Interview with Leon Botstein: 35 Years (and Counting) as President of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

After 35 years at Bard College, Leon Botstein reflects on his life as a public intellectual



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David Schwab recalls when Leon Botstein first sashayed into his Manhattan law office more than 35 years ago to apply for the job of president of Bard College. His first impression? “He was very young.” His second impression? “He was very articulate.” And although Botstein showed up with some pretty snazzy credentials — he was already president of the now defunct Franconia College in New Hampshire, a post he landed at the tender age of 23 — “it was his charisma, his intelligence, his vision of what an undergraduate college could be,” according to Schwab — that ultimately led to the 28-year-old landing the college’s top spot.

But did Schwab, the chairman emeritus of Bard’s board of trustees, ever imagine that decades later Botstein would still be at it? “Not at all. We all thought that Bard might be a stepping-stone to a more prestigious college presidency. But rather than move on, he ended up making Bard as prestigious as anybody would want.”

That he has.

On his position:
“This job is all about helping people — whether students or people who work here or people in the Valley at large”

Over the last 35 years, Botstein has transformed Bard College from a sleepy little liberal arts college on the banks of the Hudson with a reputation as a pot-smokers paradise, to an intellectual powerhouse with global reach. During his tenure, he has tripled the student body and made admission much more competitive; lured prominent faculty; established a distinctive curriculum; organized the college’s first graduate programs; instituted dual degree programs in places like Russia and Palestine; and helped Bard’s music programs earn worldwide acclaim. His flair for the dramatic — he was instrumental in getting noted architect Frank Gehry to design the space-age Fisher Center for the Arts in the mid-1990s — helps keep Bard in the spotlight. His radical views on high school education — basically, he thinks it is a waste — are well known, and he is busy establishing Bard-sponsored “early-college” high schools in New York City and beyond. His latest cause du jour is increasing scientific literacy among today’s youth with a mandatory, intensive three-week course at the college. But perhaps what is most extraordinary is that Botstein, 64, has simultaneously reached the pinnacle of a second career: he is music director and principal conductor of both the American Symphony and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestras.

How does he do it all?

Says Schwab simply, “He’s a very unusual guy.”

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