In this week's New Yorker, Alice Gregory puzzles over the future of tiny Bard College, from which (as she discloses in an oddly coy aside) she graduated five years ago. If you want to learn about the college, which is basically a precious hipster Marxist summer camp where 60 to 80 percent of the student body is high all the time, by all means, read the article. But you won't find any of the interesting stuff about the school's students. Instead, you'll find a propaganda piece about the school's eclectic president, Leon Botstein.
Leon (everyone calls him Leon) is a goofy, if not mythic, fellow. He is "Zeus," according to New Yorker contributor and Bard professor Daniel Mendelsohn (also of the many Bard professors who can be found in the New York Review of Books' contributors' list). As Gregory details, he speaks many languages, wears bow ties, loves rare music and has an extensive watch collection. Also, as he wrote in a 1999 op-ed in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, he believes that high school should be abolished (he did not mention, let alone draw conclusions from, Simon's Rock College of Bard's own shooting incident). He was the youngest college president in America, and has been president of Bard for 40 years.
Bard is not exactly a personality cult, but a cult of the rarefied kind of person who thinks that an intellectual haven can exist in the woods of upstate New York and be divorced from reality and business. I attended the college for two years—because I was interested in its poetry program and I basically didn't get into any other schools—and I paid a fairly gross sum of money for that privilege. Bard is one of the most expensive schools in the nation, with a price tag of $64,000 (strangely, the article fails to mention this). I had one or two good classes, and not with any of Leon's carefully and expensively cultivated "celebrity" professors mentioned in the profile (the line to get into Chinua Achebe's class was always monstrously long).
Not to be all morbid or anything, but when Leon dies, Bard will perhaps die as well. This is the thematic concern of Gregory's profile, and perhaps the reason for its narrowness of focus. The school currently survives on Leon's affectations and the deep pockets of some of his friends, like George Soros. The college has almost no alumni support, because most of its alumni are not wealthy. People don't go to Bard to become rich. They go there because they didn't get into Brown, or because they are deluded and sheltered, or because they want to be an artist and make knitted teepees, or because they got a science fellowship (the school does all it can to attract more science students).
Alas, most college presidents are businesspeople. Leon, in turn, pretty much hates money:
Almost everything about the way Botstein has run Bard and raised money for it has put the place on the map. "Poverty made us great," he told me. "We had to invent a reason to command people's respect."
Botstein, who has accused other college presidents of doing nothing more than "running something that is somewhere between a faltering corporation and a hotel," seems genuinely baffled by what he sees as the financial conservatism of most well-endowed liberal-arts schools. "I'm a little mystified about what they do with their money," he said.
This may be an admirable stance for a college president to take, and one that endears him to a student body, no less his employees. But it is perhaps not the best stance for a leader of a viable business to take, especially as the cost of his school reaches criminal levels, and many of its students go into insane debt just to step onto its utopian grounds.
Despite Leon's disdain for the American dollar, the school is marketed quite cleverly and sells itself on the lean notion that academia, rather than blinged-out student centers, can satisfy the intellectual hunger of a budding proletariat. My work-study job was as a campus tour guide, and my pitch, delivered while walking backward, sounded eerily similar to Gregory's Bard rundown: Bard was different than Wesleyan or Hampshire or Vassar because it had Leon, and people like him; real, brilliant, flawed humans were operating the place. We all ate dinner together in the dining hall, sitting on the same crappy wooden chairs. Sometimes we had lectures outside, underneath a nice tree.
Like anything, it all sounds great until you remember how much it costs. Leon Botstein is no Jamie Dimon, but it's difficult to defend the mission of a school like Bard, which badly wants creative young people to "invest" $256,000 in its experience, only to wonder why none of those young people turn around to dump their spare coins in their coffers.
I transferred away from Bard, and the cult of it, after my sophomore year, to a state school in the South. It was a good decision. Did I miss the small, seminar-style classes? Learning from "some of the country's best-known thinkers and writers?" Walking among campus buildings designed by Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and Rafael Viñoly? No. In the end, going to school in ugly buildings with 50,000 other people was fine. Great, even.
I am still paying off my Bard debt.
[Photo of Leon Botstein via AP]