen as vice president of the Mellon Foundation until he was selected to be the 26th president of Harvard University in 1991.

President Harold T. Shapiro's GS '64 administration was initially perceived by the University community as distant and tightfisted. It was in this climate that philosopher and longtime Princeton professor and administrator Paul Benacerraf '52 served as provost, from 1988 to 1991. Benacerraf served as an informal administration liaison to the faculty, but decided to return to teaching philosophy.

Hugo Sonnenschein, a former professor of economics and member of the Priorities Committee at Princeton and then a dean at the University of Pennsylvania, was enticed to return to Princeton to become the University's seventh provost in 1991. At his selection, President Shapiro said that "he will shortly become one of the most distinguished, influential people in higher education." He was appointed president of the University of Chicago two years later. He was replaced in 1993 by another economist on the faculty, Stephen Goldfeld, who succumbed to cancer just weeks after stepping down in 1995.

Jeremiah Ostriker, a longtime professor of astrophysics and respected member of the faculty was chosen as the University's ninth provost in 1995 and served until August 31, 2001, three months into the tenure of Shirley Tilghman, Princeton's first female president. Amy Gutmann, a professor of political philosophy and a former dean of the faculty, became the University's first female provost on September 1, 2001. Gutmann stepped down to become president of the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 and was replaced by Woodrow Wilson School professor and constitutional scholar Christopher Eisgruber '83. Although there is some material from Jeremiah Ostriker, the complete records of the last three provosts have not yet been transferred to the Archives.

(For more information on the early development of the position of provost, see box 154, folder 5, Benacerraf, Sonnenschein, and Goldfeld--Administration--Provost.)

Princeton University Provosts

J. Douglas Brown, 1966-1967

William G. Bowen, 1967-1972

F. Sheldon Hackney, 1972-1975

Albert Rees, 1975-1977

Neil L. Rudenstine, 1977-1988

Paul Benacerraf, 1988-1991

Hugo F. Sonnenschein, 1991-1993

Stephen Goldfeld, 1993-1995

Jeremiah P. Ostriker, 1995-2001

Amy Gutmann, 2001-2004

Christopher Eisgruber, 2004-

Source: From the finding aid for AC195

  • Office of the Provost Records. 1953-2015 (inclusive), 1967-1995 (bulk).

    Call Number: AC195

    The Office of the Provost record group contains the records created and compiled by the Princeton University Office of the Provost since its establishment in 1966. Though there is nothing remaining of the files of the first provost, J. Douglas Brown GS '28, subsequent provosts kept comprehensive records. As of 2005, this collection includes the files of the second provost, William G. Bowen GS '58 through the eighth provost, Stephen Goldfeld, whose tenure ended in June 1995. The files consist of correspondence, memoranda, reports, notes, speeches, publications, and other assorted material. Materials found here are sometimes duplicated in the records of other administrative offices on campus.

  • J. Douglas Brown Papers. 1910-1978 (inclusive), 1930-1970 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC155

    J. Douglas Brown (1898-1986) was an economist and Princeton University administrator who was an expert in the field of industrial relations, especially on the subjects of Social Security and personnel and manpower issues. He was one of the leaders in the development of the Social Security program and also served in the War Department during World War II on manpower issues. Brown's papers document his career as a government consultant, as a scholar, and as a university administrator and include his correspondence and writings, reports, meeting minutes, notes, and publications.