Yesterday I got word from Richard Greener, acclaimed author of the Locator novels and Bard College class of ’61, that a big profile on Leon Botstein had appeared in the New Yorker Magazine. He added this comment:
Most telling line in this: “…Botstein changed the school’s reputation beyond recognition.” I know, for some, this is a plus, but for me it’s exactly why I stopped giving money to Bard.
Bard is one of those examples where someone becomes owner of a famous brand name and then releases a new product having little to do with the original. One that comes to mind was when a Japanese company began making cheap transistor stereo components with the Marantz trademark, a name previously associated with the very best tube audiophile equipment. While nobody would ever mistake the grubby Bard College of Richard Greener’s (and my) generation with the carriage trade, it did have its own integrity—one that earned the unintended accolade of gossip columnist and redbaiter Walter Winchell as “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson.”
Bard was once part of a clutch of “experimental” colleges that began to emerge in the 1920s as an alternative to the existing model. For one reason or another, most e went through a deep administrative and financial crisis in the mid to late 60s that either led to their extinction or their transformation. Victims of extinction included Franconia, a school that Leon Botstein took over as president in 1970 at the tender age of 23, the youngest in American history, and on account of his being the son-in-law of a trustee. Victims of transformation include Bard College, the next and last stop in the career of Leon Botstein.
My initial reaction to Botstein’s arrival at Bard was positive. Splashy news articles intended to give the impression that he can walk on water accompanied every step in his career. Like someone who was at the Sermon on the Mount, I became a follower. That is, until I learned that Martin Peretz had become a member of the board of trustees around 1989, just when I was deeply involved in Nicaragua Solidarity. Long before I ever began using email, I sent him an angry and sarcastic letter about the propriety of such a figure being on the board when he was advocating the contra funding that had led to so many schools in Nicaragua suffering mortar attacks. He took the trouble to write me back a characteristic defense of his actions filled with self-justification and egomania, personality traits noted by many shrewd observers, even the Bard graduate who wrote the New Yorker profile.
That letter set off a 25 year feud that is still going strong. To be more accurate, a one-way feud since Botstein never bothers to reply. Why should he? I am the proverbial gadfly so easy to be ignored. But it rankled Leon that his kids read my blog and kept asking questions about what I was writing. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when his son asked him about the addition of Stewart Resnick to the board, an agribusiness magnate who has bought off the California Democratic Party in pursuit of his anti-environmental and anti-working class profit-making enterprises.
Let me turn now to the New Yorker article and provide my own running commentary.
The article makes clear that funding is not based on alumni contributions but on a group of billionaires who are members of the Botstein cult:
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.
Botstein freely admitted to reporter Alice Gregory: “We’re in the business of looking for large investors. Basically, the people who created the college are Leon Levy, Dick Fisher, and George Soros.” (All three are Wall Street speculators.) That’s very reassuring given what has transpired at the University of Illinois, a sign that the privatization of the American university proceeds at a blinding speed.
The problem Bard faces is one that all cults face. What happens when the cult leader dies? Botstein has been president of Bard College for 40 years and turned it into his fiefdom. Would George Soros, or those who administer his foundation, be so generous when the next president comes along? That’s what happens when you operate on the basis of what the Stalinists called a “cult of personality”. Even with Botstein still in the saddle, investment-rating firms strike a note of pessimism:
In 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.
Reporter Alice Gregory takes note of Botstein’s rage that US News and World Report ranks Bard College at 45th in the nation. She adds that he has become convinced that “he is operating within an insane and crooked system rigged by villains and run by fools,” words that come to mind whenever I consider the board of trustees that has made his ambitions possible, as well as the deep pockets of his long-time friend and ally George Soros whose hedge fund was fined $2.2 million for manipulating security prices in Hungary. After all, how else do you expect the next garish building to go up at Bard unless George Soros is allowed to game the stock market? What are you? Some kind of commie?
After one of her conversations with Botstein, Gregory reflects: “And though he can strike people as a world-class egomaniac, one never feels condescended to.” Or as she puts it a bit later: “To an eighteen-year-old, Botstein’s self-generated glamour is at once intimidating and all too tempting to mock.” Unfortunately, from what I can gather, there is not very much mocking going on at the new Bard. During the old Bard, it was apparently the thing to do as she reports on his early days ruling the college:
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.
I suppose that being awestruck is the honest reaction of someone 50 years Botstein’s junior but I had a different reaction when he attempted to dress me down at the last reunion for having the temerity write things his kids would read. I had to remind him that I was older than him and that I didn’t appreciate being talked down to. (Btw, it was okay for Gregory and me to end a sentence with a preposition. This is not really any kind of grammatical rule to be followed.)
When you keep in mind that Botstein is okay with three billionaires having “created the college”, it is not reassuring to learn that he has a relationship with the faculty that would turn a Phyllis Wise green with envy:
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.”
With all due respect to Alice Gregory’s assiduous reporting and ability to string sentences together in good New Yorker fashion, I think she failed to really hone in on what Botstein has been up to. The article is utterly devoid of politics, a flaw no doubt associated with the neoliberal predilections of her editor at a magazine that has been transformed along the same lines as Bard College. For a more telling account of what happens at Bard, I recommend this account from alumnus Amit Gupta who was very involved with Palestine solidarity:
The Dark Side of Bard’s Conception of “Academic Freedom”
But there is a dark side to President Botstein’s ideas of academic freedom – which are in turn replicated at other universities like Bard College. Although President Botstein is ardently defensive of the right of his students to voice virtually any viewpoint without outside interference of attacks, this same power game results in skewing Bard College’s funding, faculty, and communal consciousness on Palestine in the direction that President Botstein and the college’s financiers demand.
Stifling Faculty Dissent. In 2008, before I had the opportunity to study with him, politics professor Joel Kovel, an outspoken critic of Zionism and Israel, was fired in a murky episode that was likely influenced by Kovel’s opinions on Zionism. The following year, radical politics professor Pierre Ostiguy was also fired despite significant student opposition in what began to look like a purge of leftists from Bard College’s politics department. Although a number of faculty in the politics department continue to provide the opportunity to study fairly critical and radical ideas of politics, the department was significantly re-shaped. After firing Ostiguy, President Botstein welcomed Walter Russell Mead, who brags of a lengthy career teaching and supporting American and British imperial expansion and is a fairly strong supporter of Israel and a critic of the ASA boycott.
Furthermore, the process through which tenure was granted to Bard faculty was and remains strongly controlled by a few senior faculty and President Botstein himself. Without naming names, it is clear that this level of authoritarianism has already scared away some of the campus’ most intelligent faculty members. Others told me informally that they simply could not engage in dissent on campus because they would risk losing tenure. This is not a slight against President Botstein as an individual; this same problem exists at virtually every American university, because campuses and their tenure processes do not exist outside the political matrix that professors study and teach about.
My only quibble with Amit’s take is that there are exceptions to what happens at Bard and the U. of Illinois. Although I have had complaints about my former boss at Columbia University Lee Bollinger, the man was a fierce defender of academic freedom.
Five years ago I heard that Bard’s finances were shaky. I would love to see the balance sheet, a privilege I used to have when I maintained Columbia University’s financial systems. I can’t help but think that Bard’s expansion under Botstein is very much part of what has happened over the past 25 years in the United States, dating back to my initial confrontation with Botstein. A series of financial bubbles have been punctured over and over, leaving Wall Street and the poor slobs with IRA’s in bad shape until the next bubble starts inflating. What if there is no next bubble? Both leftwing economist James Galbraith and rightwing libertarian Tyler Cowan have written books arguing that the American economy has reached a “no growth” stasis that will cause significant suffering.
The prospects of Leon Botstein either dying or retiring coinciding with these harsh new realities might mark the end of Bard College finally, a school first transformed and then terminated. If it disappears, I will mourn the school I once attended, not what it has become.