Question: How did you become the youngest college president in
The college was
completely bankrupt in Chapter 11 and was going out of business, so it
was desperate. And desperate circumstances make for desperate choices.
So I think there was probably an inverse parallel between who was most
qualified and who was youngest. The most qualified person would have
been 16, so I was 23. It was a situation of complete desperation. It was
an anomalous, completely bizarre circumstance. It was an artifact of a
strange moment in American history between the baby boom of the '60s,
the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the draft and all the chaos
of the late '60s and early '70s. My career is a function of a random
fallout of that period. Question: What’s been the
greatest challenge during your presidency at Bard?
How to do the right thing when you don’t have the
resources and when everybody is only interested in becoming richer. I’ve
lived in an institutional culture where we measure quality only by
wealth. We think a place is good because it has big endowment. We don’t
care what it does or whether it contributes to culture or education in
the nation. We have a terrible elementary and secondary school system.
Bard happens to run two public high schools. Has the largest prison
education program in the country. It runs a middle school and
teacher-training program in the poorest agricultural district in
California. But it’s a very poor institution. Where are all the rich
institutions? What are they doing about public education?
are they doing in the national interest? What they’re interested in is
their country clubs. They want to have just a big endowment. So we have a
culture have permitted them to measure quality by wealth. The larger
the endowment, the better the place. The reason people think Harvard and
Yale are important places... they’re great universities, no doubt about
that, but what really sticks in peoples’ mind is that they’re rich.
When you go to small colleges that don’t have university faculty and
research programs, you know, they’re ranked by third-rate news magazines
primarily by their wealth, not by the quality of what they do.
the toughest job is to go against the tide; to innovate in education,
in the arts, in areas where universities should make a contribution. You
know, we have these international programs in Russia. We’re now taking
responsibility for the American University in Central Asia. We do a lot
of things, prisons is the thing where perhaps to some best known for
because it’s the largest college-degree-granting program in the country.
What are we doing that? It’s creating a culture and finding people of
great quality who are willing to do that. Building a college where
learning, and not fraternities and football and sports and kind of a
vulgar social life is the primary aspect of undergraduate life; to focus
on undergraduate learning. Running a college where the values of
education, the love of learning, and public service are a primary aspect
of campus culture.
That’s the hardest thing to do because
you’re only measured by business standards. Not by quality, not by what
you do, but how wealthy you are. So it’s as if a hospital were around
the corner and you’re a patient and the hospital said, "You know, I’m
not going to give you the best training or the best treatment is because
I’m waiting for three generations for now when a patient comes in." My
attitude is education would be more like a really good hospital. Our
primary obligation is to the patient who comes in now, who is sick, who
is right before us. Our obligation is to the students we have now, the
faculty we have now, doing the right thing for the country now. Not
being a bank, to protect ourselves so that we still exist for no
apparent reason 100 years from now.
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman