James M. Hester, who steered New York University through campus unrest in the 1960s and helped chart its evolution from a commuter school on the brink of bankruptcy to a highly selective institution with national academic stature, died on Dec. 31 at his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 90. His death was confirmed by his son-in-law Campbell Gerrish. Inaugurated as N.Y.U.'s 11th and youngest president in 1962, when he was only 38, Dr. Hester inherited extraordinary social and financial challenges, even as he sought to transform the university into a model of urban private education. During his nearly 14-year tenure, N.Y.U. cut spending sharply, but it also opened the 12-story Elmer Holmes Bobst Library on Washington Square, raised faculty salaries and began recruiting students from beyond the New York metropolitan area. In 1972, a task force he appointed warned that without drastic retrenchment, N.Y.U. would become "the victim of the largest and most spectacular financial collapse in the history of American higher education." But only a year later, after imposing recommended economies, he declared, "We are well on the road to achieving what many observers believed would require a miracle." That progress was accomplished largely by selling the University Heights campus in the Bronx, closing the engineering school, paring full-time faculty positions, merging graduate and undergraduate business programs, cutting intercollegiate competition in baseball, football and basketball, and requiring various components of the university, including the school of social work, to pay their own way. At the same time, Dr. Hester raised academic standards and fielded recruiters to reverse a decline in out-of-town students. John Sexton, N.Y.U.'s current president, said Mr. Hester "laid the groundwork for the N.Y.U. we know today: a university that is not only the nation's largest private university, but also the most transformed, from a regional school to a major, respected, global research university." Dr. Hester once explained that he wound up in higher education almost by accident. During the American military occupation of Japan, he worked as a civilian supervising schools. But even as a self-described "professional administrator," he emerged as a national presence. He headed a White House task force on higher education that in 1970 recommended an expansion of federal scholarships, a larger commitment to black colleges, grants to graduate schools and tax incentives to encourage private contributions to universities. Like other college presidents, he contended with campus unrest, which brought unwelcome attention. Until he qualified his support for the war in Vietnam by urging America's withdrawal as soon as possible, he had been assailed by campus protesters. After the invasion of Cambodia and the fatal shooting by National Guardsmen of four students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, Dr. Hester wrote an impassioned appeal to President Richard M. Nixon to "consider the incalculable dangers of an unprecedented alienation of America's youth" and to "end the war quickly." It was signed by the presidents of 37 colleges and universities. He also lamented the lack of social contact between blacks and whites who had reached comparable educational levels and presciently warned of the depersonalizing impact of technology. James McNaughton Hester was born in Chester, Pa., on April 19, 1924. The son of a Navy chaplain, he spent his childhood at military posts around the world. He served as an officer in the Marine Corps in World War II, graduated with honors from Princeton, was named a Rhodes Scholar, returned to the Marines during the Korean War and received a doctorate in 1955 from Oxford, where he met and married Janet Rodes. She and their three children, Janet Gerrish, Margaret Giroux and Martha Stafford, survive him, as do seven grandchildren; his brother, Raymond; and his sister, Virginia Laddy. Dr. Hester often remarked that professional educators typically found administrative jobs unsatisfying, but that he was drawn by the challenges, the contacts with academic life and the fact that "it's all for a worthwhile purpose." In 1960, after serving as provost of the Brooklyn Center of Long Island University, he was named dean of the undergraduate and graduate schools of arts and sciences at N.Y.U. He was rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo from 1975 to 1980, president of the New York Botanical Garden from 1980 to 1989 and president of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation from 1989 to 2004. He was also an accomplished painter. "The world can be divided into those who love New York City and those who don't," Dr. Hester said at his final commencement, in 1975. "Those who love New York tend to be unusually lively people. They have to be. Characteristically, they are ambitious, curious, intellectually vigorous, culturally alive. Such people give New York City institutions great dynamism and some eccentricity. "New York University, by comparison with most other universities in the world, is a much more interesting place because of this vitality."