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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botstein conductingBotstein has called conducting “like being a traffic cop”

Photograph by Steve J. Sherman

These days, Botstein’s dizzying schedule changes all the time. He says that he rarely gets out to concerts because he spends every free moment learning new music. “I have a relatively busy concert schedule,” he says. This year, for instance, he’ll be in Israel to conduct just four times (12 times a year had previously been the norm). But wherever in the world he wakes up, he says that he works on “both” of his careers every day. “You can’t keep up activity by blocks. But of course, the ratios change,” he says. “When I’m in Israel, from the mornings until around three in the afternoon are devoted exclusively to the music. Then, from three to six, I work on programs there; then from six until I go to bed, I’m online and on the phone to Annandale.”

Botstein credits his ability to delegate responsibility at the college as the key to his success. “I wasn’t always good at it,” he says. “But I learned. It was one of the few advantages of being a young college president. I knew I didn’t know anything, and that I was dependent on other people giving advice.” He refers to his job as “institution building,” which he differentiates from regular management “where you make a few changes and you incrementally improve something. What I do is try to change an institution. To do that you have to really listen to other people, you can’t have all the ideas yourself. Then, once you determine where Bard College can make a contribution, you have to recruit the people to lead it. Recruiting is the essence of building a college.” 

Despite his hectic travel schedule,  Botstein spends much of his time on the Annandale campus and calls the Hudson Valley the “ideal” place to live. “It is not suburbia — I can’t imagine living there. But this is an independent community with an independent cultural life and an independent sensibility,” he says. “I am deeply attached to the landscape and the region.” But he quickly adds that interacting closely with said landscape is not on the agenda. “I go outdoors as little as possible; and when I do, I try to stay on things that aren’t green.”

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