Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 23, 2014

The cult of Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 3:41 pm

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 to 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 Amith 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 Amith’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.


  1. Dick Fisher, as in the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas? At least Levy and Soros are “liberals” by financier standards. Fisher is a total reactionary.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — September 23, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

  2. A shame to have had 2 such experiences in one’s lifetime: “The prospects of Jack Barnes either dying or retiring coinciding with these harsh new realities might mark the end of the SWP finally, an organization first transformed and then terminated. If it disappears, I will mourn the party I once joined, not what it has become.”

    Comment by Fred — September 23, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

  3. Not the same Fisher. This one croaked:


    Comment by louisproyect — September 23, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

  4. What is Bard’s future in a world of virtual education? Will it, and other schools like it, become a nostalgic sanctuary for the few people who can afford to pay for a mid-20th Century educational experience?

    UC has already evolved into an institution where the graduate students do much of the instruction instead of the faculty. The undergraduate experience on campus is also becoming a thing of the past. I know someone who lived with their parents in Sacramento and structured their UC Berkeley class schedule so that they commute 80 miles each way to class. A lot of UC Davis students now live in cheaper rental housing in nearby cities. How long before the campuses virtually decentralize their instruction from their physical facilities?

    Perhaps, it will turn out the way that school privatization has been implemented in many places. Here in Sacramento, no one would dare privatize elementary schools in middle and upper middle income neighborhoods, the residents of these neighborhoods know that the purpose of the privatization is profit, not improved education of their children. Privatization is a project in which lower middle and lower income families serve as the test subjects.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 23, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

  5. “I would love to see the balance sheet.” Ask and you shall receive: http://emma.msrb.org/ER727396-EP597481-ER965005.pdf – p. 3.

    Comment by Dabrowski — September 23, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

  6. UC has already evolved into an institution where the graduate students do much of the instruction instead of the faculty.

    This was true at Harvard when I was an undergraduate (1966 – 70) and was even truer at the University of Virginia where I was a graduate student from 1972 to 1978. All the big courses at Harvard featured lectures by the senior faculty but were mostly taught in “sections” led by graduate students. At UVa, I was one of a significant number of graduate students who taught substantive courses (not just freshman comp.) on their own, and were subject to arbitrary dismissal (and even more arbitrary reinstatement) according to the departmental politics of the moment.

    Education in my day was much less expensive. The average cost for me to go to Harvard and live in Cambridge, MA for a year from 1966 through 1970 was roughly four thousand bucks, which even in present-day money was chickenfeed compared with what it costs now. In addition, my generation had the 3% “national defense” loan as opposed to the excruciating usury inflicted on present-day students. This plus scholarships, fellowships, summer jobs, and a not-too-burdensome contribution from my far-from-wealthy family made the cost of my Harvard degree very manageable–and similar “discounts” as compared with today applied to higher education right across the spectrum.

    On the other hand, the big departments in the “humanities” at Virginia during the seventies were PhD factories cranking out unemployable “Doctors” by the gross. The unemployment rate among these people would have caused a scandal if anyone had taken it or them seriously–it had to be well in excess of ninety percent.

    As far as I know, this massacre was happening on a national scale. If this had been happening to people generally accepted as real, not the despised dregs of academia, it would have caused a revolution.

    The huge inflation in student fees and other costs came afterward–as did the revival of all the Gilded Age stuff that now inflicts legions of crypto-fascist Yuppie “progressives” (and bold Libertarians) on our cities, even as it lends to the false dawn of glorified vocational schools like the online University of Phoenix and James Madison University.

    All this is by way of saying that the corruption of the colleges and universities may change form over the decades, but–if my experience proves anything–is nothing new in American capitalist society. IMHO, it can neither be fully diagnosed or amended without reference to the underlying social relations. This insight is not welcome in academic circles–it wasn’t welcome in my day, and any attempt to put it across will be smothered on first squeak.

    I’ll only add that Botstein’s standing out as he does at Bard is an ironic high tribute to the former qualities of that institution. At most places, he wouldn’t draw a second look.

    End of rant.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — September 23, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

  7. “Fawning”? I certainly did not find it so. Nor did the Botsteinians (and, as you know, I am not one). And a hell of an illustration by John Cuneo, too!

    Comment by Andrew Patner — September 24, 2014 @ 1:22 am

  8. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t this personal fiefdom of a College (almost out of antiquity) unprecedented in the modern annals of lofty academic institutions?

    All the more sinister with such blatant ties to the Pentagon.

    Doesn’t it stand as a virtual hallmark (almost a neo-fascistic symbol) of imperial decay, that is, the epitome of a predatory society in rapid decline?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 24, 2014 @ 1:33 am

  9. “Doesn’t it stand as a virtual hallmark (almost a neo-fascistic symbol) of imperial decay, that is, the epitome of a predatory society in rapid decline?”

    Short answer: Yes.

    It is worth noting that in the UC system, it is neoliberalism by committee, affiliation with wealthy donors and the military industrial complex through faceless, nondescript chancellors and vice chancellors. Anyone who stood out like Botstein would get slapped down, as has happened in the past.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 24, 2014 @ 2:02 am

  10. I think you’re right. It is not fawning. I will change that now.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 24, 2014 @ 3:20 am

  11. Bravo.

    Comment by Andrew Patner — September 24, 2014 @ 3:36 am

  12. If Louis can make a change (i.e., fawning) do you think Cuneo can do the same and put the Hudson River on the correct side of the main campus!

    Comment by Richard Greener — September 24, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

  13. Here is my response to the piece on Botstein in the New Yorker:


    There is objectivity and then there is pseudo-objectivity. True objectivity finds a point of view that incorporates all others as its particular cases, that is, if you take a limited view that’s how the world will look. Pseudo-objectivity takes a limited point of view and adds to it with some dissonant voices that, however, do not detract from the main point.

    The article (TNY, September 29, 2014) by Alice Gregory about Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, and the college he runs (in that order) is in the genre of pseudo. Ms. Gregory takes the myth about Botstein, largely created and popularized by Botstein himself, intersperses it with several counter opinions, but not too counter to detract from the main myth, and tries to pass it for an attempt to get to reality. The result is a nauseating rendition of stories and anecdotes about the enigmatic odd-ball irreverent president who turned a failing school around and shaped into an academic institution that sports its share of merit and respect.

    So, who is the real Leon Botstein, Bard’s mercurial president who, by one account, is building this institution and, by another, is destroying it by besetting it with ventures that appear to be unsustainable, at least without Botstein, and who has created little hope for its stable future—the one that’s après?

    Resolving paradoxes requires taking an orthogonal direction and constructing a dimension that integrates the contradictions into a comprehensive and non-contradictory picture. There is such dimension that allows viewing Botstein’s constructive and destructive work as one comprehensive whole. In this dimension Botstein emerges as an egocentric self-server who is totally preoccupied with his own self and his own success: Botstein above all. In this perspective, Bard, ASO, Bard’s various national and international ventures are not goals in themselves but tools to enhance the visibility of the real object–Botstein himself–and to attract as much attention to him personally as possible. This view can explain the contradiction of the president who builds college that does not have prospects of surviving him; the president who does not cultivate his own successor since no one who has at least a shade of independent thinking can survive around him; the president who reduces critical thinking to offensive labeling and shuns the main thrust of criticality—critical self-examination, self-decentering and distancing from one’s own self.

    On not-so-close examination, Ms. Gregory’s article fits beautifully into Botstein’s overall agenda—keeping him in the focus of public attention and employable for another decade.

    Gennady Shkliarevsky
    Professor of History
    Bard College

    P.S. I can certainly write a longer piece with a lot more details but such response will not fit into the format of a letter to the editor. So, I keep it short.

    Comment by shkliare — October 6, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

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