Bowen's remarks to an audience of about 2,800 that gave him a standing ovation added a new twist to commencement speaker controversies playing out increasingly on college campuses across the nation. Bowen faced no opposition, but chose to defend a fellow speaker who was targeted, calling the situation "sad" and "troubling."
Rutgers University also held commencement on Sunday without former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who withdrew after professors and students there protested her appearance for her role in the Iraq war. Smith and Brandeis, too, saw the loss of speakers this year.
At Haverford, the controversy arose over Birgeneau's leadership during a 2011 incident in which UC Berkeley police used force on students protesting college costs. A group of more than 40 students and three Haverford professors - all Berkeley alums - objected to Birgeneau's appearance and receipt of an honorary degree, noting that many of them had participated in Occupy protests as well and wanted to stand in solidarity with Berkeley students.
They wrote a letter to Birgeneau, urging him to meet nine conditions, including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for the victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and "what you learned from them."
Bowen - who made clear he took no position on Birgeneau's handling of the Berkeley student demonstration - blasted the Haverford protestors' approach.
"I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau's handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of "demands," said Bowen, who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988 and last year received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. "In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments."
Bowen, however, also criticized Birgeneau's response. Birgeneau, who is best known for his support of undocumented and minority students, declined the student demands in a short, sharply worded e-mail.
"I think that Birgeneau, in turn, responded intemperately, failing to make proper allowance for the immature, and, yes, arrogant inclinations of some protestors," Bowen said. "Aggravated as he had every right to be, I think he should be with us today."
Bowen also took aim at one of the student leaders of the protests, graduating senior Michael Rushmore, who called Birgeneau's withdrawal from commencement "a minor victory."
"It represents nothing of the kind," Bowen asserted. "In keeping with the views of many others in higher education, I regard this outcome as a defeat, pure and simple, for Haverford - no victory for anyone who believes, as I think most of us do, in both openness to many points of view and mutual respect."
Bowen, also the former president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, recounted several other instances in which speakers faced protest with a better outcome, including a commencement when he was Princeton's president. George Shultz, a member of President Nixon's cabinet during the Vietnam days in the 1970s, was due to receive an honorary degree.
"The protestors were respectful (mostly), and chose to express their displeasure, by simply standing and turning their backs when the Secretary was recognized," he said. "Secretary Shultz, in turn, understood that the protestors had every right to express their opinion in a non-disruptive fashion, and he displayed the courage to come and accept his degree, knowing that many of the faculty and staff (a strong majority, I would guess, this person included) thought that the Nixon conduct of the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake.
"Princeton emerged from this mini-controversy more committed than ever to honoring both the right to protest in proper ways and the accomplishments of someone with whose views on some issues many disagreed."
Bowen was one of three commencement speakers who addressed some 300 graduates at the morning ceremony and received an honorary degree.