Bard College

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun May 28 15:00:21 MDT 2000

I just returned from Bard College, where graduation ceremonies for the
class of 2000 and a reunion for my graduating class of 1965 were held.

Bard is an interesting institution. Along with Black Mountain College,
Bennington, Antioch and Goddard, the school was seen as an experiment in
progressive educational philosophy. These schools either involved
ambitious, but largely unsuccessful, work-study programs or in the case of
Black Mountain expected students to work on the upkeep of the college
itself, through gardening for food served in the cafeteria, etc. John
Dewey's progressivism was a strong element mixed with New Deal idealism.

All of these schools went through big financial crises at one point or
another and one, Black Mountain-- the eagle of the lot--succumbed in the
1950s. Even in its grave, the school was seen as one of the great cultural
influences of the 20th century, either through the literary journal edited
by faculty member and dean Charles Olsen, or through art classes taught by
well-known modernists such as Joseph Albers.

The others hit a brick wall in the 1960s and 70s as American society
entered a post-affluence period when the realities of the job market
militated against the kind of intellectual hothouse atmosphere of a place
like Bard or Bennington. The schools were forced to become more competitive
and the financial and curricular restructuring was often quite painful, as
indicated in an article about Bennington in today's NY Times:

"Founded in 1932 as a women's college challenging educational orthodoxy,
the upstart developed a history of innovation, a tradition of
teacher-practitioners -- often cutting-edge figures in art, drama, dance
and literature -- working in close relationship with their
student-apprentices and, in recent decades, academic politics of exceeding

"But with the college having fallen on hard times by 1994, its niche
nibbled away by changes in the Ivy League and other institutions, its
student body reduced in quantity and quality, some of its faculty lapsing
toward mediocrity and its finances in peril, the trustees, the
administration and the faculty came up with a restructuring plan called the
Symposium after a two-year agonizing reappraisal.

"A third of the faculty -- 26 of 79 professors -- was fired in a single
stroke in 1994."

Bard solved its financial crisis in a less extreme fashion. When Leon
Botstein assumed the presidency of the college in 1975 at the age of 28,
the youngest such office-holder in the United States, he elected to curb
the "excesses" of the old Bard and to restyle the school as a competitive
liberal arts college in the mode of Swarthmore, Haverford or Reed. He has
been eminently successful. One out of 10 applications are approved today,
while back in 1961, when I was a freshman, the ratio was something like 1
out of 3.

Despite Bard's mediocre reputation, it was an important institution. From
1933-44, it added distinguished European emigres, in flight from fascist
Europe, to the faculty. Among them were painter Stefan Hirsch, political
editor Felix Hirsch, violinist Emil Hauser of the Budapest String Quartet,
philosopher Heinrich Bluecher, economist Adolf Sturmthal, and philosopher
Werner Wolff.

Botstein is a well-respected public figure, whose musings appear regularly
on the NY Times op-ed page, including a piece on standardized testing today
(5/28), to which he is opposed. He is also a mediocre symphony orchestra
conductor, who compensates for lackluster performances with his dedication
to neglected composers, including Schoenberg about whom Botstein has
recently edited a collection of essays.

But Botstein's real gift is for fund-raising, about whose propriety I have
had occasion to take exception to. Botstein has a tremendous affinity for
hooking up with very wealthy but very compromised figures, a failing that
remains lost on most Bard graduates except the occasionally disgruntled
Marxist like myself.

In 1987 I received a mailing from the alumnus office crowing about
Botstein's new appointees to the Board of Trustees. One was Asher Edelman,
a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, whose sleazy behavior served
as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in "Wall Street".
Edelman's takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of
"excess" workers. The other appointee was Martin Peretz, the editor of New
Republic who used the formerly liberal magazine to stump for contra
funding. Since I was heavily involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua,
I blew my stack and wrote Botstein a heavily sarcastic letter
congratulating him for sniffing out rich scumbags who would help him
balance the school's books.

Apparently Botstein doesn't enjoy being criticized in this fashion. He sent
me a long angry reply defending his actions. In a way it is easy to
understand Botstein's self-righteousness. In his own eyes, he must appear
practically a Bolshevik. After all, didn't he set up an Alger Hiss chair at
Bard (of course, taking the big money connected to the position) and give
well-known Marxist and Green activist Joel Kovel the job? In a
characteristically Botsteinian gesture, he also set up a Henry R. Luce
chair for faculty at Bard at the same time. Critics, according to a NY
Times Magazine profile (Oct. 4, 1992) "see the incongruity as opportunism;
he sees the essence of free inquiry." His growled at the interviewer,
"People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free
thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this
tradition in America?" You're either for 'em or agin 'em. What are we
discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?"

Continuing in this vein, Botstein co-opted multimillionaire investor and
liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College, where
PEN-L'er Matt Forstater used to work. Levy writes occasionally for the
centrist periodical "New York Review of Books," where his preoccupations
about income inequality and "irrational exuberance" on Wall Street serve
the same kind of faux progressivist agenda that Felix Rohatyn's articles
used to in the 1980s.

About 5 years ago a trade union organizer wrote to PEN-L asking if there
were any Bard College graduates on the list. It seemed that the Levy
offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters
were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an
alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could
be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union
as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the
"misappropriation" of school property.

In the 1990s Botstein's recruitment efforts turned up another Golden Goose
in the person of Susan Soros, Mrs. George. The Soroses are not to be
trifled with, as seen by this London Times May 8, 1991 piece:

"A CHAUFFEUR-BUTLER and his cook-housekeeper wife yesterday won their claim
for compensation for wrongful dismissal against a multi-millionaire
philanthropist whose wife dismissed them without warning.

"Susan Soros, the American wife of George Soros, a Hungarian expatriate who
is chairman of the Quantum Fund of New York, had told an industrial
tribunal in London that Patrick Davison and his wife Nicki had turned her
London home into an 'uninhabitable battlefield' when she brought a cordon
bleu chef from New York.

"She said that arguments between her South American chef and the Davisons
had kept her awake at night, and that the Davisons had refused to give the
chef money to buy ingredients or to show her the food shops.

"Yesterday the tribunal unanimously decided that they preferred the
Davisons' evidence to that of Mrs Soros, who they concluded had no
legitimate grounds for dismissing the couple."

1991 was a bad year for Susan Soros. Not only did her kitchen staff get
uppity, she was turned down for the job of director of graduate education
at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her
husband's money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street.
Naturally, she couldn't get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum,
but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for
Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a
generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.

At yesterday's commencement, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary
degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State
University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked
Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the
transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia's new 'open
society'. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this
point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market
fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Its victory has ensured that
a generation of Russian youth will never enjoy a college education and will
likely end up marginalized as alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes.

In his commencement address, Botstein urged the class of 2000 to eschew the
kind of greed and cynicism that pervaded American society in recent years.
I sat there marveling at his breathtaking inability to understand himself
and his social role. Do such movers and shakers really take themselves
seriously? Perhaps Bard would have been better off with a dreamer and
visionary like Charles Olsen in charge. It might have died in the 1970s,
but it would have been honored for a glorious lifetime of service to
education and humanity.

Louis Proyect
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