Leon Botstein Is Revolutionizing Small Colleges Through Innovation


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Small liberal arts colleges face an uphill battle in the current higher education environment. With the nation's top universities, including the well-known private institutions and biggest state schools, attracting the most attention and donors, smaller colleges must innovate to survive. In that regard, Bard College President Leon Botstein offers a blueprint for lasting success.

Bard College, located in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, about 90 miles north of New York City, is known for charting original paths to higher education. That approach starts with Leon Botstein, who has led Bard College since 1975, one of the longest tenures of any current college president in the country. Over the years, he's instilled something akin to a startup culture at the academic institution that's resulted in a willingness to experiment and a spirit of innovation.

"Music is my profession, actually. I didn't grow up to become a college administrator. So, like many college administrators, I came to it through a field, and in my case, the field was music," Botstein said in an interview on the "Now What?" podcast. "So, music is at the center of my life and always has been. And the great thing about music is that it has always been useless. And by being useless, it actually evokes the most human part of who we are. I'm not important. You are not important. Nobody is important because they're useful."

Bard College offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs and continuously displays an innovative and agile approach to higher education, showing an ability to pivot and create quickly when a situation calls for flexibility. For example, the school recently admitted approximately 85 displaced Afghan students, mostly women, who fled their home country when the U.S. military pulled out. The college also runs the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers associate and bachelor's degrees to incarcerated men and women in prisons across New York state.

The college's approach reflects the beliefs of Leon Botstein, who is dedicated to improving people's lives through education and exposure to the arts. He strongly believes that cultivating the life of the mind will lead to a more just and equitable world.

Botstein is also ambitious about what a liberal arts college can accomplish. He recently fielded questions from a group of parents visiting Bard College. When asked what he wanted Bard's "brand" to be, he replied, "What Bard stands for, which is another way of answering your question, is a real belief that learning and studying is not only enjoyable, but that it will influence the way you conduct your life."

Leon Botstein's Creative Approach, Including Bard Early College

From the beginning of his time at Bard College, Leon Botstein's leadership quickly demonstrated his ability to think outside of traditional approaches to college administration. His outside-of-the-box thinking continues to this day and often becomes apparent in his dismay over certain trends in higher education.

In one example, he wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the need to step away from the college rankings systems that have been in place since the 1980s.

"The embrace of rankings by colleges has damaged the quality of teaching and the link between higher education and democracy," Botstein wrote. "The rankings game corrupts the idealism without which higher education cannot thrive. The worst consequences have been for undergraduate education, where rankings have accelerated the erosion of autonomy, ambition, innovation, and quality in colleges. Generations of students have been the victims."

That same spirit has driven the establishment of many inspired programs at Bard College. In one of the most well-known examples, the Bard Early College program provides high school students the opportunity to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an Associate in Arts degree (earning up to 60 college credits from Bard). Built on "the belief that many adolescents are ready and eager to start college at an earlier age," Bard Early College is one organization distributed over eight sites in public school systems: the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; New Orleans; Cleveland; Baltimore; the Hudson Valley in New York; and Washington, D.C. The program has awarded more than 3,000 college degrees.

In an interview with Dumaine Williams, Botstein spoke about the program. He quickly dismissed the notion that it was created for gifted students. The program is designed with something different in mind.

"The students for whom the Early College 'works' is not a select group that is defined by standard metrics of so-called academic ability," Botstein explained. "Our experience in the Early College is that standard metrics are behavioral indications and motivations. We'd rather have a focused, ambitious student for whom it takes longer to get the work done well than a bright, quick-on-the-feet student who could do it if that's what he wanted to, but either is cynical or lacks the motivation. We actually evaluate, for lack of a better word, the whole person, as much as we can through a subjective, differentiated way of selecting the student not only on grades and test scores."

Bard Prison Initiative and Other Innovative Programs

Another innovative program is the Bard Prison Initiative. Founded in 2001, the groundbreaking program expands college access to communities typically excluded from higher education. BPI operates at seven correctional facilities, enrolling over 400 incarcerated students in full-time programs who ultimately earn college credits or a degree from Bard College.

Bard College also co-founded, with Central European University in Vienna, Austria, the Open Society University Network. The global network of educational institutions offers access to higher education across geographic and demographic boundaries, using online systems to eliminate barriers to learning. Member institutions are in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Bard College also has emerged as a leader in music education and performance, establishing a performing arts center designed by Frank Gehry, the renowned architect whose other buildings include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Dancing House in Prague. Bard College also has a Conservatory of Music and The Orchestra Now, a graduate-level training program for musicians from around the world.

A Life Spent in Music and Education

Any understanding of Leon Botstein's life must start with music. His work as an educator and musician is entwined. Botstein has held the position of musical director of the New York City-based American Symphony Orchestra since 1992.

While an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he earned degrees in history and philosophy, Botstein founded the University Chamber Orchestra, which still exists. He also served as concertmaster and assistant conductor of the university orchestra.

Botstein earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, writing about the musical life of Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

People are, he believes, "sacred and unique" because of what they can accomplish as human beings, including the creation of music. "It comes out of your brain," Botstein said. "It is totally human-made, and in its artificiality, it's a reminder, without any belief system, of the sanctity of our being. So, music is useless as a tool, if you will, but it's an essential form of life."

Leon Botstein was born in Zurich, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants who immigrated to the United States when he was a child, settling in New York City. During his childhood, Botstein studied with legendary violinist Roman Totenberg and during the summers with faculty from the National Conservatory in Mexico City. He attended the High School of Music and Art and graduated at 16 before attending the University of Chicago.

In addition to his position at Bard College, Botstein also served as president of the experimental Franconia College in New Hampshire when he was only 23, earning him national recognition. In 1975, at the age of 25, he was appointed president at Bard. Botstein is also the founding artistic co-director of the Bard SummerScape and Bard Music Festivals and serves as conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in Israel.

He's written books on education, history, and music in both German and English, including a series of essays published as part of Princeton University Press' annual Bard Music Festival volume. He has curated exhibits for the Jewish Museum in Vienna. From 1990 to the present, he's been editor of the distinguished academic journal The Musical Quarterly.

Botstein said as an immigrant, he has a feeling of gratitude for living in the U.S. and a dedication to working hard.

"I can't complain about my life. I have been blessed with a much easier life than my parents' generation or my grandparents' generation, certainly," he said on the "Now What?" podcast. He added that he's driven by a desire "to contribute something to the country that rescued me and my parents. So, I've gained satisfaction from having lived in a way that can help others."

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