evening in July, 2013, Leon Botstein, who has been the president of Bard College for four decades, called his top administrators
to a meeting at his house, a twin-gabled Victorian in the middle of the campus, which occupies six hundred lush acres on the
Hudson River, ninety miles north of New York City. It was warm, and they knew to convene on the porch, where Botstein frequently
smokes a pipe and where many Bard-related decisions seem to be made.
Botstein and his
director of admissions wanted to discuss the school’s application process. Was it working? Were they attracting the
sorts of students they wanted? The discussion turned into a rapid-fire brainstorming session. By the time it was over, Botstein
had decided to radically expand the ways in which prospective students could apply to Bard.
“I said, ‘Look, why don’t we start from the beginning? If we had no external
pressures, what would be the most straightforward way to apply to Bard, or to college in general?’ ” he recalled
later. “Common sense was the prevailing motivation.” He wanted to give high-school students a choice: they could
submit test scores, G.P.A., and teacher recommendations or they could write four academic papers like the ones they’d
be asked to write in college. The essays—ten thousand words in total—would be assessed by Bard professors. Applicants
would get their papers back with grades and comments. Students with an average of B-plus or better would be automatically
admitted. “Life is not about odd, tricky problems that try to cheat you out of the little you know,” Botstein
said. His aim, as he put it at the time, was to publicly repudiate what he called “the whole rigmarole of college admissions
and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning.”
In the following weeks, Bard professors from all disciplines were called on to submit essay
topics related to their fields. By the end of the summer, the list had been winnowed down to twenty-one subjects, including
Kantian ethics, economic inequality, and prion disorders. The new application alternative was ready, and Bard’s plan
to implement it, effective immediately, was announced on the front page of the Times, just two months after it was conceived. The new admissions process is, as one faculty member put it to
me, “a classic Leon gesture,” by which he meant idealistic, expeditiously enacted, showmanly, and absolutely earnest
in spirit. The initiative, like its architect, assumes the best of individuals and the worst of institutions.
In the thirty-nine years that Botstein has been president of Bard, the college has served as a kind of petri dish
for his many pedagogical hypotheses: that, as he has written, “the performing and visual arts are not a luxury in a
free and democratic society” but “symptoms of its existence”; that public intellectuals are often better
teachers than newly minted Ph.D.s are; that a liberal-arts education has the power to reduce prison recidivism. Botstein insists
that Bard—alternative, creative, freethinking—is a cause as much as a college. It offers degree-granting programs
abroad—in Russia, Germany, the West Bank, and Kyrgyzstan—as well as in six New York State correctional facilities.
Under the Bard banner, Botstein, whose book “Jefferson’s Children” (1997) argued that the American high-school
system is obsolete and infantilizing, has founded alternative public secondary schools in Manhattan, Queens, Newark, Cleveland,
and New Orleans. Students begin college work two years early, attend seminar-style classes, and graduate with an associate’s
degree. When I visited the Queens campus last May, I saw impressively cosmopolitan teen-agers sipping coffee in class.
Botstein has built Bard in his own polymath image.
(In addition to his duties as president, he is a historian and a busy orchestral conductor; he has led the American Symphony
Orchestra for more than twenty years.) He is celebrated for his grand schemes and the rich donors they attract. Though he
has raised more than a billion dollars during his tenure, the college’s finances remain precarious. Bard has lacked
both a large body of wealthy alumni and a developed infrastructure for soliciting their donations. One of Botstein’s
daughters has joked that he should consider renting out the campus for weddings in the summer. “There are lots of very
good things going for Bard,” David Schwab, a chairman emeritus of the board of trustees, told me. “Money is not
one of them.”
Botstein is now sixty-seven, and the question of succession is becoming
hard to ignore. Mary Patterson McPherson, the former president of Bryn Mawr, has chaired two independent review boards for
Bard, one just before Botstein was appointed and another in the late nineties. While she is impressed with Botstein’s
transformation of a “very fragile” college into “a place to reckon with,” she is not without her fears.
A college, like a campsite, should be in better shape when the custodians leave than when they arrived. “For the students
it attracts and the faculty it has, Bard stands out as really seriously underfunded,” McPherson said. “What happens
to Bard after Leon? That’s everybody’s worry.”
When I first visited Botstein, one afternoon last spring, he was sitting in his study,
which is fortified on every side by books and outfitted with fin-de-siècle furniture from Vienna. Botstein, who is
a fastidious dresser, was wearing a bow tie, as he has almost every day since a Seder dinner more than three decades ago at
which his father taught him how to tie one. Within minutes, he was fulminating about the iniquities of the college ranking
system. In U.S. News & World Report’s current
ranking of liberal arts colleges, Bard comes in forty-fifth.
“It’s one of
the real black marks on the history of higher education that an entire industry that’s supposedly populated by the best
minds in the country—theoretical physicists, writers, critics—is bamboozled by a third-rate news magazine.”
He shook his head in disgust. “They do almost a parody of real research,” he continued. “I joke that the
next thing they’ll do is rank churches. You know, ‘Where does God appear most frequently? How big are the pews?’ ”
Botstein took a cotton handkerchief out of his pocket. He had no immediate use for it and seemed
instead to be acting on behalf of some future self who might want to fiddle with it as a defense against discomposure. He
seemed trapped in his agitated state and proceeded to talk about the college ranking system for twelve uninterrupted minutes,
describing it as “ludicrous,” “idiotic,” “totally corrupt,” “completely perverse,”
and “just nonsensical.” Botstein’s moral outrage, which he expresses in vivid, syntactically complex speech,
conceals a relentless idealism, and to spend time in his company is to be convinced moment by moment that he is operating
within an insane and crooked system rigged by villains and run by fools. There are certain subjects the mere mention of which
increases his heart rate. The college ranking system is one of them, and does to Botstein’s blood pressure what filing
back taxes might do to someone else’s. In the process of verbally dismantling the quantification of higher education,
he compared Ivy League universities to Gucci handbags and sneaked in concise dismissals of the College Board (“offensive,
essentially”), the college essay (“an awful genre”), the S.A.T. (“a totally useless event”),
and multiple-choice tests in general (“a grave error in the name of so-called objectivity”). He began to fiddle
with his handkerchief.
Botstein’s prolixity does not preclude conversational generosity: he compulsively credits
you with making good points that were in fact his. And though he can strike people as a world-class egomaniac, one never feels
condescended to. There is a buoyant presupposition of agreement, and his antipathy does not seem personal. In Botstein’s
mind, it’s not you who deserve weary scrutiny; it’s the world.
The last time
I had seen Botstein was five years earlier, at my graduation. In his academic robes, he looked like a well-fed king. Not once
in the years I was a student at Bard did I make a concerted effort to see him, though it would not have been difficult. Botstein
teaches a section of the college’s only required course: a great-books survey, in which students read everything from
Lucretius and Milton to Virginia Woolf. He regularly hosts teas for students, delivers talks before musical performances,
gives interviews to the campus radio station, opens his house for Shabbat dinners, and eats in the cafeteria. Once, when the
Medieval Club put on a feast, they cooked it in his kitchen.
To an eighteen-year-old,
Botstein’s self-generated glamour is at once intimidating and all too tempting to mock. His passions—besides classical
music, he has a love of pocket watches—made him seem to us like a man neither of the twenty-first century nor of America.
We referred to him among ourselves as “Leon” and spoke sarcastically of inviting him to our parties. Today, his
four-decade tenure strikes me as self-evidently impressive, but back when I was in college it seemed freakish, maybe even
a little suspect. I wondered why he hadn’t gone on to a bigger school or found himself some sort of political appointment.
The type of students
that Bard strives to attract are easy to caricature. They are smart, independent-minded, artsy, and nonconformist in all the
predictable ways. In high school, teachers were probably more impressed with their voracious reading than with their academic
discipline, and their interests didn’t necessarily overlap with the classic extracurricular activities. Rather than
being student-body presidents or varsity point guards, they took black-and-white photographs of their friends’ shoes,
wrote first chapters of postmodern novels, and played in noise bands. They were apt to believe that their talents and interests
could be assessed only subjectively. Though sixty-five per cent of Bard’s student body receives financial aid, and twenty-two
per cent of this year’s entering class is eligible for Pell Grants, there’s a small but culturally significant
population of extremely wealthy kids on campus—the children of media moguls, rock stars, and Hollywood actors.
Classes are small and seminar style. Freshmen arrive on campus three weeks before the fall
semester starts, not to river-raft or play getting-to-know-you games but to study philosophy, literature, and religious texts
for five hours a day. In January, they are required to stay on campus and work in science labs. Unlike many colleges today,
Bard still has distribution requirements. Before declaring a major, sophomores must present and defend papers before a board
of professors. All seniors must write theses.
The school remains small—there are
fewer than two thousand students—and resources are scarce. But Botstein has built Bard, which saw a thirty-per-cent
increase in applications this year, into an academic center that punches far above its weight. It employs some of the country’s
best-known thinkers and writers, and hires star architects, such as Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and Rafael Viñoly,
to design campus buildings. Open any issue of The New York Review
of Books and you will see Bard professors listed on the contributors’ page.
apparently realized early in his tenure that he couldn’t compete with more illustrious institutions for star Ph.D.s.
So he set about attracting public intellectuals, who at Bard teach full course loads. “He wants them there for his students,”
Daniel Mendelsohn, who teaches at Bard and writes for both The
New York Review of Books and this magazine, told me. “He understands the value of a superstar appointment,
but these people have to work.” The poet Anne Carson was recently hired, as was the best-selling author Neil Gaiman.
Kelly Reichardt, the filmmaker, is an artist in residence and the novelist Teju Cole is a writer in residence. The poet John
Ashbery and the photographer Stephen Shore are both professors, as was the writer Chinua Achebe. “When Leon sees an
interesting thinker, he just throws money at them until he gets them,” Orville Schell, a Sinologist and the former dean
of Berkeley’s journalism school, told me. “And let’s be frank—that’s what it takes in this world.”
Botstein, who has accused other college presidents of doing nothing more than “running
something that is somewhere between a faltering corporation and a hotel,” seems genuinely baffled by what he sees as
the financial conservatism of most well-endowed liberal-arts schools. “I’m a little mystified about what they
do with their money,” he said.
Among his faculty, Botstein’s personality
is endlessly pondered. “I’m sometimes astonished by how many conversations I have about Leon Botstein,”
the poet Ann Lauterbach, who has been teaching at Bard for more than two decades, said. “You can spend an entire dinner
talking about him.” She described Botstein as “near and far,” stretching out her hands and adjusting their
position as though focussing a lens. She meant this in the macro sense—that it’s impossible to gauge just how
close one is to him. But it’s also true in a more infinitesimal way. Botstein will go from aloof to avuncular to conspiratorial
to formal to taking your arm in his and leading you on a friendly stroll, all within the span of an hour.
Botstein’s reaction to bureaucracy could
best be described as allergic, or perhaps even adolescent. His attention span is gnat-short, and he appears physically pained
when confronted with procedure. He is agonized by time’s nasty habit of protracting itself in moments of anguish or
tedium. At assemblies he has been known to wrap his arms around himself and hunch over until almost in a fetal position.
At the same time, Botstein pays obsessive attention to every aspect of life at Bard. “He’s
Zeus,” Mendelsohn said. “He’s up there, and he knows what all the other gods and goddesses are doing, whether
you think he knows or not.” Botstein is familiar with the “politics” behind the erection of campus signage,
and he takes a “dim view” of having chickens on the campus farm. He has opinions about which translation of Rousseau
freshmen should read and why it’s more important to include Plato’s Republic in the first-year curriculum than
the Symposium. When staff or faculty members fall ill, he pulls strings to insure that they get the best medical care.
A consistent criticism of Botstein is that he runs Bard like a duchy, that professors’
opinions are routinely disregarded and their expertise ignored. On a number of occasions, he has overridden hiring and tenure
decisions made by otherwise supportive departments. Botstein refuses to speak with restraint, even when it’s in his
best interest, and his temper was described to me as “Biblical” by an employee who went on to recall, albeit fondly,
an outburst that was “a blitzkrieg of torrent, metaphors, congratulation, deceit, and stories that didn’t make
any fucking sense at all.”
ANNALS OF INQUIRY
Geoffrey Sanborn, who was my adviser at Bard and is now an English professor at Amherst, regards
his former boss with a mixture of exasperation and grudging respect. About an hour into a telephone conversation, he decided
that the most efficient way to sum up Botstein would be by quoting Faulkner, and he put down the phone to search for a copy
of “Absalom, Absalom!” Sanborn returned after a few minutes, cleared his throat, and read, “ ‘He
had been too successful, you see; his was that solitude of contempt and distrust which success brings to him who gained it
because he was strong instead of merely lucky.’ ”
The youngest of three children, Botstein was born at the end of 1946
in Zurich, where his parents, Polish-Russian Jews who had lost family members in the Warsaw Ghetto, were doctors. Ineligible
for Swiss citizenship, they emigrated to America and settled in Riverdale, where they spoke “Botsteinese,” an
ad-hoc amalgam of English, German, Polish, Yiddish, and Russian. A sixth language, involving manual spelling, was invented
when Botstein’s mother went deaf.
The children attended public school, and the
house was furnished with items picked up at the Salvation Army. Dinner was at six-thirty sharp and was prepared by an elderly
housekeeper brought over from Switzerland, whose favorite saying was “All of life is organization,” and whom all
three siblings remember with affectionate trepidation. Botstein’s parents, who had neither hobbies nor material ambitions,
restricted family conversation to matters of medicine and scholastic achievement. Their children attended Hebrew school three
times a week, and took lessons in German, tennis, woodworking, ballet, acrobatics, and music. Botstein studied the violin
from the age of nine, but says that he knew his limits as an instrumentalist and always had his heart set on conducting.
Though his father discouraged only three occupations—his children were not to become
financiers, lawyers, or rabbis—Botstein is the only member of his immediate family who isn’t a doctor or a scientist,
and whatever professional confidence he projects today was earned through shame and discomfort. Botstein stuttered growing
up, and his father sometimes called him Durachyok (Russian for “little fool”), and his early experience has ripened
into a lifelong allegiance to underdogs. The objects of his sympathy are diverse. They include incarcerated men and women,
immigrants, political exiles, Palestinian university students, and, in his role as a conductor, underperformed operas and
Botstein graduated from high school at sixteen and went to the University
of Chicago, where he majored in history and founded the school’s chamber orchestra. He began Ph.D. studies at Harvard,
focussing on the social history of modernist music in Vienna. In Cambridge, he met his first wife, with whom he had two daughters.
(He has two more children from his second marriage.) In 1970, having left Harvard to be a special assistant to the president
of the New York City Board of Education, Botstein took a job as president of Franconia College, a small, now defunct institution
in New Hampshire, run out of a former resort hotel. At twenty-three, he was the youngest college president that America had
ever had. A 1971 profile that ran in Playboy described
him as “a bespectacled, long-haired youth” and included a photo of him, in a rumpled shirt and a paisley tie,
next to an office door marked “President” in a curiously Tolkienesque font.
years later, when Botstein arrived at Bard as its president, the college was selling off acreage to pay its utility bills,
and the Commissioner of Education of the State of New York predicted that it would close within twelve months. The appointment
was contentious. He was laughably young and hadn’t yet completed his Ph.D. The college was Episcopal and he was a Jew.
“I didn’t have any natural authority with the student body and the faculty,” Botstein said. “They
didn’t think I deserved it or had earned it. It was a trial by fire.”
members, he said, were “routinely hostile and mistrustful.” Students, put off by his ambition and his desire to
whip the school into shape, wrote ad-hominem op-eds in the school paper. Fed up, Botstein called a meeting with the students,
at which he sought their sympathy, telling them that he was “not a cardboard cutout.” The next day, the campus
was teeming with students wearing cardboard cutouts of Botstein pinned to their clothes.
In Botstein’s telling,
the turning point in his tenure came in 1981, two years after the breakup of his first marriage, when his seven-year-old daughter,
Abigail, was struck by a car and killed. “If you have early success and public visibility, you’re the object of
envy,” he said. “That tragedy made me no longer the object of envy.” In the wake of Abigail’s death,
Botstein says that he became newly interested in “the challenge of building a great institution and recruiting people
to help make that happen.” In mourning, he decided that he would never want to be the president of any other college.
It was at around this
time that Botstein expanded his ambitions as a conductor. He founded the Hudson Valley Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, and
in 1990 he instituted the Bard Music Festival, a summer series of classical-music concerts, lectures, and panel discussions.
In 1991, the American Symphony Orchestra chose him as its music director. The orchestra, a freelance ensemble, had been founded
in the sixties, by Leopold Stokowski, with the aim of mounting inexpensive concerts to popularize classical music. But it
was struggling to define itself in a crowded New York music scene. Under Botstein’s leadership, the A.S.O. quickly developed
a mission of reviving works that he saw as unjustly neglected. In the decades since, the orchestra has established a reputation
for programming rarities by obscure composers like John Foulds, Gavriil Popov, Ethel Smyth, and Vincent d’Indy. Botstein,
who writes often on music and has been the editor of The Musical
Quarterly for two decades, has been known to call the state of concert programming “a crime against history.”
He frequently compares the regular concert repertoire to the Louvre’s opening only a single gallery to the public.
On the podium Botstein does not radiate ease. “I’m not actually that in love with
the theatre of the whole business,” he admitted. “But you also have to project the joy of what you’re doing,
and that I didn’t quite understand at the beginning.” In July, I saw Botstein conduct a performance of “Euryanthe,”
an 1823 opera by Carl Maria von Weber, which hadn’t been staged in America since 1914. He feels that, over the years,
his reaction time as a conductor has got quicker and that he’s learned both to employ economy of gesture and not to
“compensate for inexperience by talking more.” Nonetheless, his technical skill is far from revered among musicians,
and reviewers have often been harsh. An A.S.O. member I talked to spoke of “unidentifiable, arrhythmic gestures,”
and said, “He’s a brilliant, gifted intellectual, but he’s a historian—he’s not a musician.”
Still, his championing of underperformed music has won him respect, and some of the pieces he has unearthed have been taken
up by other, more prominent ensembles. In essence, Botstein has played to his academic strengths, mitigating technical faults
with curatorial vision.
He also conducts the conservatory orchestra at Bard, and in late May, the day before the orchestra
embarked on a European tour, he appeared in the cafeteria, where the conservatory students were eating lunch and absorbing
travel information from a host of chaperons. Bard’s conservatory program, which requires all its participants to double-major,
exists for a lot of reasons, and social engineering is one of them. It’s disgraceful to complain about your course load
if your classmate down the hall has the same load and also has to practice cello for thirty hours a week.
Botstein called the students to attention with a well-projected “Ladies and gentlemen,” and congratulated
them on their hard work, warmly expressing his excitement about the forthcoming trip. For an exceedingly busy, physically
imposing, and often abrasive authority figure, Botstein, who himself entered college as a “terribly insecure sixteen-year-old,”
is attuned to even the most ordinary forms of other people’s pain. “In every group of this size,” he began,
“there are very popular people, some not so popular people, and people nobody wants to hang out with.” The students chuckled halfheartedly. He raised his eyebrows in searing
disapproval. “Don’t leave someone in the hotel when you go out gallivanting who doesn’t have a friend,”
he pleaded. “Do you know what I mean?” The students nodded, looking down in embarrassment. “We’re
travelling as a group, so include people. Include people.” He clasped his hands together and smiled. “I’m
very, very proud of you. It’s all going to sound great.” He paused for several seconds. “Especially by the
December, 2013, after a three-month review, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Bard’s bond rating three notches
and revised its outlook to “negative.” The Moody’s report cited Bard’s “exceedingly thin liquidity
with full draw on operating lines of credit,” “weak documentation and transparency,” “willingness
to fund operations and projects prior to payment on pledges,” and “growing dependence on cash gifts.” (The
report found that in 2012 and 2013 more than forty per cent of annual operating revenues came from gifts. Among other small
private colleges, about seven per cent is typical.) Six months earlier, Bard had had monthly liquidity of $7.1 million—equal
to just two weeks’ worth of operating costs. Bard is highly leveraged, carrying a hundred and sixty million dollars
of debt, which is close to its operating budget of a hundred and eighty-five million. The undergraduate endowment (eighty
million dollars) is a tenth that of Vassar, a school that is comparable to Bard in both size and age and is one Amtrak stop
to the south.
Founded in 1860 as St. Stephen’s, an Episcopal college, Bard, for
almost the first century of its existence, had a student body that numbered less than a hundred, and its alumni—priests,
mostly—were not wealthy. Forty per cent of all the students the college has ever produced graduated within the past
twenty years, making the alumni base not only small but also young.
Emily Fisher, the
vice-chair of the board and the ex-wife of the late Richard Fisher, one of Bard’s major donors, told me, “Bard
has always educated the kind of student that tends not to go to Wall Street. They haven’t made buckets of money.”
Unlike the best-endowed liberal-arts colleges, such as Amherst, Williams, and Swarthmore, Bard has done little to foster links
to the business community. On campus, this has its positive side: the atmosphere is intellectually idealistic and anything
but pre-professional. But, unsurprisingly, an excess of critical-theory-reading photography majors doesn’t make for
a promising donor pool.
“Until relatively recently, Bard was a safety school,”
Fisher said. “Its alumni didn’t have a sense of pride and owing to the place.” Although Botstein has changed
the school’s reputation beyond recognition, he remains suspicious of the tactics that other schools use to cultivate
a sense of shared identity. Greek life at Bard is nonexistent, as are any athletic teams that one might take seriously. Botstein
has written that “it is an embarrassment that so much time, effort, emotion, and money are expended on gladiatorial
exhibitions.” But, for better or worse, such activities are at the heart of fund-raising. Noah Drezner, an associate
professor of higher education at Teachers College, Columbia University, told me, “Studies have shown that former student
athletes, even just those who participated in organized college sports, are more likely to give, and give at higher rates.”
No one I know from college owns a single item of Bard College merchandise—no sweatshirts,
no umbrellas, no bumper stickers. If there are meet-ups for Bard alumni at financial-district bars, I don’t know about
them. Bard’s ethos of quixotic unworldliness is appealing—it’s part of why I ended up there—but it’s
never occurred to me to donate money to the place.
Instead of appealing to alumni, Botstein’s
chief tactic has been to court a few exceptionally wealthy donors. “We’re in the business of looking for large
investors,” he told me. “Basically, the people who created the college are Leon Levy, Dick Fisher, and George
Soros, with whom Botstein has had a long and affectionate relationship,
recalls being introduced to Botstein more than thirty years ago. “He impressed me with his intelligence, and we shared
the same values, so it was a meeting of the minds and—call it hearts, if you like,” he told me. “A Polish
Jew is not all that different from a Hungarian Jew,” he added. Soros finds Botstein “an amusing raconteur,”
and Botstein—who has long been on the board of Soros’s Open Society Foundations—happily plays the part of
house contrarian at meetings.
What Moody’s calls Bard’s “superior but
concentrated donor support” is at once a boon and a liability. Though the average yearly revenue from gifts to the college
from 2011 to 2013 (seventy-two million dollars) was seven times the amount that most liberal-arts colleges receive annually,
heavy dependence upon a small number of funders puts Bard in an inherently precarious situation.
Soros’s ex-wife Susan Weber told me, “It’s not healthy for an institution to have just a few
big donors. People change their minds. Unfortunately, they have heart attacks; they get hit by buses. People are fickle.”
Weber, a trustee of Bard and a major donor and fund-raiser, is also the founder and director of a Bard graduate center for
studies in the decorative arts. Of Botstein, she said, “Everyone says, ‘Oh, he’s the most amazing fund-raiser,’
Well, I wish that were so, because we wouldn’t be so underfunded if he were that amazing. I think he’s good at
it—he works hard at it—but his real strength is building an institution.”
everything about the way Botstein has run Bard and raised money for it has put the place on the map. “Poverty made us
great,” he told me. “We had to invent a reason to command people’s respect.” Jane Brien, the director
of alumni affairs, told me of a much-repeated Botstein saying: “People don’t give money to a wounded bird—they
give money to a rare bird.” But to consolidate his achievement it is now up to Botstein to embrace the ultimate act
of paternalism: securing a future for the institution in anticipation of his exit. “For a long time, it was clear to
everyone that without Leon there could be no more Bard,” Marcelle Clements, a Bard trustee, told me. “If he disappeared,
the whole thing would dematerialize. But in the last few years I’ve heard Leon himself talk about the future of the
institution in a different way.” Bard desperately needs an endowment; establishing one will almost certainly mean adopting
the conventional development strategies that Botstein has always avoided. Failure to do so could jeopardize his life’s
ANNALS OF INQUIRY
Botstein raised the subject at an alumni brunch in May, and his tone was more alarmist than usual.
Without alumni support, “this place will not survive—it can’t,” he warned. “There’s only
so much you can do against the grain, but you can’t survive without money. You cannot be a first-class place without
money. It’s just not possible.” Like a blissfully oblivious child who learns as an adult that her parents’
marriage has been miserable for decades, I found the urgency of his pleas almost physically shocking. Last month, at the first
faculty meeting of the year, Botstein said that he plans to remain as president for another decade and to leave his successor
with an endowment of four hundred million dollars, the proceeds of a five-year campaign that has yet to be formally announced.
The promise comes either in the nick of time or decades too late.
On the last Saturday in May, I spent the morning in the back seat of a van, travelling
from Columbus Circle a hundred miles north to Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison in Sullivan
County. Among the other passengers were Arlander Brown, a formerly incarcerated thirty-two-year-old, and members of his family,
who were on their way to see his college-graduation ceremony, as part of the Bard Prison Initiative, a program whose first
degree recipients graduated in 2008.
The prison yard was outfitted for the day with picnic
tables set for a buffet lunch. Twenty-two men, the cuffs of prison uniforms just visible under their academic gowns, made
their way from a corner of the yard near a watchtower into a gleaming white tent, where they proceeded down an aisle flanked
by family members, many of them crying. Brown was one of three men who had been released from the prison and had come back
to receive their associate’s degrees. The other graduates would return to their cells at the end of the day.
Sean Patrick Maloney, the representative from New York’s Eighteenth Congressional District, spoke, as did
Robert Fullilove, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Botstein, who had conducted
a concert at Carnegie Hall the night before, delivered a presidential charge. “Others will tell you how significant
our program is,” he said, looking out not at the audience but at the rows of graduates, sitting just in front of the
stage. “There is an emphasis on how much we do for you. But you ought to know that you do a lot for us.” When
the situation calls for it, Botstein’s voice telegraphs a wizardly moral authority. Everyone responds to it, but parents,
primed to be proud of their children, are especially susceptible. “We live in a time where people don’t really
believe in education. That doubt is something we struggle with,” he said. “Your enthusiasm, your determination,
your idealism about education gives back to us a reminder of why we should fight for what we do.”
Aside from the deafening interruption, at noon, of a prison clock, the graduation ceremony was exactly like the
one on Bard’s main campus, a week before. This was intentional. The graduates threw their caps in the air and posed
for pictures with their families.
The Bard Prison Initiative (B.P.I.) was founded in
1999 by an undergraduate, Max Kenner, who was concerned about the extraordinary growth of the prison system and thought that
Bard could do something to help. College-in-prison programs, though controversial and rapidly disappearing across the country
(George Pataki, New York’s governor, made ending them a part of his agenda), had been shown to be the most inexpensive
and effective way of reducing recidivism. Kenner saw an opportunity for Bard to show leadership. He scheduled a meeting with
Botstein and, a few weeks later, found himself facing an audience of seven senior administrators. He gave a five-minute presentation
suggesting that Bard figure out a way to extend the liberal arts to the growing population of incarcerated Americans. “Leon
just said, ‘Let’s do it.’ There was literally not a pause,” Kenner recalled, laughing. “Most
people in positions of authority look for reasons to say no, and Leon is really the opposite.”
B.P.I. has helped to establish college-in-prison programs across the country and is now active in nine states.
Challenging common preconceptions about what education in prison should look like—remedial classes, G.E.D. prep, vocational
programs—B.P.I. offers its students the same course of study that regular Bard students receive. Nearly three hundred
incarcerated people are enrolled with Bard; roughly the same number have graduated. Wesleyan, Grinnell, and Goucher have launched
programs under Bard’s guidance, and large universities, including Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis,
are also involved.
Arlander Brown told me, “As you learn to be a better critical
reader you learn to be a better self-critic, too.” He is now an editorial assistant at a publishing house in Manhattan
and a student at Hunter College. I heard something similar from Anibal Cortes, who was in the first class at B.P.I. “If
you put that kind of humanistic education into the inherently dehumanizing space of prison, you can restore a person’s
individual agency,” he said. Cortes earned his B.A. in 2008, having written a senior thesis on infant mortality in early-twentieth-century
New York City, and, in May, graduated from Columbia with a master’s in public health. He is now a family-services specialist
at the Fortune Society.
Among Bard’s many projects, including the foreign campuses
and the alternative high schools, B.P.I. is perhaps the signal success. But although it is now self-funding, such programs
are a significant drain on Bard’s resources. The high schools, though largely government-funded, siphon off about two
million dollars a year from the college itself, a small sum at many institutions but not at Bard.
The proliferation of ancillary programs at Bard
reflects a fundamental dynamic in today’s nonprofit world. It’s far easier to interest big donors in funding eye-catching
initiatives than in funding unglamorous core activities. (At colleges, the latter usually end up being supported by incremental
gifts from alumni, parents, and friends.) Many people I spoke to said that Botstein’s great strength as a fund-raiser
is that he thinks like a donor. This strategy has got Botstein, among other things, a new baseball diamond, which isn’t
the sort of thing that usually interests him, and a Frank Gehry-designed performing-arts center, which is. He has secured
libraries for the college and lavish laboratories. The Bard programs overseas are reliably funded by N.G.O.s and philanthropists.
What thinking like a donor has failed to yield is robust funding for day-to-day operations. Historically, donors have given
to Botstein, but what Botstein now needs is for donors to give to Bard.
At the beginning of August, just before the new class of freshmen arrived
on campus, I went to see Botstein’s horological collection, which he had described to me in animated detail. He believes
that a well-made clock is the ultimate “triumph of art and engineering.” Botstein was biographically primed to
catch the watch-collecting bug: his parents helped members of his mother’s family survive the Warsaw Ghetto by sending
them watches from Switzerland, which they used for bartering with Nazi officers.
brought out an armful of cases containing some of his collection. Made of black leather with buckles, they resembled travelling
backgammon boards. He opened the boxes one by one. Inside were golden grids, each pocket watch nestled in a small divot, like
a truffle. Botstein extracted an eighteenth-century Swiss specimen, removed the back casing with a knife, and motioned for
me to inspect its innards. He pulled out a watch by Charles Fasoldt, a German maker who immigrated to America in the middle
of the nineteenth century and set up shop in upstate New York: “He was a maniac!” Botstein exclaimed. “He
didn’t follow anybody’s rules!”
He opened more cases. One watch told
the time to a quarter of a second, its hands spinning furiously; another, from the French Revolution, ran on decimal time.
Botstein excitedly described a pocket watch he was considering trading for: it had been made for a maharaja, and had two sets
of hands, one black and one gold, that swept around a single dial, in order to tell the time simultaneously in India and in
England. He scoffed at the idea of a person wanting a watch that would tell the phases of the moon, and said that the most
accurate watches did nothing but tell the time: “The more complications—it’s like the car that also swims
and flies. Well, it might not be such a great car. ”
Botstein pointed out balance
wheels, regulators, tourbillons. He demonstrated different chimes. With each passing second, he spoke faster, like a boy eager
to show off a model airplane and impatient for you to share his enthusiasm. “I never have anything that doesn’t
work,” he said. “I’m extremely allergic to things that don’t work.” ♦