Albert Hosmer Bowker
Professor of Statistics, Emeritus
1919 – 2008
Albert Hosmer Bowker died from pancreatic cancer at a retirement home in Portola Valley, California, on January 20, 2008. Until his death, he also had maintained his primary residence at University Terrace, a faculty housing complex at the University of California, Berkeley.
Chancellor Bowker was born in Winchendon, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1919. Although he grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father worked for the National Bureau of Standards, Bowker’s family spent summers in Baldwinville, Massachusetts, near Winchendon. In 1937, he graduated as salutatorian from Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington and then entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1941. He then began to work on several military projects, joining the renowned Statistical Analysis Group at Columbia University. Here Al—as friends commonly referred to him—was exposed to many of the major statistical thinkers of the mid-twentieth century, working on ideas on multivariate analysis with both Harold Hotelling and Pao-Lu Hsu. He received his Ph.D. degree in statistics from Columbia University in 1949.
Bowker was an outstanding statistician with broad interests. During this period of his life he wrote three influential texts: Engineering Statistics (with Gerald Lieberman), Handbook of Industrial Statistics (with Gerald Lieberman), and Sampling Inspection by Variables (with Henry Goode). Having ventured boldly out west to Stanford University in 1947, he immediately displayed his remarkable skill in program building by playing a major role in starting the Department of Statistics, becoming the inaugural chair in 1948 before he had even completed his Ph.D. Clearly an academic career in statistics was wide open to Bowker, but administration beckoned. The world of higher education was changed forever and for the better.
At Stanford, Bowker’s administrative style was shaped by his association with Provost Fred Terman. He soon was involved in the founding of the Department of Computer Science and the establishment of both the linear accelerator facility and the Stanford Hospital. Bowker continued to chair the Department of Statistics until 1959, when he became dean of the Graduate Division, a post he held until his departure from Stanford in 1963. During his tenure as dean, research grants and contracts tripled. He also developed large overseas centers for Stanford in Japan and Taiwan, and played a key role in creating a state-of-the-art computation center.
A turning point in Bowker’s rapid rise in higher education administration came when he was appointed chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1963. In the midst of major budget reductions and constant friction between the mayors of New York City and the governor of New York, Chancellor Bowker made several fundamental policy changes at CUNY, introducing open enrollment, expanding the campuses to meet the resulting demand, centralizing administrative operations and championing the growth of high quality graduate programs at the City University Graduate School. When he started at CUNY, there were four senior colleges and three two-year community colleges on nine campuses. Within a single year, Chancellor Bowker had expanded the operation to 11 colleges on 14 campuses. By the time he left, he had expanded enrollment from about 110,000 to more than 200,000. Time magazine referred to his contributions to CUNY as a “breathtaking expansion of both enrollment and its commitment to solving urban problems.”
In 1971, Bowker returned to California, becoming the fifth chancellor at Berkeley during a period of considerable turbulence on campus. Many credited him with bringing a sense of calm and purpose to the campus as he used his administrative abilities to handle many potentially explosive situations. Despite facing budget reductions in California similar to those he experienced in New York, he led the campus forward in a number of directions. He disestablished the controversial School of Criminology and created new programs in the health and medical sciences, and in energy and resources. To offset declining state support, he began to develop philanthropic efforts amongst alumni and started the UC Berkeley Foundation. These efforts led to the building of the Bechtel Engineering Center and an addition to Minor Hall for optometry. His greatest achievement in this period was maintaining the university’s quality amidst a serious decline in state support. In this regard he “paved the way for UC Berkeley into the modern era,” as Chancellor Robert Birgeneau proclaimed at the time of Bowker’s death. Bowker was honored with the Berkeley Citation in 1980, and he soon became a Berkeley Fellow.
Upon leaving Berkeley in 1980, Bowker took a position as assistant secretary for postsecondary administration in the Department of Education in the Carter administration but quickly left this post when President Reagan arrived in Washington. He subsequently served at the University of Maryland, first as dean of the School of Public Affairs from 1981 to 1984, and then as executive vice president from 1984 to 1986. Finally, he returned to CUNY as executive vice president for planning within its research foundation, serving from 1986 to 1993 before retirement. Soon thereafter he returned to Berkeley, greatly saddened by the death of his second wife, Rosedith Sitgreaves, in 1992.
With his larger-than-life personality, Chancellor Bowker brought the same generosity of spirit and warm humor to everything he did. Al had an extraordinary sphere of influence in many events of the twentieth century. In any conversation you were likely to hear about his dealings with Bobby Kennedy, John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller from the New York years, or Ronald Reagan, Pat and Jerry Brown after he returned to California. He claimed that he met his first U.S. president when Woodrow Wilson patted him on the head in his pram as a baby in Washington, but there was no doubt that he met every president thereafter except for FDR. Al said that omission didn’t count because he had spent significant time with Eleanor.
Chancellor Bowker had a quiet but determined commitment to academic quality in everything he touched. Excellence always came first. There are countless academic leaders around the country who owe a considerable debt to his wisdom, counsel and support. One feature of Chancellor Bowker’s broad impact was his extraordinary investment of time and energy in cultivating younger people’s careers in a remarkable way. He would regularly seek out new faculty and graduate students each year for conversations and friendship. He taught a freshman seminar on the theater at Berkeley well into his eighties, organizing trips to various Bay Area theater performances supplemented by meetings that he arranged with the director or actors for open discussion after the performance. In his retirement at Berkeley he was a regular diner at The Faculty Club, where he routinely participated in the Little Thinker’s Club and the Wellman group and lunched with a wide variety of friends and colleagues. He served as a member of the board of directors of the club, and loved it as only a dedicated clubman could. He continued his intense interest in his old friends and in younger people to the very end of his life.
Al loved the arts and literature, particularly the theater, big and small. As a child he often went with his family to the National Players, a stock company in Washington, seeing such luminary figures as Ethel Barrymore. He kept abreast of theater in both Broadway and the West End in London, traveling to both places to see multiple plays each trip. He also supported small local theater companies such as Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, Aurora, and 42nd Street Moon. He had marvelous insight and stories about Mark Rothko, his New York neighbor. He was proud that Duke Ellington once sang him “Happy Birthday” at the piano.
Al loved to spend time in his cabin at Lake Tahoe with his children and grandchildren, and he was pleased to show his visitors the best places to hike and ride. He was also a devoted member of the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and The Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. When he was president of the latter club, he was instrumental in changing the club’s bylaws—and over 100 years of history—to allow women to enroll as members. This, with his efforts at CUNY, particularly displayed Bowker’s long-held commitments to equity and diversity.
Chancellor Bowker was recognized as an extraordinarily effective administrator throughout a career spanning a variety of different roles and positions. He was also known for his cultivated deceptive manner of appearing disorganized or not paying close attention to detail, whereupon he would often surprise everyone by a stroke of administrative genius and political acumen. He was often referred to as “rumpled” in appearance, with his white hair often flopping over his forehead. He was not fond of press conferences and he disliked giving long speeches. He was not a light conversationalist, often saying nothing rather than engaging in light conversation, according to Ray Colvig, the press officer at Berkeley at the time. He seldom, if ever, shouted or argued with people, preferring a more mature approach to diplomacy. According to his longtime friend, distinguished Berkeley faculty member Joe Hodges—in the foreword to Chancellor Bowker’s oral history (at The Bancroft Library)—he was succinctly described by a senior member of the Berkeley faculty as “extremely intelligent . . . utterly political . . . a master of the calculated indiscretion.” He had a drive for “getting things done and getting them done well”, the New York Herald Tribune opined. He had a wonderful but dry sense of humor that he used to considerable effect as an administrator. His laugh was distinctive, often heard, and welcoming.
Al never lost interest in statistics and mathematics, and he was deeply involved in efforts to improve mathematical education. He loved numbers and, around his birthday, would always find some intriguing fact about his new age. On his last birthday, he was amused that when you squared his age, 88, you got another number with repeating digits (7744).
Chancellor Bowker was predeceased by both his first wife, Elizabeth Rempfer, and his second wife, Rosedith Sitgreaves, a professor of education at Stanford, whom he married in 1964. Chancellor Bowker is survived by three children from his first marriage, Paul Albert Bowker, Caroline Anne Bowker Bliss, and Nancy Kathleen Bowker, and five grandchildren, Julian, William, Casey, Don and Marty.
Cal lost one of its great leaders at his passing. As his friend and colleague Ken Arrow so eloquently eulogized: “Death must come to all, but few will leave so much for the living.” The world of higher education, and UC Berkeley in particular, were forever changed by his extraordinary vision and impact, as were the lives of all who knew him.
Nicholas P. Jewell