Collegiate Cousins: Bard and Sarah Lawrence (Hudson Valley 3/95)

One of the measures of the richness of the educational topsoil of the Hudson Valley — which for the purposes of this series we are calling the Ivy Valley — is the fact that the region has given rise to two of the most distinctive and successful liberal-arts colleges in the United States — namely, Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County and Bard College in Dutchess County.

Back in the 1930s, during the first of the century’s two progressive-education boomlets (the other came in the 1960s), the philosophies of the two institutions seemed strikingly similar. While Sarah Lawrence was a fledging “laboratory school” still derided in some quarters as a finishing school for broad-minded female Upper-Bohemians, Bard had fallen into the hands of like-minded Deweyites from Columbia University and was known as that university’s “Hudson Valley experimental school.”

Though they have followed distinct lines of development since then, Sarah Lawrence and Bard remain collegiate cousins. Sarah Lawrence has adhered to its original educational philosophy, emerging after all these years as the grand dame of the “pure” progressives. (Its robust condition stands in marked contrast to the recent plight of its rebellious younger sister, Bennington College in Vermont.) Meanwhile, Bard, under the stewardship of its president, Leon Botstein, has forged a pedagogical path that combines classical and progressive philosophies — one might call it “neoprogressive” — while attaining roughly the same high level of academic prestige that Sarah Lawrence has enjoyed since it emerged from the experimental wing of higher education and began to be perceived as ranking among the elite of the nation’s small liberal-arts colleges.

In the jargon of admissions deans, Sarah Lawrence and Bard are “overlap schools.” In other words, they compete for the same pool of bright, engaged, creative, and self-motivated students. Both draw students from the top 10 percent of high-school graduating classes. Last fall, in its annual ranking of “Best Colleges,” U.S. News and World Report placed both schools among the top 40 liberal-arts colleges in the nation. But the following is not meant as a comparative report so much as a descriptive one — a diptych, as it were, of two unique and redoubtable arsenals of higher learning located within the borders of the Ivy Valley.

The First Panel: Sarah Lawrence
The Grand Dame of Progressives

No one at Sarah Lawrence, at least as far as this reporter could tell, wears leotards anymore, as the stereotypical Sarah Lawrence students of earlier decades did. (“The Bennington-Sarah Lawrence type,” wrote J.D. Salinger in “Franny and Zooey” (1955), “looked like she’d spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress.”) Those students who feel compelled to flaunt their otherness these days are wont to do so by affecting butch haircuts (whether they are gay or not) or wearing earrings through their noses.

My volunteer campus guide, Elizabeth Winston — junior class president, passionate poet and equestrian — was wearing two nose rings. “We don’t have majors,” she corrected in a tone reserved for reprimand, in response to my question, bringing our herefore pleasant autumnal ramble across Sarah Lawrence’s undulant, boulder-bestrewn, Tudor-style campus to a sudden, slightly awkward halt. “We have concentrations.” So noted. “And what is your concentration?” I asked, suitably chastened.

“Literature,” my articulate and otherwise friendly instructress in the Sarah Lawrencian way replied, as she delivered me to my next stop, a seminar in 19th-century English literature presided over by one of the campus demigods, Ilja Wachs, an intense, chain-smoking professor who has been teaching at Sarah Lawrence for 30 years. “We’re talking about an alternative sense of reality here,” the white-haired sage declared enthusiastically before a hushed and reverential audience of 12 women and three men. The author under discussion was Charles Dickens — the alternative Charles Dickens. “Dickens was dealing with the modalities of human experience–reaching a state of ecstasy–the sacredness of consciousness.” No one batted an eye. No one stole a look at her watch.

Several weeks later, I was back on campus searching through the archives when I was startled to discover that, nearly four decades before me, another reporter, one David Boroff from Harper’s Magazine, had committed a faux pas similar to the one I had made on my first day on campus — and had been corrected in a similar was by an equally indignant campus denizen. “The determination of the college to be itself is sometimes amusing,” Boroff noted in his report. “The term major, associated as it is with old-line colleges, is anathema. ‘What is your major?’ I asked a student. She looked at me balefully. ‘All right,’ I said resignedly, ‘what is your field of concentration? ‘History,’ she answered brightly. And in the jazzy lexicon of progressivism, there are no course assignments, there are only contracts.” How’s that for institutional consistency, I thought, sipping my mojo at the Pub, the college’s tiny café and gathering place.

Meanwhile, I had uncovered a few other revealing nuggets in the archives: “Few other institutions have been so dogged in adhering to their roots, largely because only a handful enjoy your clarity of mission. Sarah Lawrence College knows what it is as do few other schools in America.” That from a 1987 report by an evaluation team of the Philadelphia-based Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. And an earlier, equally telling comment by Harold Taylor, president of Sarah Lawrence from 1945 to 1959, as quoted in a 1948 article in Coronet Magazine: “This country is full of standardized colleges which punches out graduates just as an assembly line punches out bolts. But here at Sarah Lawrence, our program is geared to place total responsibility on the individual. We want each student to develop her own talents in her own way.”

They do do college differently at Sarah Lawrence. And it’s not just the Sarah Lawrencian lexicon. Much about this 68-year-old living landmark remains proudly, indeed defiantly the same as when it was established: dons for advisors, divisions for departments, evaluations for grades. The socioeconomic background of the student body has also remained surprisingly consistent. Much as the past, a comparatively large percentage — roughly half — of Sarah Lawrence students have found their way to the school’s cloistered estate from private school. This — along with the school’s understandable and deserved pride in its sound health at a time when the small liberal-arts college is considered an endangered species — helps account for the school’s inescapably elitist, country-club-like air.

To be sure, the college has changed in some significant ways. Its student population stands at about 1,250 (including some 250 graduate students), about three times that of the 1950s, when Boroff ascended from Brooklyn to sample the waters. Lo, there are now men at Sarah Lawrence, the result of the school’s decision to “integrate” in 1968. There are now reputable programs in Asian studies, science and mathematics, alongside the school’s traditional strengths in the arts and social sciences. The college’s newly established graduate offerings include innovative programs in human genetics and health advocacy, which prepare students for health-care jobs such as genetic counselor and patient representative, as well as the Art of Teaching program, which prepares students for certification to teach nursery school through sixth grade.

And the college’s physical plant has expanded considerably, thanks in large part to the exertions of its current president, the youthful 59-year-old Alice Stone Ilchman, a former assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration who has governed the campus for thirteen-and-a-half years. In fact, Sarah Lawrence is thriving. Last fall it enrolled its largest freshman class ever, 263 students, who averaged a combined 1170 on their SATs. And, although the college’s endowment (about $23 million) could use some boosting, the school is in sound fiscal condition.

But what struck me, as I compared my observations to those of previous visitors and the sentiments of current students and alumna, was how little the ethos of the place appears to have changed over the years. As President Ilchman — or simply Alice, as she is known around the resolutely first-name-basis-only campus — put it when I interviewed her in her cozy, ground-floor office (where students, of an evening, are fond of knocking on the panes and waving to her as she toiled away), “We hold true to those traditions which serve us well.”

The school’s chief touchstones are the academic philosophy and educational process. Both date to Sarah Lawrence’s founding in 1926 by William Van Duzer Lawrence, an affluent Bronxville merchant, who conceived of a school as a memorial to his late wife, Sarah. His friend Henry Noble MacCracken, then president of Vassar College, convinced him that a junior college, embodying Sarah’s forward-looking spirit — specifically one that offered a genuine alternative to the inflexible Continental pedagogical model then in style in American academe — would make a suitable and lasting testament. And so it has.

Although it became a four-year college in the 1930s, several decades passed before the off-beat elitists school was taken seriously. A widely circulated “Life Goes to College” photo feature in 1938, which showed the well-coiffed, well-meaning Sarah Lawrence students on a field trip to New York City chatting up derelicts, did not help matters. (A typical caption: “Among the pushcarts, Jane Wilson, whose father is a manager of a Texas oil company, seeks evidence on the psychological factors of heredity and environment from a 5-year-old slum child.”) But by the early 1950s the college had gained enough of a reputation that various aspects of its educational philosophy and process had been adopted by mainstream colleges and universities.

The institution’s academic philosophy could be described as three parts John Dewey (the philosopher and educator who rejected traditional rote teaching methods and promulgated a more philosophical and pragmatic approach to education), one part English tutorialism and one part American nonconformism. Today, just as in 1926, the educational process at Sarah Lawrence is centered on the individual, not the curriculum, with each student free to choose her courses and faculty.

The theory behind this freedom is that the student will learn more when she is freed from regimentation and engaged in the construction of her own educational program. Or, as the school’s current catalogue states: “our educational goal is to help each student attain a fully internalized, autonomous and personally meaningful relationship to knowledge.” Having earned a degree from Sarah Lawrence, the thinking goes, the graduate will male more meaningful connections between her studies and her life than someone schooled elsewhere. What a student lawns about learning — the self-reliance and communication and learning skills she develops in Westchester — is regarded as more important and lasting than what she learns.

The particulars of the educational process at Sarah Lawrence put these ideals into practice. Let us resume our Sarah Lawrence lexicon. Upon consulting with, and with the approval of their dons, and after interviewing prospective teachers, students take three courses every year. Each course generally runs for two terms. There are no required courses. The college’s only concession to the need to avoid overspecialization is its requirement that students take courses in three of its four divisions during their four years. A student’s performance is judged by teachers in written evaluations at the end of each term. No numerical grades are awarded, but such grades are kept on file for the purposes of graduate-school applications.

Three courses a year? Sounds like a breeze. But here we come to the most distinctive aspect of the Sarah Lawrence educational process, the seminar/conference system. According to this part of the school’s educational plan, each course has two parts: a weekly seminar, which generally consists of 15 students or less, for which the student does assigned reading or writing; and a weekly conference with the same instructor, for which the student creates and follows a separate reading list of her own choosing and develops an individual conference paper by the end of the term.

In short, within the scope of each course, there are twp parallel learning streams a class-instructor dialectic and a student-instructor dialectic. So, the average Sarah Lawrence student carries the equivalent of six courses per semester at a mainstream institution. Put another way, it is very difficult to float through Sarah Lawrence. Perhaps you can fudge the required reading for a seminar, but it can be exceedingly uncouth to arrive at a conference unprepared. And attendance at both seminars and conferences is closely monitored.

Indeed, one need not apply to Sarah Lawrence if one is looking for an easy ride. Do consider applying if you are looking for, and are willing to submit yourself to, an educational process that combines the academic demands of a rigorous liberal-arts college with intense attention to the individual. Caveat emptor: Sarah Lawrence wants to know who you are. You can’t hide from the process.

This goes for the faculty as well. Between their donning duties and the time required for seminars and conferences, the Sarah Lawrence faculty might well be the hardest-working — and among the most stressed-out — faculty in America. “I love teaching here,” says Bella Brodzki, a popular literature teacher, between blasts of her Marlboro, “but it is very exacting.” (Perhaps in recognition of this, the college’s board of trustees recently made it possible for teachers to take sabbaticals in their seventh year at Sarah Lawrence, one year sooner than before.)

Because the school makes little distinction between academic life and real life, there seems to be a certain complacency about on-campus recreational facilities and activities. There are weekly dances at the school, as well as reasonably diverting film and lecture programs, and New York City is only a half-hour away. But students are essentially expected to entertain themselves. (A new student center that is on the drawing board should lighten things up a bit.)

Social life at Sarah Lawrence is further complicated by the 3:1 female-to-male ratio on campus. Although there was a time when the school appeared headed for full co-education, like former distaff counterparts Bennington and Vassar, the consensus at Sarah Lawrence seems to be that women should remain in the preponderance. “I think it would be counter to our distinctive character if we went 50-50,” says Micheal Rengers, a 1978 graduate of the college who now serves as its director of campus facilities and administrative services. “I could see us going up to 40 percent men, but any more than that and we would become a male-dominated–career-oriented kind of place, rather than remaining a learning-oriented one. Nevertheless, he emphasizes, “This is a great place for men. Men who wish to meet women on their own terms — men who are process-minded, not product-minded.” As for President Ilchman, she concedes that co-education is an “ongoing experiment. We would like to see more men here — perhaps 35 percent.”

More than compensating for the absence of some of the more frivolous aspects of mainstream American campus life, Sarah Lawrence offers a wide array of off-campus options. The New York Program allows students to supplement their course work with field work at institutions in New York City, including museums, hospitals and government agencies. The college also provides enticing foreign-study options for juniors, including a year in Paris or Florence or the Sarah Lawrence College at Oxford. A good part of the junior class, perhaps a third, takes advantage of this vital psychological escape valve before returning to the challenges and joys of the college’s process.

“The Sarah Lawrence process can be very intimidating,” says Sarah Warner, a senior concentrating in Literature, “but it can also be liberating.” To be sure, a Sarah Lawrence education is not for the timid or the immature.

Thomas Hine, a transfer student from the University of Connecticut, explains the appeal of Sarah Lawrence this way in a recent issue of the student newspaper: “A Sarah Lawrence student carries the baggage of the title, and the stereotype that comes with it. There is a certain comfort in that stereotype. Mention UConn, and people think of a basketball team. Mention Sarah Lawrence, and people think of radical feminist vegan lesbians in black. It’s much more evocative, to say the least.”

So hail to Sarah Lawrence: still evocative, still provocative after all these years.

The Second Panel: Bard College
Post-Modern Progressive

The 14th president of Bard College, Leon Botstein, apparently knows how difficult it can be to follow his fugue-like rhetoric. Every 15 minutes or so, during an expansive interview with inquiring reporter, he stops himself in mid-disquisition, peers over the daunting array of scholarly books and journals spread over the vast desk in his mammoth, high-ceilinged office in ancient Ludlow-Willink Hall, and inquires, “Do you follow me?”

Botstein has been dilating on the perils of adhering to overly rigid principles of progressive higher education. I press the rewind button in my brain and repeat his last statement verbatim: “Education is not a religion. There is not truth and untruth.”

Satisfied, Botstein returns to his professorial performance. One moment, the bow-tied pedagogue is seated and speaking in a conversational tone of voice. The next, he is standing across the room, his back to the bookcase, booming out elliptically constructed, essayistic musings on Bard, godliness and the liberal arts.

Then, after completing a theme, the tall lord of Bard turns on his heels and, without a word, exits the room. The president has urgent business to discuss with one of his secretaries, who remains discreetly out of sight. Botstein can be seen pacing, brooding over some bit of college business: a new hire perhaps? a new course? a new “satellite” (as he calls the latest additions to the campus)?

Awaiting the great man’s return, I notice some business cards lying on the president’s desk and allow my eyes to focus on the print. One is from the foreign editor of the Financial Times. Another is from–Larry Hagman. Hmmm.

Botstein comes back, apologizes, insists that I stay. He voices concern about what the finished article will say: “I’ve seen so many writers come in here and do a hatchet job.”

I promise to keep an open mind, and ask my next question: “Twenty years. That’s a long time. When you came here in 1975, did you honestly expect to stay this long?”

“When I came to Bard,” Botstein intones, “I came with the expectation of serving the tenure of a 19th-century president, not a 20th-century one. You must know that it was not uncommon in the past century for a college president to serve 20, 30, or even 40 years.”

“And Larry Hagman?”

“Oh, I met him at a conference.”

And so went this reporter’s first session with Bard College’s most valuable asset. Say what you will about the man’s style, there’s no denying he’s engaging.

Does anyone remember the spaced-out, faded Bard of the counterculture years? The school’s entry in a 1971 handbook, the Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice for college-bound “brothers and sisters,” which gave special attention to the “hippiest” institutions of higher learning in America, paints an accurate description of Bard as it was back then. “Ginsberg hangs out here (Leary used to, too) — it’s only 20 miles from Woodstock. Heavy scene. Students are constantly freaking out on one drug or another!”

That was then: this is now. Heavy scene? I don’t know about that. But Bard certainly is hot. In an era of general academic retrenchment and lowered standards, Bard has expanded its facilities and raised the bar for entering students. In the last decade, enrollment has risen to 1,168 (including 200 graduate students), an all-time high, and the average SAT scores of entering freshmen have climbed from about 1150 to 1230, which is also a record for Bard. Applications are also up — way up, from 1,000 to more than 2,200 applications for the 300 places in this coming fall’s entering freshman class, making Bard one of the more selective liberal-arts institutions in the nation.

Perhaps the only part of the Undergraduate Guide description of Bard that still rings true is the “environment/physical” blurb: “Old Hudson Valley crazy. Former rich. Lots of trees, mansions, woods, rivers. Near the Catskills. Rip Van Winkle. Thunder. Cold as a mother in winter. Far-out–rural type campus.” Dig it. And let me tell you: the place still gets cold as a mother on a cold winter’s night.

And yet, during Bard’s increasingly popular reunions (school pride is up, too), graduates from past decades back for their first visit in a while are often surprised, if not startled, by how different the place looks. It’s as if new, futuristic campus has been overlaid on the old, ivied one. The cramped old library has a handsome new addition, designed by Robert Venturi, which doubles the size of the former facility. Nearby is the sleek F.W. Olin Humanities Building, completed in 1987, the new locus of the humanities at Bard, complete with a 400-seat auditorium and interior atrium. Hegman Science Building has an entire new wing, the David Rose Science Laboratory, which doubles the space devoted to the sciences, and Henderson Computer Resource Center was expanded in 1994 to twice its size. There’s also a new gymnasium, completed in 1988, a renovated soccer field complete with sculpture (not on the field, of course, but on the hill-side), as well as a super-modern building, off on its own hillock, that houses one of Bard’s newest graduate programs, the Center for Curatorial Studies.

Despite the sharp contrast between the pre-Botstein Bard and the new, improved institution, it would be a mistake to say that the wizardly president has remade the college from the whole cloth, or without any help. He has been clever enough to retain, among others, Stuart Levine, who arrived on campus in 1964 as a psychology instructor and was elevated to dean of the college by Botstein in 1980. But Dean Levine is surprised when a reporter wishes to interview him. “Are you sure you want to talk to me?” asks the genial 62-year-old. Generally it is the 48-year-old media-philic president who gets the lion’s share of the publicity at Annandale-on-Hudson. But it is trusted lieutenants like Levine, who help take care of many of the details of campus life — two roommates who don’t get along, a student who seems to be falling through the cracks and could use a one-on-one talk, a professor’s salary raise — who allow Botstein to be Botstein. One of the secrets to his success, says the president, is “finding very good people and giving them tasks that you’re not good at, so that you can focus on the ones which you are good at, while maintaining minimal responsibility across the board.”

Botstein’s principal achievement at Bard — the reshaping and revitalization of the curriculum — is the result of weaving together the best of the school’s two rather dichotomous academic traditions. Bard has a more variegated — one is tempted to say “schizoid” — history than most liberal-arts institutions. Founded in 1860 as St. Stephen’s College, it spent the first seven decades of its existence uplifting the minds of young men headed for service in the Episcopal Church with a classical curriculum. The architectonic legacy of St. Stephen’s lives on in the Old Collegiate buildings that form the core of the old campus, including a handsome, ivy-colored church that stands astride the main road.

In 1928, as the progressive-education fever that had given rise to Antioch and Sarah Lawrence (and, later, Bennington) swept academe, St. Stephen’s changed identities. In partnership with ambitious, Dewey-eyed radicals from Columbia University’s Teachers College, it now became a so-called laboratory school. “Curriculum is reversed!” cried an article in the New York Times announcing the college’s change of course. As a showcase for “individual education,” the college (renamed Bard in 1934 after the founder of St. Stephen’s, John Bard) switched its emphasis to tutorials, independent study and the arts.

During World War II, the iconoclastic college took on a cosmopolitan aspect when it drew a large influx of émigré faculty from occupied Europe, including Stefan Hirsch, the Precisionist painter, Felix Hirsch, political editor of the Berliner Tageblatt, Emil Hauser, a violinist who founded the Budapest String Quartet and collaborated with Pablo Cassals, and the philosopher Heinrich Bluecher, who was the husband of Hannah Arendt. This intellectual infusion transformed Bard into a sort of New School-on-the-Hudson.

Unfortunately, while the war brought the school new intellectual blood, it also drove the school’s all-male enrollment down, by dint of the armed forces’ manpower requirements. By 1944 there were fewer than 80 students matriculated at Bard. The solution, the college fathers decided, was to go co-ed; at the same time, Bard severed the connection with Columbia and regained its independence.

In the late ’40s and ’50s, the school continued to maintain a palpable intellectual glow by hiring as faculty such prominent scholars and artists as Mary McCarthy, A.J. Ayer, Ralph Ellison, Franco Modigliani, Theodore Weiss, Anthony Hecht, Saul Bellow and Dwight McDonald.

Weakly led, though, Bard fell prey to the kind of inbreeding and myopia that had already befallen other laboratory schools like Black Mountain College in North Carolina. These qualities were memorably depicted by Mary McCarthy in The Groves of Academe, her 1952 novel thought to be based on her Bard experience, in which the school is disguised as Jocelyn College in Jocelyn, Pa. Jocelyn’s students, the sharp-elbowed author observed, “were neither to till the soil as at Antioch nor weave on looms as at the Black Mountain; they were to be grounded neither in the grass-roots present as at Sarah Lawrence nor in the great-books past as at St. John’s [of Maryland] or Chicago; they were to specialize neither in verse writing, nor in poetic theatre, nor in the techniques of cooperative-living — they were simply to be free, spontaneous, and co-educational–

“[T]hough the college was in continual hot water financially, it wad inevitably grown accustomed to close shaves and miraculous windfalls. Only the bursar seriously worried about balancing the budget, and his worries were accepted tolerantly — this was his métier. The faculty took it for granted that fresh students would appear every fall out of nowhere–”

By the late ’60s, thanks to such proclivities, Bard’s reputation for intellectual pathfinding had withered. Is it any wonder that the school’s most noted graduate from this period is Chevy Chase?

By 1975, with the economic winding down and the New Vocationalism taking over as the dominant campus mantra, Bard, now riddled with debt, found itself in serious danger of immediate obsolescence.

Enter Leon Botstein. Only 28 years of age, Botstein had already gained national recognition as the “boy president” of unorthodox Franconia College in New Hampshire, where his five-year tenure has ostensibly saved that outpost of fuzzy-wuzziness from its worst anarchic tendencies. At the same time, the wunderkind administrator and Renaissance man — Botstein is an avid and respected musician and social historian; this semester he is teaching a freshman history seminar — had acquired some renown as a spokesman for the young, gifted and restless, appearing on “Good Morning America” and like forums. Doubtless he would bring the media Bard’s was, the trustees reasoned. The self-described “radical conservative” also seemed to have a fairly clear, and clear-headed, vision of where he wished to take the tottering academy–And yet he was only 28.

But the trustees, impressed by Botstein’s ebullience and enthusiasm and frustrated after being turned down by their first two choices, figured–why not? And thus began the Era of Leon.

As he had vowed, the brash new president began the formidable task of resurrecting Bard by forging a rigorous — and more marketable — curriculum that took from the best of the school’s pedagogical heritage. The process of education at the renovated college, Botstein decreed, would occur in stages. First would come a Lower College, modeled on the classical, St. Stephen’s tradition, featuring a common curriculum and fairly demanding distribution requirements, with students bound to take courses in each of the college’s four divisions (languages and literature, visual and performing arts, social studies, and natural sciences and mathematics). The Lower College would focus on developing students’ interests and strengths.

Upper College, in Botstein’s brave new world, would derive from Bard’s progressive tradition, featuring small classes, close contact with faculty, tutorials and a comprehensive senior project. Progression from Lower College to Upper would not be automatic, but would be based on the Bardian process of moderation, whereby sophomores would write an analysis of their “academic autobiography” for the faculty of the division in which they wished to concentrate.

To this distinctive, neoprogressive curriculum, Botstein added several creative and attention-getting touches. The most noteworthy of these, established in 1981, was the Workshop in Writing and Thinking, a three-week orientation for entering freshmen in which new students would become acclimated to the school’s demanding, writing-intensive climate by exercising and enhancing their essay-writing skills. “I wanted to do something dramatic to emphasize the importance of writing at Bard,” Botstein explains, “as well as to get students writing before they entered college.”

“Above all, I believe in language,” Botstein further declares. He set forth his pedagogical credo in a 1990 issue of the scholarly journal Daedalus. “Language must be taught, from the start, as an active instrument of speculation, creation, and personal expression — of thinking — which can be possessed by every individual,” he wrote, by way of explaining the path he had forged at Annandale. “The teaching and use of writing must exist throughout the curriculum–”

Botstein’s emphasis on language is reflected in Bard’s student body as well as its curriculum. If there is one characteristic which distinguishes today’s Bardians, it is that, like their academic godfather, they like to talk — and talk — and write. No fewer than a quarter of entering students contemplate future careers as writers or journalists, according to a recent survey undertaken by the administration. No doubt many are drawn by the literary stars whom Botstein has recruited, such as novelists Chinua Achebe and Mona Simpson and poet John Ashbury.

In addition to refurbishing Bard’s curriculum and faculty, Botstein also set about devising new ways of making the college more attractive and more affordable to as wide and diverse a student population as possible. In 1986 he instituted the Excellence and Equal Cost Program, a bold anti-elitist scheme whereby potential applicants from public high schools placing among the top 10 students in their graduating classed need pay only the same tuition and fees as they would at a state university in their home states. This program has resulted in one of the most regionally divers student bodies of any small liberal-arts college in the U.S. Each of the 50 states is currently represented at Bard, with 12 percent of students coming form other countries; only 23 percent are New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, in a nod to the college’s history as a haven for the best and brightest of the Old World, Botstein (who is the son of European refugees) founded the Program for International Education, which seeks out students from emerging Eastern and Central European democracies. And there has been a substantial increase in minority enrollment to 113 students.

In 1985, a decade after the Era of Leon began, Gene Maeroff, the national education correspondent of The New York Times, visited Bard and pronounced Botstein’s campaign to resurrect the school a success. “He’s done everything we could ever have hoped he would do for this college,” Frederick Shafer, a professor emeritus, told Maeroff. Suck laudatory notices have played a pivotal role in confirming the school’s clean and sober new image. As the late educator Timothy Healy told The New York Times Magazine in 1992, “Leon [Botstein] gave Bard a vision of itself as being experimental without being kooky.”

The president himself is sufficiently satisfied with the state of Bard to make the time to serve as music director (and conductor) of the New York City-based American Symphony Orchestra. He also devotes considerable organizational and artistic energy to the annual Bard Music Festival, two weekends in August filled with chamber, choral, and orchestral performances and discussions that attempt to “rediscover” a major composer. The imaginative programs featured in the festival include performances of a wide selection of the chosen composer’s works, including little-known pieces, along with performances of works by featured composers’ contemporaries.

Pursuing his musical ambitions have not kept Botstein from continuing to push the outside of the academic envelope. Having revitalized the core college, he has set about actualizing his grandiose vision of Bard as a kind of undergraduate division surrounded by “satellite” divisions bringing scholars and artists or reorganized excellence to work and teach within the college community. The satellites spun into orbit thus far include the Center for Curatorial Studies, the Jerome Levy Economics Institute, the Graduate School of Environmental Studies and the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, which is located in a renovated brownstone on Manhattan’s West Side.

On Botstein’s watch, Bard has also raised more than $82 million, and last November the college kicked off a new $69.3 million capital campaign. Botstein has also recruited a sizable number of enthusiastic and generous non-alumni trustees who wish to participate and take a hand in the changes taking place at Annandale. In the words of trustee Charles P. Stevenson Jr., a Yale alumnus who donates a sizable sum for the library expansion and new gymnasium, Botstein has transformed what was “a second-rate place into a refuge of freedom and inquiry.”

Some students wonder whether Bard is getting too large, too respectable, too mainstream. One evening at the DeKline Commons after-hours coffeehouse, a frizzy-haired sophomore (whom I met while auditing one of Bard’s harder-to-chew offerings, “An Environmental Analysis of American Foreign Policy”) confided, “I think this place is getting too preppy!” As proof she cites the hiring of a putatively conservative dean of freshman students from Colgate and other suspicious sprigs of Little Ivy. “I came here because it was a little off. Now, it’s getting to feel more like–” She pauses, searching for the right analogy. “Like Vassar!”

“Fear of the loss of the soul!” Botstein retorts later, when this frightful thought is relayed to him. “I’ve been hearing that ever since I came in 1975. In fact, I’ve stopped trying to deny it!”

While Bard certainly has burgeoned in recent years — and everyone in the administration is quick to point out — the campus still feels extremely secluded and “Hudson Valley crazy,” especially on a rainy weekday night when there isn’t much to do on campus. At a Thursday night hullabaloo at DeKline that I attended before I departed the campus, it seemed like half the student body was crammed into the tiny converted cafeteria. One by one, various acts — an amateur guitarist, ukelelist and his friends — ambled to the stage, strummed one or two songs, and left to touchingly wild applause. My favorite number was a deliberately off key version of “Fight for Your Right to Party.”

And then, presumably, everyone — or at least the upperclassmen in the crowd — went back to work on their often ambitious projects. Unlike Bard trustee, Chevy Chase, who now admits he slept through many of his classes, today’s Bard students are attentive and productive. Here are a few of the impressive-sounding senior projects that caught my eye when I flipped through last year’s commencement guide:

“Television, Technology, and the Thing,” an ontological investigation into television as a technological disclosure of the world and a review of the condition of monitoring as a way of being, with an emphasis on Heidegger’s analysis of modern technology.

“Digital and Analog Signal Encryption by Chaos,” design and construction of electronic circuits using deterministic chaos key.

“From Emancipation to White Terror: The Destabilization of Hungarian Jewry, 1848-1920,” a study in how the relatively stable position of Hungarian Jewry within the Dual Monarchy deteriorated with the discrediting of 1867 liberalism–

“I never fail to be amazed when I turn the pages of the commencement guide and see what the senior have been up to,” Leon Botstein declares. “The range of interests — the depth of research — the imagination!–” For a moment the Brahmin of Bard is at a rare loss for worlds. “It’s really overwhelming,” he says. “You might say it’s my biggest pay-off.”

Comments are disabled for this post