Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 29, 2009

Bard: a place to fear

Filed under: Academia,bard college — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

From http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Talk:Universities_to_fear

My Bard Story

In 2000, I was invited to campus for a junior post in Romanticism at Bard. The year before, I had gone on the market ABD and had been fortunate to land a tenure-track post at a comprehensive university in a small city in the midwest. I loved my colleagues and most of my students, but my wife felt very isolated from our family on the East Coast and her job (also in the dept.) paid pitifully. So we decided to go on the market again, with doctorate now in hand.

So: Once I arrived at Bard, I was thrilled with the faculty and students that I met. Engaging, humane, very smart. And the campus is lovely. President Botstein, however, proved problematic. He interviews all candidates, junior and senior alike, and so I dutifully reported to his on-campus house and cooled my heels on his front steps for 30 minutes. When he finally arrived, he ushered me into the house and went to retrieve my file. He then read it (apparently for the first time) while I was sitting there and asked me: So, are you married? The next question: What does your wife do? Followed by: What do your parents do? Where are your grandparents from? Of course, all of these questions run afoul of MLA guidelines and indeed any professional code, and I could have terminated the interview right there. But with no other job offers yet, this would have meant scotching a chance to teach at a great place. So I answered his questions (more on that later). Then, he noticed I had taught literary theory and proceeded to attack it as the worst thing that has happened to the humanities in 30 years. I admitted the field’s excesses while defending the value of the questions it raised. I can’t recall much of the rest of the interview. In any case, after 40 minutes or so, he shook my hand and told me I had made a good impression.

At the dinner with the search cmte. afterward, they were elated. Apparently, Botstein often terminates interviews quickly, so that I had survived to the end was a good sign.

So I went on to another campus interview–at the school I am now fortunate to work at–and waited for a phone call. Nothing for two weeks. So I called the chair of the Bard search and she told me that I had been the unanimous first choice of the committee but that the president had insisted that they hire their second choice for reasons he did not deign to clarify. Said second choice had accepted, and so that was that. I thanked the chair for divulging this info–she certainly didn’t have to do so–and turned my attention to the other school where I was still in the running.

Two days later, the chair called back and asked if I was still interested in the job; the president’s selected candidate had decided to take another post. Yes, I said, very much so, although I hope she understood that I was not as enthusiastic about the senior administration as I had been and would need some assurance that he wouldn’t be invested in my failure if I did end up coming. She called the next day with bad news. Pres. Botstein again refused to hire me. She asked if it was because I hadn’t yet published much. No, that was OK. Was it that I hadn’t come from Harvard and Yale? No, he knew that my program was top-notch. Well, she then said something like: If you can’t give us a good reason why, then we think we should have the right to choose our own colleagues. Pres. Botstein then apparently exploded, declared that she lacked “the moral passion that I have for this institution” and shut down the search. They didn’t hire the next couple years either, I believe.

What Pres. Botstein found so objectionable about me is impossible to determine. Theories from members of the search committee who contacted me to commiserate ranged from widely, from the somewhat unhelpful “he’s crazy” to various forms of snobbery–the fact that I had even spent a year at a relatively undistinguished university in the midwest told against me–to his objection to my involvement to help workers at my graduate school get a living wage. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that anyone applying for a job at Bard should know that it’s a wonderful place in a great many respects. And, to be fairer to him than he deserves, Pres. Botstein, has done much to raise its profile and strengthen the place. But my story is hardly the only one that paints him as an arbitrary, tyrannical figure, and so anyone accepting a post there should walk in with her or his eyes open.

I hope this helps in that regard.

Alum 17:05, 21 December 2007 (UTC)alum

P. S. Things turned out very well for me; that same year, I received an offer at a research university in a big city on the East Coast and love it here. I’m up for tenure this year and seem very likely to get it.

***

thoughts about Bard from a local

I am in academia, but I have never worked at or applied for a position at Bard myself. However, I grew up in the vicinity of Bard and have several family members and family friends who work there. I would like to confirm that the complaints about hiring and tenure practices are likely not just the ventings of folks who didn’t get hired or tenured. It’s true, all institutions have their forms of dysfunction. But Bard is an unusual institution in that it has been run by the same president for the last 30+ years (since Botstein himself was only 30 years old) and has a tendency to run the place like his own personal fiefdom. To his credit, he has done amazing things for the college both in terms of improving its academic standing and bringing lots of fantastic resources to the place. But I have also heard numerous stories via my connections on Bard staff that it is very hard to get tenure and that he makes no qualms about getting personally involved in tenure decisions.

That said, I hear great things about Bard students. And I’ve taken several classes there myself (both during high school and before applying to grad schools) and found them to be excellent.

***

RE: Bard: I mentioned to my director all the blathering about the Bard Pres. My director’s response: “he is crazy, but he’s also brilliant.” Response: Leon Botstein is a brilliant fundraiser, a mediocre conductor, and a tyrant in the classroom. In short, an academic sociopath. Problem is, he runs the joint.

5 Comments »

  1. Can anyone venture a guess on how many other US Universities have (or had) a President for 30+ years?

    I mean is this unprecedented or what?

    Shouldn’t the rules of University accreditation, whatever they are, prohibit such fiefdoms from occuring?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 30, 2009 @ 8:15 am

  2. Lou: Having just gone through the ritual of getting one of my kids into one of our institutions of higher learning, I’m finding your series of posts about Bard most enjoyable. Obsessions like yours are what make the Internet worthwhile.

    Comment by John B. — May 30, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  3. “So, are you married? The next question: What does your wife do?”

    That right there is a totally illegal question to ask in a job interview based on non-discrimination based on marital or family status. Sue the bastard!

    Comment by Sheldon — May 30, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

  4. The snapshot is priceless. It exudes affectation.

    My daughter at 12, anent George Will, “Never trust anyone who wears a bow tie.”

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — June 1, 2009 @ 1:19 am

  5. I went to Bard for a year. I really enjoyed reading your piece, and the experience you had with Botstein didn’t surprise me in the least…

    Comment by lauren — September 18, 2009 @ 1:54 am


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