College President's Series
Leon Botstein: The Maestro of Annandale
For someone who has been a college president for more than half of his life, Leon Botstein sounds much more like a young revolutionary hell-bent on transforming the American education system. Maybe that is because he has kept one foot outside the field of academic administration, serving as the longtime music director and conductor of the prestigious American Symphony Orchestra. Or maybe that is because he continues to teach undergraduates in popular first year seminars at Bard College. Or maybe it is his uncanny ability to speak in full paragraphs, peppered with allusions to history and classical literature—one is reminded of the late Sir Isaiah Berlin. But most likely it is because, after thirty years running small liberal arts campuses—first Franconia College from 1970-1975 and then Bard from 1975 to the present—Botstein still is young. Only just fifty-seven. By the standards of many university presidents, that's hardy past adolescence. But Botstein—eyes gleaming above his trademark bowtie—displays all the zeal of a novice tempered by the knowledge of a seasoned maestro.
Botstein's principle target is an institutional inertia that he believes has dampened teaching and intellectual ferment at many of the nation's leading universities. "We put undergraduates through a set of requirements and paces for no redeeming intellectual reason—certainly not high standards—without a constructive result," explains Botstein. "There's a tremendous reluctance to look at the basic fundamental structures of how curricula are put together." For example, he points out that one may find faculty at the same university teaching politics out of departments of government, public policy, sociology, history and law. "The irony" of this organization based upon discipline rather than specialization "is that each of these pretenders to the ownership of the subject of politics has been trained by a Ph.D. program someplace, that has a vested interest in finding jobs for its graduates, and they read only in the journals that their profession in fact favors." Botstein blasts this organizational approach as "errant nonsense from the point of view of an undergraduate." According to Botstein, "the undergraduate is motivated by curiosity, by the questions he or she frames, and by a "need to know'...and [the effective college] needs to respond to that "need to know.'"
Unlike many of his administrative peers at other institutions—whom he characterizes as increasingly "bland and faceless'—Botstein does not hold his punches when it comes to critiquing the state of America's elite universities. "What's happened in the United States," he laments, "is an enormous intellectual uniformity that is structural. You have the same departments everywhere; the graduate schools look more or less identical. Very few universities have developed a strategic point of view. At Columbia University, they have a residue of something that existed during the First World War. [The University of] Chicago has the residues of something that took place in the 1930's. And the balkanization of professional schools and departments makes any really serious thought about undergraduate education very hard." That's why he believes that free-standing liberal arts colleges, such as Bard College with its 1400 resident undergraduate campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, have such a critical role to play in the future of higher learning. These small colleges are "not hampered by the enormous and overwhelming investment in the graduate research enterprise" that keeps larger institutions from thinking innovatively.
Botstein describes the ideal institution of higher learning as being highly flexible. He says it is essential that colleges evolve to meet both the interests of the students and the socio-political realities of the outside world. "In the 1950's," he explains, "in the wake of the Second World War and the naissance of the Cold War and the bilateral world in which there were a thick communist iron curtain world and ourselves, the issues of freedom, of democracy, were central....Today, young people are worried about other things. They worry about globalization; they worry about the international interdependence of the world. Now they worry about religion, about religion and politics, a subject which was a dead subject in the 1950s." Botstein's vision of a meaningful liberal arts education is one that is responsive to such "global" changes. He cites the recent explosion of interest in China as a case in point. "China is clearly emerging as the most important political and economic force in the world," he notes. "It behooves young Americans to know something about it. Fifteen years ago, institutions didn't teach Chinese on a regular basis. Now they do—as they should." Botstein willingly concedes that this new focus will come with tradeoffs. "Maybe we don't teach French anymore," he admits, "not because the French have been unkind to us, but because French is irrelevant. Not if you want to read Balzac or Proust or Camus, of course, but in terms of the political reality of the present day." He makes clear that he—unlike some critics of an older generation—does not view this shift as a decline in standards. "That's a little bit of nonsense," says Botstein with a decisive wave of the hand. "I'm not sure some of the older pundits who would decry the standards of today would pass a elementary school test on the history of China."
Interdisciplinary approaches to the liberal arts are also at the forefront of the Botstein agenda. Drawing from his own background in musicology, he emphasizes the importance of academic and artistic work that is "adequate to the historical reality." It is a grave mistake, he argues, to remain "hermetically sealed" in one discipline—yet this happens to graduate students all too frequently. "You know someone who does a dissertation on Wagner probably knows about Nietzsche and his critique of Wagner," says Botstein, "but that's where it stops. He can't tell you anything more about Nietzsche. Someone who wants to work on Gustav Mahler will make a passing reference to a thing that Gustav Mahler read or to the intellectual circle that he traveled in, but they never stop to do more than that." He argues that this approach ignores many of the intellectual and political keys to the work being studied. "The adequacy is whether the composer is Brahms or Stravinsky or Shostakovich or Copeland. These composers were never detached from the world they lived in....Shostakovich was mired in the tragic vice of Soviet politics. Copeland was deeply engaged with the popular front and with progressive politics; he was an avid reader of Dewey and of American letters....It is very clear whom Debussy did and did not know among painters and writers. We know the contents of Beethoven's library and Hayden's as well." Botstein attempts to bring this knowledge to bare on his own work in music. He also emphasizes this synthetic approach when outlining his vision of model undergraduate study.
Despite his grand ideas for higher education, Botstein argues that "the influence of universities is wildly overrated." He notes the lack of historical correlation between the political attitudes of college faculty and the students that they have taught. "We used to hear in the 1960s that universities made young people radical," he scoffs. "There's no historical evidence of this at all. In fact, the radicals of the 1930s—the old communists— were actually taught at the City College of New York by conservative faculty, [while] the new conservatives that we see running around the country today were all taught by liberal faculty members. It's a very simplistic notion that you put green fluid in the bottle and green fluid comes out. No. You put green fluid in the bottle and orange fluid comes out. Nobody knows how this works." He offers the same argument with regard to religion. "We've been accused by parents of ruining their child because their child came without religious belief and ended up born-again. Or they came with religious belief and ended up secular. I say, that's not our problem. It could have happened anywhere." Yet he increasingly sees a desire to cast blame—to shirk personal responsibility—with colleges and universities as a principal target. He noted that "this is something people like my parents would never have thought of doing."
Botstein's own parents were Polish Jews who gained prominence in academic medicine. "In my parents household," recalls Botstein, "the portraits of their teachers hung in their offices, and they were legendary figures in our childhoods." His parents urged him to follow in their footsteps, but from the age of ten Botstein knew that he wanted to conduct. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. Among his most influential teachers were David Landis and Howard Farberman. Botstein readily acknowledges: "I'm sort of a composite of a variety of debts that I owe to many, many, many people....I would be nothing without the teachers who took an interest in me." By his own account, he ended up a college president by accident. After a brief stint as special assistant to the president of New York City's Board of Education from 1969 to 1970, a series of fortuities landed him at the helm of bankrupt Franconia College in New Hampshire. He turned the school's finances around; later, he helped build Bard from a one-campus, 600-student college into a complex institution with more than 2500 students at multiple locations. What was the secret to his success? "I never grew up to be a college president." Although he says most accomplishments in life for most people are due to hard work and risk-taking, in his own case he also credits sheer luck and his lack of specialized training. "I am not a professional administrator. I never trained for this job. I operate upon my intuition and my experience." He uses a military analogy: "I never went to West Point. I got drafted. I am a citizen soldier—not a professional soldier."