He is best known for initiating and completing the 42-story Cathedral of Learning, the centerpiece of Pitt's campus, over the objections of many faculty and community members. At the time it was the tallest educational structure in the world. He also established the University of Pittsburgh Press and oversaw the institution of controversial athletic policies that resulted in the resignation in popular head football coach Jock Sutherland.
Bowman was the first University of Iowa alumnus to become its President, as well as the school’s first Iowa-born chief administrator. He earned the B.A. degree in 1899, the M.A. in 1904, and the Litt.D. in 1934. He became a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity as an undergraduate.
He also worked as a journalist in Iowa and Illinois, taught in a one-room rural Iowa school and at Columbia University. From Columbia he worked at the newly founded Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
In 1915 he became the founding director of the American College of Surgeons, where he served until 1921.