I just returned from Bard College, where graduation ceremonies for the class of 2000 and a reunion for my graduating class of 1965 were held.
Bard is an interesting institution. Along with Black Mountain College, Bennington, Antioch and Goddard, the school was seen as an experiment in progressive educational philosophy. These schools either involved ambitious, but largely unsuccessful, work-study programs or in the case of Black Mountain expected students to work on the upkeep of the college itself, through gardening for food served in the cafeteria, etc. John Dewey's progressivism was a strong element mixed with New Deal idealism.
All of these schools went through big financial crises at one point or another and one, Black Mountain-- the eagle of the lot--succumbed in the 1950s. Even in its grave, the school was seen as one of the great cultural influences of the 20th century, either through the literary journal edited by faculty member and dean Charles Olsen, or through art classes taught by well-known modernists such as Joseph Albers.
The others hit a brick wall in the 1960s and 70s as American society entered a post-affluence period when the realities of the job market militated against the kind of intellectual hothouse atmosphere of a place like Bard or Bennington. The schools were forced to become more competitive and the financial and curricular restructuring was often quite painful, as indicated in an article about Bennington in today's NY Times:
"Founded in 1932 as a women's college challenging educational orthodoxy, the upstart developed a history of innovation, a tradition of teacher-practitioners -- often cutting-edge figures in art, drama, dance and literature -- working in close relationship with their student-apprentices and, in recent decades, academic politics of exceeding viciousness.
"But with the college having fallen on hard times by 1994, its niche nibbled away by changes in the Ivy League and other institutions, its student body reduced in quantity and quality, some of its faculty lapsing toward mediocrity and its finances in peril, the trustees, the administration and the faculty came up with a restructuring plan called the Symposium after a two-year agonizing reappraisal.
"A third of the faculty -- 26 of 79 professors -- was fired in a single stroke in 1994."
Bard solved its financial crisis in a less extreme fashion. When Leon Botstein assumed the presidency of the college in 1975 at the age of 28, the youngest such office-holder in the United States, he elected to curb the "excesses" of the old Bard and to restyle the school as a competitive liberal arts college in the mode of Swarthmore, Haverford or Reed. He has been eminently successful. One out of 10 applications are approved today, while back in 1961, when I was a freshman, the ratio was something like 1 out of 3.
Despite Bard's mediocre reputation, it was an important institution. From 1933-44, it added distinguished European emigres, in flight from fascist Europe, to the faculty. Among them were painter Stefan Hirsch, political editor Felix Hirsch, violinist Emil Hauser of the Budapest String Quartet, philosopher Heinrich Bluecher, economist Adolf Sturmthal, and philosopher Werner Wolff.
Botstein is a well-respected public figure, whose musings appear regularly on the NY Times op-ed page, including a piece on standardized testing today (5/28), to which he is opposed. He is also a mediocre symphony orchestra conductor, who compensates for lackluster performances with his dedication to neglected composers, including Schoenberg about whom Botstein has recently edited a collection of essays.
But Botstein's real gift is for fund-raising, about whose propriety I have had occasion to take exception to. Botstein has a tremendous affinity for hooking up with very wealthy but very compromised figures, a failing that remains lost on most Bard graduates except the occasionally disgruntled Marxist like myself.
In 1987 I received a mailing from the alumnus office crowing about Botstein's new appointees to the Board of Trustees. One was Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, whose sleazy behavior served as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in "Wall Street". Edelman's takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of "excess" workers. The other appointee was Martin Peretz, the editor of New Republic who used the formerly liberal magazine to stump for contra funding. Since I was heavily involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua, I blew my stack and wrote Botstein a heavily sarcastic letter congratulating him for sniffing out rich scumbags who would help him balance the school's books.
Apparently Botstein doesn't enjoy being criticized in this fashion. He sent me a long angry reply defending his actions. In a way it is easy to understand Botstein's self-righteousness. In his own eyes, he must appear practically a Bolshevik. After all, didn't he set up an Alger Hiss chair at Bard (of course, taking the big money connected to the position) and give well-known Marxist and Green activist Joel Kovel the job? In a characteristically Botsteinian gesture, he also set up a Henry R. Luce chair for faculty at Bard at the same time. Critics, according to a NY Times Magazine profile (Oct. 4, 1992) "see the incongruity as opportunism; he sees the essence of free inquiry." His growled at the interviewer, "People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this tradition in America?" You're either for 'em or agin 'em. What are we discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?"
Continuing in this vein, Botstein co-opted multimillionaire investor and liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College, where PEN-L'er Matt Forstater used to work. Levy writes occasionally for the centrist periodical "New York Review of Books," where his preoccupations about income inequality and "irrational exuberance" on Wall Street serve the same kind of faux progressivist agenda that Felix Rohatyn's articles used to in the 1980s.
About 5 years ago a trade union organizer wrote to PEN-L asking if there were any Bard College graduates on the list. It seemed that the Levy offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the "misappropriation" of school property.
In the 1990s Botstein's recruitment efforts turned up another Golden Goose in the person of Susan Soros, Mrs. George. The Soroses are not to be trifled with, as seen by this London Times May 8, 1991 piece:
"A CHAUFFEUR-BUTLER and his cook-housekeeper wife yesterday won their claim for compensation for wrongful dismissal against a multi-millionaire philanthropist whose wife dismissed them without warning.
"Susan Soros, the American wife of George Soros, a Hungarian expatriate who is chairman of the Quantum Fund of New York, had told an industrial tribunal in London that Patrick Davison and his wife Nicki had turned her London home into an 'uninhabitable battlefield' when she brought a cordon bleu chef from New York.
"She said that arguments between her South American chef and the Davisons had kept her awake at night, and that the Davisons had refused to give the chef money to buy ingredients or to show her the food shops.
"Yesterday the tribunal unanimously decided that they preferred the Davisons' evidence to that of Mrs Soros, who they concluded had no legitimate grounds for dismissing the couple."
1991 was a bad year for Susan Soros. Not only did her kitchen staff get uppity, she was turned down for the job of director of graduate education at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her husband's money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street. Naturally, she couldn't get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum, but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.
At yesterday's commencement, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia's new 'open society'. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Its victory has ensured that a generation of Russian youth will never enjoy a college education and will likely end up marginalized as alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes.
In his commencement address, Botstein urged the class of 2000 to eschew the kind of greed and cynicism that pervaded American society in recent years. I sat there marveling at his breathtaking inability to understand himself and his social role. Do such movers and shakers really take themselves seriously? Perhaps Bard would have been better off with a dreamer and visionary like Charles Olsen in charge. It might have died in the 1970s, but it would have been honored for a glorious lifetime of service to education and humanity.