The Youngest College President in U.S. History

Leon Botstein became the president of Bard at 23, when the college was in a situation of "complete desperation."
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did you become the youngest college president in U.S. history? 

Leon Botstein: 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? 

Leon Botstein: 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? 

What 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. 

So 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