Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2021

Joel Kovel spills the beans on Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 2:52 pm

Joel Kovel

Leon Botstein

Long-time readers of this blog probably recall that I have written numerous articles in opposition to Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College since 1975. My first reaction to Botstein was positive. But after Martin Peretz had joined the Board of Trustees, I changed my mind. As president of the board of Tecnica, a sort of small-scale radical version of the Peace Corps that sent volunteers to Nicaragua, the murder of Ben Linder in Nicaragua in 1987 hit home since we were providing material aid to his project. Ben was working on a weir—a small scale dam—that would produce electricity for peasants in the north. Meanwhile, Peretz was promoting the contras in The New Republic. That led me to write an angry letter to Botstein about the mockery he was making of educational values. While Peretz was attending Board meetings, his “freedom fighters” were burning schools and killing teachers.

Botstein wrote back taking great offense at having his values held up for scrutiny. Since he has an ego bigger than the Grand Canyon, the idea that he wasn’t perfect got his juices flowing. Within a few years, I went to work at Columbia University and began writing further critiques of Botstein around a number of questions including the addition of Pom Wonderful CEO Stewart Resnick to the board. Using his great wealth, Resnick got preferential treatment for his farms in California even at the expense of nearby people not being able to flush their toilet because the farms were sucking up all the available water.

A year after I wrote my letter to Botstein, Bard hired my old friend and comrade Joel Kovel to become the Alger Hiss professor, a post funded by his family. For a number of years Joel enjoyed an idyllic existence at Bard, not that different from what I experienced as a student. But when he began criticizing Israel, he got on Botstein’s wrong side. Botstein was a Zionist, a stance that probably had a lot to do with him adding Peretz to the Board. Peretz once said, “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” He further questioned whether Muslim-Americans deserve the “privileges of the First Amendment.”

After he wrote “Overcoming Zionism” in 2007, the University of Michigan publishers decided to drop it after powerful Zionist donors to the school threatened to end their support.  A campaign around this censorship was mounted but Botstein did not say a word, implicitly siding with the move against him. Two years later, his contract as Alger Hiss chair was not renewed and his supporters, including me, began taking up his cause. Joel once told me that I should avoid using the word “fired” because he was in delicate settlement talks with the school that would be jeopardized by claims of their liability. When they arrived at a settlement, it included a non-disclosure agreement that he keep his views on Botstein and Bard College to himself.

In 2017, his memoir “The Lost Traveller’s Dream” appeared. A year later he was dead.

Recently, I got around to read it in the hope that he would spill the beans on Botstein and Bard despite the non-disclosure agreement. He did not disappoint. He must have got Leon even more pissed than my letter about Peretz. Below are 3 excerpts from the memoir that showed his utter contempt for Botstein but also revealed the rancor the relatively apolitical faculty held toward his haughty manner of running the school as if he were a feudal lord.


Bard had a leader who preached pure progressivism while ruling like a despot (pages 233-236)

BUT WOODSTOCK WAS NOT ALL that gave me hope after 1988. I now had an academic home base, a nine-hundred-acre campus overlooking the Hudson River. There were magnificent trees, a few traditional buildings and a few modern ones, a pathetic library, and a lot of peace and quiet. As a boy in love with learning I used to fantasize about a place like this (though not the library), where I would walk about—in academic garb, no less—and talk of high things with high-minded people. There would be no father yelling imprecations, no strife-torn world invading the Arcadian sanctuary of learning. I had nearly forgotten this dream since I stepped into the turbulence of medicine and for many years thereafter. Now it seemed I had arrived in Arcadia, and at a senior level, no less. It was a glory to drive there from my Willow home across the gorgeous Hudson River. I could teach what I wanted and how I wanted, with no more than seven classroom hours a week for two courses, and students of a generally progressive disposition. There were no departmental limits, as I belonged to no department yet circulated through all; there was nobody looking over my shoulder, no need to jockey for aca-demic turf, no need to get caught ij in the endless minutiae of committee work, no bureaucracy in my way, plenty of tennis courts, and parking so abundant that I never had to worry about getting a place in my whole twenty-one years at Bard College, in the ghost town of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. What could go wrong?

The man presiding over this riverine Shangri-La was tall, of a frowning, owlish aspect and formal ways. Reason tells us that Leon Botstein once must have been a tiny baby who needed his diaper changed. But sometimes one thought Leon might be a space alien planted in storied Annandale complete with bow-tie and Adorno-esque affectation, sent by the Gods to rule over the little fiefdom of Bard. This he did by the time-honored means of artful control over the funding process, by which the mainstream of the college’s fiscal blood supply originated from a hand-picked Board of Financiers held in place by his charisma, to be dispensed by Leon according to an ethos of Liberal Reason and Academic Freedom.

Bard therefore had a leader who preached a pure progressivism while governing a pure despotism. It was an excellent web to ensnare the liberal will, and it made Botstein larger than life in the eyes of the Bard community. Many a time in my early years did I wonder how the college would ever get by if he were hit by a bus, or was lured to another institution (indeed, it was rumored that he was being considered for Secretary of Education in the Gore administration). Would not the financial spigots be immediately turned off?1 Would not our tycoons go elsewhere? How helpless the school was against Botstein’s power; how fortunate that he was so enlightened. And how ridiculous that power was so centralized in one executive’s hands; how much would a decent new-fashioned bureaucracy have been appreciated instead of this arbitrary exertion of authority.

Soon after my arrival Leon and I had a few lengthy and interesting conversations in which we staked out, so to speak, the ground between us. I found him to be always on stage, always wary, and very bright—though not so bright as he thought. It also seemed that Botstein was trying to recruit me as a kind of agent to report to him about the Social Studies Division to which I belonged. He professed a considerable contempt for the hacks working there as he tried to set me up as a trusted insider working with him in a strategic way. So I inferred, and so I desisted—and after a while our intimate conversations wound down and I settled into a long and, for the first twelve years at Bard, pleasant routine.

I soon noticed that the first-rate circumstances of the college had done little to improve the esprit of the faculty. A cheerless bunch, they were united only by discreet hatred of their President, which they mainly shared endlessly with each other. By and large, I liked them and they seemed to like me, though there was quite a bit of circumspection in our interchanges, and none of the passion that bubbled so often through cracks in my rambunctious soul. Politically they were mostly on the left-liberal side of things, and seemed grateful for my presence and vicariously sympathetic to it, calling me “the conscience of Bard” and such for my various enthusiasms and outrages.

Hatred of Leon welled forth from his exploitation of the tenure process. I assume it is any college president’s prerogative to intervene in tenure. But no one I know of routinely turned this into a show trial, in which, after all the evidence had been painstakingly gathered, the college community would bate its collective breath and wait the definitive decision of the Lord High Executioner concerning the wretch whose career had been placed in presidential hands. It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that every so often Leon would perversely overturn a tenure decision that had seemed overwhelmingly positive according to all the recognized criteria of academic virtue, simply to show everybody who was boss and in whom all the power lay as to the future of Bard. Never did any importuning or petitioning move the Liberal King to reverse an opinion of strategic importance. The inevitable results of these manipulations were, first, to stimulate a coterie of toadies and in-formers who would sidle up to mid-level administrative posts in the Permanent Botstein Administration; and, second, to secrete the elixir of fear and loathing that flowed through the collective veins of the faculty.

Tycoons like billionaire George Soros (pages 311-313)

As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.

— Leon Botstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 5, 2014

Bard College, where I spent the last 21 years of my academic career, was touted by the gaming pages that announce such things as the school that had “put the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts.” in this spirit the college’s van was turned over to students to drive the 250 miles to Washington, DC for a hearing ensuing upon arrest for protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court. As for myself, during my years as its Alger Hiss Professor, the college generously supported my race for the Senate in 1998, essentially giving me a leave of absence so long as I made it an open tutorial for students who wanted some rough and tumble exposure to the harsh world of electoral politics. The name of Bard College and that of Leon Botstein, its “President for Life,” may be regarded as freely interchangeable. It was Botstein cum Bard who saved my floundering career when I was down and out. This gave me the space to teach what I pleased no matter how contrary to established wisdom, to publish four substantial books, and do interesting things like march against the Apartheid regime of South Africa, cross the U.S. blockade of Cuba, or take over the reins of a quirky journal with the modest goal of bringing down the capitalist system to save the world from ecological degeneration and collapse. And it was Bard cum Botstein that crushed the selfsame career, In remarkably short order, hard times befell me: first, estrangement around the turn of the Millennium, then increasing exclusion, and finally, in 2009 upon return from the Belem Social Forum where we had launched the Second Ecosocialist Manifesto, outright expulsion.

THE BATTLE TOOK PLACE ACROSS two fronts. The first evolving from a funding mechanism to keep Bard afloat by turning the Board of Trustees into a reliable year by year source. Wealthy folk we needed, generous and eager to be swayed by a charismatic president; not old money then, but new and fluid money, such as comes from finance. In this way, small, dreamy Bard became an instrument of finance capital, the most dynamic sector of the Number One society of the United States of America.

Capitalism, based in the endless accumulation of money, itself the “liberal” society. The same word is advanced by “progressives” who stand for modernity, for example politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, philosophers like Karl Popper, and tycoons like billionaire George Soros — notwithstanding that capitalism widens the gap between rich and poor, leaves nature in ruins and for the last forty years, has inflicted upon our world the devastation we call “neoliberalism.” Thus liberalism breeds upon itself and turns into nightmare.

Soros was introduced to Bard, along with my Senate campaign of 1998, when Botstein announced association with the acclaimed financier as a structural change for the once lethargic college directly (though his wife was to join the Board of Trustees), but sort of a Godfather, with Leon Botstein as consigliere to carry out the global agenda of Soros’ Open Society Foundation and its numerous projects of “democracy enhancement.” It was not long before the Open Society college combined with the far more powerful forces of the Council on Foreign Relations, the beachhead for which was created when James Chase joined the faculty in 1989, a year after I assumed the Hiss Chair. Now poor Alger had to endure the further indignity of being posted on the ground taken over by the National Security State that had made him an outlaw. Soon, CFR was joined by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, just across the Hudson River, the combination transforming the school that put the liberal in liberal arts into a bastion of neo-conservatism. It got worse. Early in the new Millennium I returned from a leave of absence to learn that one Walter Russell Mead had occupied my office while I was gone. Mead was, believe it or not, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, a post he held until 2010. Quel Honneur! He became full-time at Bard after 2004 as the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities, a redoubt from which he could cheer on the invasion of Iraq.

Joel says goodbye to Bard College (pages 329-331)

MEANWHILE, IN ANNANDALE ON HUDSON, the denouement of my Bard career was bring prepared as the calendar crept up on 2009 and the days of my contract dwindled down to a not-so-precious few. Having endured the first course in Zionism I had taught at Bard, I was off to Belem over Christmas for the World Social Forum and the Second Draft of the Ecosocialist Manifesto. I looked to my six months off campus coming up, but my five-year contract was expiring, and Bard had prepared a reckoning: too dreary to detail but necessary to ponder and in any case, to document. And so I will compress my version of what occurred to supply a selection of bulleted points before turning to the next stage of my travels.

My situation differed from most others of this kind in that the last thing I wanted was to have my job back, a fate akin to a prison sentence. My best hope was modest, a gracious departure, without rancor; and I tried to make this wish known. Whether because of sensitivity that any separation agreement might be seen as prejudicial on their part, or from sheer vindictiveness—or more likely, from both of these motives—Bard elected to claim that of course there was no question at all of any political motive by the college, and chose to get rid of me by alleging incompetence and irrelevance at a time of budgetary hardship (the “Great Recession” was then raging). It appeared a hastily prepared letter from Dean Michele Dominy with all the charm of a Pink Slip telling me to leave my identity card at the door.

I refused to accept what amounted to an allegation of senility and protested. This triggered a Blitzkrieg on the college’s part in which vindictiveness was rampant and all stops were pulled. Botstein turned a routine full-faculty meeting which I missed, in to character assassination, alleging my lying, psychopathy and paranoia; similar charges were launched over the faculty email list serve. Dean Dominy and Professor Amy Ansell from the Social Studies Division called a meeting of students in which my defects were laid forth. This provoked a revolt among sectors of the student body, my only ally in the furor, which included allegations from students assigned to the committee handling my case, that there seemed to be actual tampering with the evaluations used as evidence.

THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY INTERESTING evidence for a lawsuit I could have brought alleging defamation of character. There were other major irregularities, for example, the fact that the faculty committee evaluating me was chaired by Prof. Bruce Chilton, an arch Zionist who among other things had spoken on national radio during the destruction of Gaza taking place at this time, opining that the havoc could be legitimated by Just War theory. Yes, that’s what tin. man said; after all, he was a theologian, the Episcopal chaplain at Bard (a fact of some interest in view of my forthcoming religious turn) and director of Bard’s extensive programs in this area. In better times at Bard, Chilton had been supportive of my work, including History and Spirit. He even said that he had supported my rehiring and had been deeply offended by my hostile reaction to his role, poor fellow.

All of this (and there is more) requires no further comment. My position was that I was being subjected to what amounted to an inquisition and that I had the option to seek recourse in a law suit that won, could be devastating to the college. I also had a lot of people on my side, including the group founded during the 2007 fracas with Overcoming Zionism. Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, which contained a number of fine and prestigious lawyers, for example, Michael Smith, Michael Ratner (deceased, a great loss to humanity, in 2016), Abdeen Jabara, Barbara Harvey, and Dennis James, the latter of whom who served admirably as my first-line legal adviser, and added top-notch anti-Zionist intellectuals like Terri Ginsberg and Jonathan House, a psychoanalyst who had organized The NY Hospital System when we both were House Officers. ‘

PERSONALLY, I THOUGHT THE SUIT could be won, and that it would have positive political impact aside from the settlement itself. I was emotionally disposed to do so, having been driven into a fine rage by the treatment I had received over the years. Weighing against the decision to sue was a definite prospect: that suing would almost certainly ruin the later years of my life. I knew this myself and all my legal advisers felt the same—and that was that. So I had to forego the fond dream of seeing Leon Botstein, Bruce Chilton, et al. squirming in the Dock under oath. I wanted to be Free from Bard, Free at Last!, and a lawsuit of this kind is at base, nothing but a set of leg-irons.

I even wanted to be free from writing and talking about that desolate place, but not so free as would have been the case had I accepted the final terms demanded by Bard’s legal team, namely, that in exchange for a package of unspecified paltry “benefits” that is, “an “amicable settlement,” all I needed to do was to pledge: a) to never write or speak publicly about anything that transpired between the college and myself regarding this affair; and b) that in the spirit of this, I would see to it that all references to it as had found their way onto the internet, would be deleted. Rather akin to peeing while bathing in the ocean and removing all traces from the briny waves. Oh, and also: that I could never write this memoir. Next case!

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