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

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

Leon Botstein: The college was rncompletely bankrupt in Chapter 11 and was going out of business, so it rnwas desperate. And desperate circumstances make for desperate choices. rnSo I think there was probably an inverse parallel between who was most rnqualified and who was youngest. The most qualified person would have rnbeen 16, so I was 23. It was a situation of complete desperation. It wasrn an anomalous, completely bizarre circumstance. It was an artifact of a rnstrange moment in American history between the baby boom of the '60s, rnthe Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the draft and all the chaos rnof the late '60s and early '70s. My career is a function of a random rnfallout of that period. 

Question: What’s been the rngreatest challenge during your presidency at Bard? 

Leon rnBotstein: How to do the right thing when you don’t have the rnresources and when everybody is only interested in becoming richer. I’vern lived in an institutional culture where we measure quality only by rnwealth. We think a place is good because it has big endowment. We don’t rncare what it does or whether it contributes to culture or education in rnthe nation. We have a terrible elementary and secondary school system. rnBard happens to run two public high schools. Has the largest prison rneducation program in the country. It runs a middle school and rnteacher-training program in the poorest agricultural district in rnCalifornia. But it’s a very poor institution. Where are all the rich rninstitutions? What are they doing about public education? 

What rnare they doing in the national interest? What they’re interested in is rntheir country clubs. They want to have just a big endowment. So we have arn culture have permitted them to measure quality by wealth. The larger rnthe endowment, the better the place. The reason people think Harvard andrn Yale are important places... they’re great universities, no doubt aboutrn that, but what really sticks in peoples’ mind is that they’re rich. rnWhen you go to small colleges that don’t have university faculty and rnresearch programs, you know, they’re ranked by third-rate news magazinesrn primarily by their wealth, not by the quality of what they do. 

Sorn the toughest job is to go against the tide; to innovate in education, rnin the arts, in areas where universities should make a contribution. Yourn know, we have these international programs in Russia. We’re now taking rnresponsibility for the American University in Central Asia. We do a lot rnof things, prisons is the thing where perhaps to some best known for rnbecause it’s the largest college-degree-granting program in the country.rn What are we doing that? It’s creating a culture and finding people of rngreat quality who are willing to do that. Building a college where rnlearning, and not fraternities and football and sports and kind of a rnvulgar social life is the primary aspect of undergraduate life; to focusrn on undergraduate learning. Running a college where the values of rneducation, the love of learning, and public service are a primary aspectrn of campus culture. 

That’s the hardest thing to do because rnyou’re only measured by business standards. Not by quality, not by what rnyou do, but how wealthy you are. So it’s as if a hospital were around rnthe corner and you’re a patient and the hospital said, "You know, I’m rnnot going to give you the best training or the best treatment is becausern I’m waiting for three generations for now when a patient comes in." My rnattitude is education would be more like a really good hospital. Our rnprimary obligation is to the patient who comes in now, who is sick, who rnis right before us. Our obligation is to the students we have now, the rnfaculty we have now, doing the right thing for the country now. Not rnbeing a bank, to protect ourselves so that we still exist for no rnapparent reason 100 years from now.
Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman