Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2011

George Soros contributes $60 million to Bard College colonial ventures

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm
NY Times May 16, 2011

$60 Million Gift to Bolster Bard College’s Global Work


Bard College, a small liberal arts institution in the Hudson Valley, has received a $60 million gift from the Open Society Foundations in recognition of its global involvement, which includes programs in New Orleans, Nicaragua and Russia, officials are to announce on Tuesday.

The gift from Open Society, which George Soros created in the 1980s to foster democracies around the world, will help the college bring its disparate programs under a new umbrella, the Bard College Center for Civic Engagement, and assure their continuing operation and growth.

“We decided to create an institutional culture of serious, thoughtful and nonpartisan engagement in the world,” said Leon Botstein, Bard’s longtime president. “Bard has really taken seriously all of the John Dewey arguments about the relationship between education and democracy. It can’t be done merely through the curriculum.”

The $60 million grant is enormous for Bard, which has a relatively small endowment of $200 million. It requires the college to raise an additional $120 million from other donors, though the Soros money will begin to flow before that goal is met.

Dr. Botstein has had a close relationship with Mr. Soros for years, serving on boards of the Open Society Foundations and as chairman of the Central European University in Budapest, which Mr. Soros established.

“As a general rule I do not support higher education in the United States,” Mr. Soros said in a statement. “This grant represents a departure that will help Bard in its efforts to transform liberal education and bolster critical thinking worldwide.”

For years, Bard, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has steadily expanded its academic programs in the United States and abroad. Some programs were begun by faculty members, others by former students; they were institutionalized by the college.

A former student created the Bard Prison Initiative, which brings degree-granting courses into five New York correctional facilities; a professor developed a dual-degree program in liberal arts with St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

Closer to its Hudson Valley campus, the college operates public high schools in Manhattan, Queens and Newark that incorporate college-level coursework. In New Orleans, about 10 percent of high school juniors and seniors take college-level courses through a Bard program created by former students.

Other service-learning projects and education programs are in Nicaragua, the West Bank, Kyrgyzstan and South Africa. “We don’t go where it’s beneficial for Bard; we go where we see a need,” said a college spokesman, Mark Primoff.

* * *

(written in 2000)

Bard College

I just returned from Bard College, where graduation ceremonies for the class of 2000 and a reunion for my graduating class of 1965 were held.

Bard is an interesting institution. Along with Black Mountain College, Bennington, Antioch and Goddard, the school was seen as an experiment in progressive educational philosophy. These schools either involved ambitious, but largely unsuccessful, work-study programs or in the case of Black Mountain expected students to work on the upkeep of the college itself, through gardening for food served in the cafeteria, etc. John Dewey’s progressivism was a strong element mixed with New Deal idealism.

All of these schools went through big financial crises at one point or another and one, Black Mountain– the eagle of the lot–succumbed in the 1950s. Even in its grave, the school was seen as one of the great cultural influences of the 20th century, either through the literary journal edited by faculty member and dean Charles Olsen, or through art classes taught by well-known modernists such as Joseph Albers.

The others hit a brick wall in the 1960s and 70s as American society entered a post-affluence period when the realities of the job market militated against the kind of intellectual hothouse atmosphere of a place like Bard or Bennington. The schools were forced to become more competitive and the financial and curricular restructuring was often quite painful, as indicated in an article about Bennington in today’s NY Times:

Founded in 1932 as a women’s college challenging educational orthodoxy, the upstart developed a history of innovation, a tradition of teacher-practitioners — often cutting-edge figures in art, drama, dance and literature — working in close relationship with their student-apprentices and, in recent decades, academic politics of exceeding viciousness.

But with the college having fallen on hard times by 1994, its niche nibbled away by changes in the Ivy League and other institutions, its student body reduced in quantity and quality, some of its faculty lapsing toward mediocrity and its finances in peril, the trustees, the administration and the faculty came up with a restructuring plan called the Symposium after a two-year agonizing reappraisal.

A third of the faculty — 26 of 79 professors — was fired in a single stroke in 1994.

Bard solved its financial crisis in a less extreme fashion. When Leon Botstein assumed the presidency of the college in 1975 at the age of 28, the youngest such office-holder in the United States, he elected to curb the “excesses” of the old Bard and to restyle the school as a competitive liberal arts college in the mode of Swarthmore, Haverford or Reed. He has been eminently successful. One out of 10 applications are approved today, while back in 1961, when I was a freshman, the ratio was something like 1 out of 3.

Despite Bard’s mediocre reputation, it was an important institution. From 1933-44, it added distinguished European emigres, in flight from fascist Europe, to the faculty. Among them were painter Stefan Hirsch, political editor Felix Hirsch, violinist Emil Hauser of the Budapest String Quartet, philosopher Heinrich Bluecher, economist Adolf Sturmthal, and philosopher Werner Wolff.

Botstein is a well-respected public figure, whose musings appear regularly on the NY Times op-ed page, including a piece on standardized testing today (5/28), to which he is opposed. He is also a mediocre symphony orchestra conductor, who compensates for lackluster performances with his dedication to neglected composers, including Schoenberg about whom Botstein has recently edited a collection of essays.

But Botstein’s real gift is for fund-raising, about whose propriety I have had occasion to take exception to. Botstein has a tremendous affinity for hooking up with very wealthy but very compromised figures, a failing that remains lost on most Bard graduates except the occasionally disgruntled Marxist like myself.

In 1987 I received a mailing from the alumnus office crowing about Botstein’s new appointees to the Board of Trustees. One was Asher Edelman, a leveraged buyout artist and Bard Graduate, whose sleazy behavior served as the inspiration for the Gordon Gecko character in “Wall Street”. Edelman’s takeovers often resulted in the permanent unemployment of “excess” workers. The other appointee was Martin Peretz, the editor of New Republic who used the formerly liberal magazine to stump for contra funding. Since I was heavily involved with sending volunteers to Nicaragua, I blew my stack and wrote Botstein a heavily sarcastic letter congratulating him for sniffing out rich scumbags who would help him balance the school’s books.

Apparently Botstein doesn’t enjoy being criticized in this fashion. He sent me a long angry reply defending his actions. In a way it is easy to understand Botstein’s self-righteousness. In his own eyes, he must appear practically a Bolshevik. After all, didn’t he set up an Alger Hiss chair at Bard (of course, taking the big money connected to the position) and give well-known Marxist and Green activist Joel Kovel the job? In a characteristically Botsteinian gesture, he also set up a Henry R. Luce chair for faculty at Bard at the same time. Critics, according to a NY Times Magazine profile (Oct. 4, 1992) “see the incongruity as opportunism; he sees the essence of free inquiry.” His growled at the interviewer, “People have so little tolerance for dissent. What happened to free thought? Individual ideas? What happened to Thoreau? What happened to this tradition in America?” You’re either for ’em or agin ’em. What are we discussing, subtle issues with a meat cleaver?”

Continuing in this vein, Botstein co-opted multimillionaire investor and liberal Leon Levy to set up an Economics Institute at the College, where PEN-L’er Matt Forstater used to work. Levy writes occasionally for the centrist periodical “New York Review of Books,” where his preoccupations about income inequality and “irrational exuberance” on Wall Street serve the same kind of faux progressivist agenda that Felix Rohatyn’s articles used to in the 1980s.

About 5 years ago a trade union organizer wrote to PEN-L asking if there were any Bard College graduates on the list. It seemed that the Levy offspring were owners of an upscale steakhouse in Manhattan whose waiters were attempting to win bargaining recognition. The organizer needed an alumni directory so that letters informing them about the situation could be sent out. It gave me sheer pleasure to send said directory to the union as well as to learn that the administration went ballistic over the “misappropriation” of school property.

In the 1990s Botstein’s recruitment efforts turned up another Golden Goose in the person of Susan Soros, Mrs. George. The Soroses are not to be trifled with, as seen by this London Times May 8, 1991 piece:

A CHAUFFEUR-BUTLER and his cook-housekeeper wife yesterday won their claim for compensation for wrongful dismissal against a multi-millionaire philanthropist whose wife dismissed them without warning.

Susan Soros, the American wife of George Soros, a Hungarian expatriate who is chairman of the Quantum Fund of New York, had told an industrial tribunal in London that Patrick Davison and his wife Nicki had turned her London home into an ‘uninhabitable battlefield’ when she brought a cordon bleu chef from New York.

She said that arguments between her South American chef and the Davisons had kept her awake at night, and that the Davisons had refused to give the chef money to buy ingredients or to show her the food shops.

Yesterday the tribunal unanimously decided that they preferred the Davisons’ evidence to that of Mrs Soros, who they concluded had no legitimate grounds for dismissing the couple.

1991 was a bad year for Susan Soros. Not only did her kitchen staff get uppity, she was turned down for the job of director of graduate education at the Cooper-Hewitt/Parsons School of Design. So with $20 million of her husband’s money, she started her own school at 18 West 86th Street. Naturally, she couldn’t get away with calling it the Susan Soros Museum, but Botstein suggested that calling it the Bard College Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts might work. One can only assume that such a generous gesture has benefited Bard College in ways that transcend art.

At yesterday’s commencement, Susan Soros was on hand to present an honorary degree to Ludmila A. Verbitskaya, the first female rector of the State University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Ms. Verbitskaya profusely thanked Botstein for all the help Bard College had made available in the transformation of her institution into one befitting Russia’s new ‘open society’. The Open Society Foundation, as should be well-known at this point, was established by George Soros to foster support for free market fundamentalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Its victory has ensured that a generation of Russian youth will never enjoy a college education and will likely end up marginalized as alcoholics, drug addicts or prostitutes.

In his commencement address, Botstein urged the class of 2000 to eschew the kind of greed and cynicism that pervaded American society in recent years. I sat there marveling at his breathtaking inability to understand himself and his social role. Do such movers and shakers really take themselves seriously? Perhaps Bard would have been better off with a dreamer and visionary like Charles Olsen in charge. It might have died in the 1970s, but it would have been honored for a glorious lifetime of service to education and humanity.


  1. As a holdover from the “old” Bard, having joined the faculty from Princeton in 1973, I experienced the transition described in this piece. With some discomfort, though I was an early supporter of Leon’s hiring as a member of the Presidential Search Committee. But I must attest to the indisputable fact that for 23+ years, until I retired from full-time teaching, Leon Botstein allowed me to pursue my nonstandard educational work, first as Chair of the Music Department, and later as the inventor of Music Program Zero, without any type of administrative interference, whatever his own personal views may have been. For my part, I have always regarded him as a musically serious person, whose ideas as writer and conductor I have always found worthy of interested attention. Such matters are too complex for one-dimensional judgments to apply.

    Comment by Benjamin Boretz — May 17, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

  2. >Such matters are too complex for one-dimensional judgments to apply.

    He’s a complicated man/no one understands him but his womaaaan

    Comment by Antonis — May 17, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

  3. It’s a stretch to call the Music Zero Program an ‘invention’.

    Comment by purple — May 17, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  4. Soros has been quite clear that his goal is to wipe out Marxism from the academic world. That’s one of the points of all his think tanks. He’s fine with liberalism etc. This is no conspiracy, there are interviews where he lays it all out.

    Comment by purple — May 17, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  5. Not in a league with the 2- or 3-part ones, of course, but who thunk of it before?

    Comment by Benjamin Boretz — May 17, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

  6. Boretz’s experimental music efforts, to the extent I know of them, are worthy of praise. I enjoyed playing a CD of one of his works on a KDVS 90.3 FM (Davis, CA) modern composition program back in the mid-1990s. Surprised to run into him here.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 18, 2011 @ 2:00 am

  7. Yeah, I figure lots of Bard students and faculty that don’t care for Botstein check out this blog on a fairly regular basis. When I was up for my 35th anniversary reunion last year, Botstein accosted me because of what I write here. He was particularly pissed off that his kids read it!

    Comment by louisproyect — May 18, 2011 @ 2:07 am

  8. >>>>>Soros has been quite clear that his goal is to wipe out Marxism from the academic world. That’s one of the points of all his think tanks. He’s fine with liberalism etc. This is no conspiracy, there are interviews where he lays it all out.

    Maybe, but when I taught in a Soros-funded post, I had no hesitation in using the work of Marxist scholars like Christopher Hill.

    Comment by Earl Williams — May 18, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  9. If there’s anything about Soros, it is that he is not crude. He and Botstein are partisans of Karl Popper’s “open society”, an ideology that involves lip-service to the idea of academic freedom. In fact, a good friend and fellow Marxist teaches at a Soros-funded institution in South Africa. The real problem, however, is his ability to shape an academic institution through his wealth. I don’t believe that the American academy has any business “colonizing” in South Africa, even if the end result is a benign mixture of 9 parts Karl Popper and 1 parts Karl Marx. It is up to the institution to make such decisions.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — May 18, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  10. That’s a fair point, I suppose. Without giving too much away, however, I can say that local institutional culture in the post-Soviet world appears to set limits to GS’ ability to dictate terms, no matter how many billions he may disburse.

    Comment by Earl Williams — May 19, 2011 @ 7:05 am

  11. There’s a video of a public domain protest folk song, “George Philanthropist,” (about the co-optative role that foundation grant money plays in global politics)which might interest readers, that was recently posted at the following protestfolk channel link:

    Comment by protestfolk — May 24, 2011 @ 3:28 am

  12. […] η αντιπροσωπεία του ΣΥΡΙΖΑ: το Ινστιτούτο Brookings, τοΚολλέγιο Bard, και το Institute for New Economic […]

    Pingback by Συν/Συριζα-Brookings Institute, περαιτέρω οδηγίες απο τα Think Tanks της υπερεθνικής και σιωνιστικής ελίτ | ΑΝΤΙ ΠΛΗΡΟΦΟΡΗΣΗ εξω απο τα ελεγχόμενα "ενα — January 22, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

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