Boren was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Christine (née McKown) and Lyle Hagler Boren. He graduated in 1963 from Yale University, where he majored in American history, graduated in the top one percent of his class and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was a member of the Yale Conservative Party, elected president of the Yale Political Union and is a member of Skull and Bones. He was selected as a Rhodes Scholar and earned a master's degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from University of Oxford (1965), serving later as a member of the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee.
In 1966 Boren defeated fellow Democrat William C. Wantland in a primary election and Clifford Conn, Jr. in the general election to win a seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, where he served four terms, 1967 to 1975. In 1968, he received a law degree from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
While serving in the House, Boren was a member of the committee that investigated the University of Oklahoma after the school allowed black militant Paul Boutelle, a socialist and anti-Vietnam War activist, to give a speech there. During his House tenure Boren was also a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University.
Boren served in the Oklahoma Army National Guard from 1963 to 1974. He attained the rank of captain and served as commander of the 2120th Supply & Service Company in Wewoka.
In 1974, Boren ran for governor. In keeping with the anti-establishment movements of that Watergate scandal-era campaign season, Boren's effort included the "Boren Broom Brigade" to demonstrate his pledge to "sweep out the Old Guard" and bring fundamental reforms to state government.
Boren and Clem McSpadden defeated incumbent David Hall in the primary election and moved into a runoff for the Democratic nomination. Boren beat McSpadden in the runoff and subsequently defeated Republican Jim Inhofe in the general election. Coincidentally, Inhofe would go on to be his successor in the United States Senate in the 1994 special election after his resignation.
During his tenure Boren worked on: eliminating the inheritance tax for property left by one spouse to another; a reduction in the state income tax rate; improvements to the state corrections program in the wake of the 1973 Oklahoma State Penitentiary riot; and elimination of more than a hundred state agencies, commissions, and boards. Boren attracted national attention during the Energy Crisis when he advocated nationwide deregulation of natural gas prices.
Boren opted not to run for reelection in 1978, instead running for the United States Senate seat held by the retiring Dewey Bartlett. He won a multi-candidate primary with 46 percent of the vote to second-place finisher Ed Edmondson's 28 percent. During the campaign, his opponent Anthony Points accused Boren of being gay. Following his victory, Boren swore out on oath on a white Bible, declaring "I know what homosexuals and bisexuals are. I further swear that I am not a homosexual or bisexual. And I further swear that I have never been a homosexual or bisexual." Boren then defeated Edmondson in the runoff, and Republican Robert Kamm, former President of Oklahoma State University, in the general election.
In the U.S. Senate, Boren was known as a centrist or conservative Democrat, and was a protégé of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and was often aligned with southern Democrats Sam Nunn of Georgia and Howell Heflin of Alabama. He was a strong advocate of tax cuts across the board as the cornerstone of economic policy. He opposed the Windfall profit tax on the domestic oil industry, which was repealed in 1988. At one point, the tax was generating no revenue, yet still required oil companies to comply with reporting requirements and the IRS to spend $15 million to collect the tax. Of the tax, Boren said: "As long as the tax is not being collected, the accounting requirements are needless. They result in heavy burdens for the private sector and unnecessary cost to the taxpayer."
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who served with him, publicly stated that Boren should be elected president. Boren's chief of staff was a respected Capitol Hill insider, Charles Ward, a former longtime administrative assistant to Speaker Albert.
Boren served on the Senate Committee on Finance and the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He also served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 1987 to 1993. His six years is the longest tenure of any Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. Boren sponsored the National Security Education Act of 1991, which established the National Security Education Program.
Boren was one of only two Democratic senators to vote in favor of the controversial nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, in 1987. Boren also decided in 1991 to vote against the Persian Gulf War. Boren was one of the President Bill Clinton's top choices to replace Les Aspin as a U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1994. However, Clinton selected William J. Perry instead.
In a controversial public mea culpa in a New York Times Op/Ed piece, Boren expressed regret over his vote to confirm Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Partly as a result of that statement, The Daily Oklahoman, the largest newspaper in Oklahoma, which had encouraged and endorsed Boren's entire career, began intensely criticizing him.
His opposition in 1993 was essential for the failure of an Btu-based energy tax proposed by the Clinton Administration as means to curb the deficit and reduce pollution.
In 1994, he resigned his Senate seat to accept the presidency of the University of Oklahoma.
As chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Boren was instrumental in building consensus and bipartisan support for the U.S. State Department initiatives to promote democracy abroad which helped lead to the release of Nelson Mandela. Boren was praised and received a standing ovation led by Mandela at a special broadcast of ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel, which commemorated Mandela's historic release from prison in South Africa. During his first visit to the USA after his release, Mandela was a dinner guest of Boren and wife Molly.
Boren currently serves as president of the University of Oklahoma, and has served on the Board of Directors of Texas Instruments and AMR Corporation (the parent company of American Airlines). His current salary as president of the University of Oklahoma is $383,852.88 annually. One semester every school year, Boren teaches a freshman level political science class to 200 students.
In 1996, Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot unsuccessfully sought Boren to be his vice-presidential running mate. In 2001, Boren, along with fellow Democrat former governor George Nigh was listed as being in support of the Right to Work law in Oklahoma. The measure, proposed and sponsored by then Gov. Frank Keating, was passed by the voters.
Boren is regarded as a mentor to former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet from his days as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Boren and Tenet were having breakfast together when Tenet was called away to respond to the terror attacks. Boren said that in the weeks before the Iraq War began in March 2003, he warned Tenet that since he was not a member of President George W. Bush’s closest circle of advisers, the White House would make him the scapegoat if things went badly in Iraq. "I told him they had your name circled if anything goes wrong," Boren recalls telling Tenet.
In June 2007, conservative political columnist Robert Novak claimed that Boren had met with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to discuss a possible third-party presidential campaign. Bloomberg had recently left the Republican Party, and speculation arose that he discussed the possibility of Boren joining him as a running mate. However, on April 18, 2008, Boren endorsed the leading Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
In 2008, he released a book titled A Letter to America.
Boren and former U.S. senator Chuck Hagel served as co-chairmen of the nonpartisan U.S.President's Intelligence Advisory Board under Barack Obama. He sits on the honorary board of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1996, Boren received the Foreign Language Advocacy Award from the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in recognition of his support for education and his authorship of the National Security Education Act of 1992.
In March 2015, a recording was made public of members of the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity singing a racially derogatory song which included reference to lynching. As university president, Boren appeared widely in US media and condemned the behavior, expelled two student members of the fraternity, and closed the campus chapter of SAE. Some legal scholars have argued that these expulsions were improper, as speech, even if offensive, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Other scholars have argued that the expulsion was based on the student code of conduct, and was not protected.
He has been married twice, to the late Janna Little and currently to Molly Shi. His son, Dan Boren, represented Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District. His daughter, Carrie, is a former actress and current director for evangelism in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.
The Boren family has a strong interest in public policy and three generations of public service. His father, Lyle Boren, served in the U.S. House of Representatives (OK-04) from 1937 to 1947. His son, Dan Boren, served in the U.S. House of Representatives (OK-02) from 2005 to 2013.