Interview with Leon Botstein: 35 Years (and Counting) as President of Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

After 35 years at Bard College, Leon Botstein reflects on his life as a public intellectual

David Schwab recalls when Leon Botstein first sashayed into his Manhattan law office more than 35 years ago to apply for the job of president of Bard College. His first impression? “He was very young.” His second impression? “He was very articulate.” And although Botstein showed up with some pretty snazzy credentials — he was already president of the now defunct Franconia College in New Hampshire, a post he landed at the tender age of 23 — “it was his charisma, his intelligence, his vision of what an undergraduate college could be,” according to Schwab — that ultimately led to the 28-year-old landing the college’s top spot.

But did Schwab, the chairman emeritus of Bard’s board of trustees, ever imagine that decades later Botstein would still be at it? “Not at all. We all thought that Bard might be a stepping-stone to a more prestigious college presidency. But rather than move on, he ended up making Bard as prestigious as anybody would want.”

That he has.

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On his position:
“This job is all about helping people — whether students or people who work here or people in the Valley at large”

Over the last 35 years, Botstein has transformed Bard College from a sleepy little liberal arts college on the banks of the Hudson with a reputation as a pot-smokers paradise, to an intellectual powerhouse with global reach. During his tenure, he has tripled the student body and made admission much more competitive; lured prominent faculty; established a distinctive curriculum; organized the college’s first graduate programs; instituted dual degree programs in places like Russia and Palestine; and helped Bard’s music programs earn worldwide acclaim. His flair for the dramatic — he was instrumental in getting noted architect Frank Gehry to design the space-age Fisher Center for the Arts in the mid-1990s — helps keep Bard in the spotlight. His radical views on high school education — basically, he thinks it is a waste — are well known, and he is busy establishing Bard-sponsored “early-college” high schools in New York City and beyond. His latest cause du jour is increasing scientific literacy among today’s youth with a mandatory, intensive three-week course at the college. But perhaps what is most extraordinary is that Botstein, 64, has simultaneously reached the pinnacle of a second career: he is music director and principal conductor of both the American Symphony and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestras.

How does he do it all?

Says Schwab simply, “He’s a very unusual guy.”


leon botstein and stephen colbertBotstein and Stephen Colbert go head to head on The Colbert Report in October 2010

Photograph courtesy of Comedy Central

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Or, as Stephen Colbert put it when Botstein came on his late-night show last October, “you’re an egghead.” And with his bald pate and ever-present bow tie, Botstein certainly looks the part. Of course, he is an egghead who is savvy enough to come down from his ivory tower and appear on mainstream TV shows. So when Colbert joked, “I believe you used to pet a white cat and plan world domination” — a reference to the character Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films, you couldn’t help but think, “Hmm. I see the resemblance, and if anyone could dominate the world, well, it would be this guy.” 

But despite all his “impressiveness” — as Colbert called it — Botstein insists, “Really, I’m just like you. I work hard, I have a family.” At least that is what he told me when we sat down for an interview in the book-crammed library of the President’s House at Bard, a room so perfectly suited for this “public intellectual” that it seems as though it must have been crafted on a movie set. While the thought, “No sir, you are nothing like me,” rattled around my head, Botstein soon fessed up to his workaholic ways. “I don’t work to live, I live to work,” he says. “I have no hobbies, I have no interests, I’ve never taken a vacation. I love to ski, I love to play backgammon. But I don’t do either.” Apparently, sleep is fairly dispensable too — Botstein stays up to the wee hours most nights, thinking and writing, and cruising a bit on the Internet, which he calls “a cross between a sewage pipe and a clear water system.” And while he says that he has no problem disciplining himself to get offline, he is, apparently, human after all: “I do cherish the moment where, early in the evening, I can lay down and take a little nap,” he admits.

On fund-raising:
“It’s crucial, and I don’t mind doing it. But it is so hard to do and hard to do well. You’ll never persuade someone who has no instinct for generosity, no matter how rich they are”

Botstein credits his over-the-top work ethic to his parents — Jewish doctors who fled the Holocaust in Poland and ultimately settled in the Bronx where they raised three children (his brother is a renowned geneticist at Princeton, his sister is a physician). “My parents were idealists and they both loved their work. Many people grow up in homes where their parents complain about what they do, but I learned from home the love of work. I owe them both a great deal.”

He describes his childhood home as a sort of intellectual salon, where he studied piano and violin and where big ideas were batted about freely. “If there were guests, you sat at the table with them. There was no kids’ table, nobody talked baby talk to you,” he says. It seemed the  world was full of possibilities. After all, his mother, a leading polio scholar, managed to succeed despite the fact that she was almost entirely deaf. “My father was absolutely determined that despite her illness and immigration, her career would not be sacrificed,” he says. At 16, Botstein graduated from Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art; he went on to receive his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard.


botstein conductingBotstein has called conducting “like being a traffic cop”

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Photograph by Steve J. Sherman

These days, Botstein’s dizzying schedule changes all the time. He says that he rarely gets out to concerts because he spends every free moment learning new music. “I have a relatively busy concert schedule,” he says. This year, for instance, he’ll be in Israel to conduct just four times (12 times a year had previously been the norm). But wherever in the world he wakes up, he says that he works on “both” of his careers every day. “You can’t keep up activity by blocks. But of course, the ratios change,” he says. “When I’m in Israel, from the mornings until around three in the afternoon are devoted exclusively to the music. Then, from three to six, I work on programs there; then from six until I go to bed, I’m online and on the phone to Annandale.”

Botstein credits his ability to delegate responsibility at the college as the key to his success. “I wasn’t always good at it,” he says. “But I learned. It was one of the few advantages of being a young college president. I knew I didn’t know anything, and that I was dependent on other people giving advice.” He refers to his job as “institution building,” which he differentiates from regular management “where you make a few changes and you incrementally improve something. What I do is try to change an institution. To do that you have to really listen to other people, you can’t have all the ideas yourself. Then, once you determine where Bard College can make a contribution, you have to recruit the people to lead it. Recruiting is the essence of building a college.” 

Despite his hectic travel schedule,  Botstein spends much of his time on the Annandale campus and calls the Hudson Valley the “ideal” place to live. “It is not suburbia — I can’t imagine living there. But this is an independent community with an independent cultural life and an independent sensibility,” he says. “I am deeply attached to the landscape and the region.” But he quickly adds that interacting closely with said landscape is not on the agenda. “I go outdoors as little as possible; and when I do, I try to stay on things that aren’t green.”


leon botstein with student bob reselmanNewly named President Botstein and Bard student Bob Reselman show off their ’70s style in this 1977 photo

Photograph by John Duke Kisch/courtesy of Bard College

While it might seem natural for an uber-intellectual to crave the stimulation of New York City, Botstein actually finds it “enervating. It’s too distracting. I spend fewer than 20 nights a year overnight in the city.” His wife of 20 years, Barbara Haskell, is a senior curator at the Whitney Museum of Art and lives in Manhattan during the week. When their two grown children were younger they also lived in the city from Monday through Friday. (Botstein also had two daughters with his first wife, one of whom was killed in a car accident when she was seven.) “But the kids spent all their holidays and summers here,” Botstein says. “They loved it, they could roam around free, and bicycle, and of course, they met a lot of interesting people here.” When asked about his unorthodox marital living arrangement, he replies only that “People are always uncomfortable with people who don’t fit into a neat picture. We’ve solved the dilemma of the two-career family in the way we have. But she does participate in official events at the college just as I make required appearances at the Whitney to support her work.”

On weekends, Botstein often pops into town where he loves to mill about A.L. Stickles 5 & Dime Store (he dubs it “one of the great treasures of Rhinebeck”) or dine with his family at Red Hook’s Mercato, Tivoli’s Osaka Restaurant, or Rhinebeck’s Le Petit Bistro. And lest you think he takes himself too seriously, Schwab insists that Botstein “is funny, but not in a comedian type of way. He is very witty, very clever, he is a joy to argue with. Sometimes I tell him he should have been a lawyer and he disagrees. Lawyers are not among his favorites.”

On the Bard-West Point Exchange:
“It’s the most important inter-institution relationship that we have. They seem so different, but they are more alike than you’d think. In my view, our students have the most to learn from the cadets. I believe every young person should do some years of service

Botstein is certainly up for vigorous debate about a wide range of topics. He’ll proudly, yet matter-of-factly, tell you all about Bard’s latest initiatives. There is the merger with the Longy School of Music outside of Boston, and the ground-breaking this month for a new building that will house the music conservatory. There is the early college high school in rough-and-tumble Newark, New Jersey, that opens next month. Like the other Bard-sponsored schools, this one offers two years of regular high school and two years of college courses; students graduate with an associate’s degree.


leon botsteinLeon Botstein at Bard College

Photograph by Michael Weisbrot

Botstein speaks passionately about the need to ramp up scientific literacy in this country. “Increasingly, the issues that face us, politically, have some component of science in them: the environment, energy, employment, tech, health, disease. This country needs more engineers, more scientists; that is crucial for the future of the American economy.”

The problem, he says, is the way that science is taught in schools. “Memorization, cookbooks, facts. That is not what it is. There is none of the discovery, the investigation, the method, the joy. We need the doing of science as opposed to the delivery of facts. Science is the thing that any child is most curious about. They are not interested in Thomas Jefferson or politics or literature naturally. They are naturally interested in why is it cold? Why is it hot? Why is someone tall? Why does the grass grow? That curiosity seems to be so natural, so intuitive, but it is beaten out of us by our formal schooling.”

On education:
“The trouble with American higher education is that it has walked away from teaching and has tilted toward research and graduate education, which is why colleges like Bard are the best places to get an undergraduate education. Our curriculum is quite distinctive”

The response to the first Citizen Science three-week seminar in January was “fantastic,” says Botstein. This year, the students got their hands dirty performing experiments and analyzing specific problems that dealt with the question of how we can reduce the global burden of infectious disease. “It is in small groups and it is ungraded. You don’t have to be afraid of saying, ‘I don’t understand.’ A lot of idealism was generated.”

And of course, idealism is what it is all about for Botstein, who shows no signs of slowing down, or — gasp — retiring. “He has expressed no desire to leave,” says Schwab. “We’ve expressed no desire for him to leave, so the length of time can be 10 years, 15 years. It depends on health, vigor… desire. It’s impossible to imagine him retiring. He’s not going to sit on a beach and read a book.”

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