Noah Sheldon
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing ArtsNoah Sheldon
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Bard College Sells Out

Campus Week: Does George Soros’ new educational initiative rent out universities as vehicles for politics?

Gennady Shkliarevsky
September 17, 2020
Noah Sheldon
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing ArtsNoah Sheldon

In January, George Soros pledged $1 billion to endow a network of universities across the world in a vast and expansive new educational initiative. This is a matter of more than purely academic interest for me, as I am a professor emeritus of history at Bard College—one of the flagship institutions that Soros and his organization, the Open Society Foundations (OSF), have taken on as a partner in the venture. Soros describes his initiative as an effort to promote “personal autonomy” while fighting climate change and what he calls the “authoritarian resurgence.” But what will this actually mean for schools like mine?

Soros made his announcement in a speech delivered at a dinner hosted by the OSF in Davos—the meeting place of world leaders, dignitaries, and billionaires. The speech was somber but pointedly political, addressing the world’s major problems while criticizing China, India, and Russia, and devoting its most scathing passages to President Donald Trump. To counter the rise of the many forms of nationalist authoritarianism he sees spreading across the world, Soros proposed that as a “long-term strategy our best hope lies in access to quality education.” And as the centerpiece of that strategy, Soros announced his new Open Society University Network (OSUN). From its very inception, Soros made clear in his remarks, OSUN’s educational goals were conceived as explicitly serving a political strategy.

Bard College is not the name that comes to mind when one thinks of the most prominent American educational institutions. A small artsy school in upstate New York, Bard has become increasingly identified in recent years with its mercurial president, Leon Botstein. A self-described Renaissance man, Botstein wears many hats. He has been the president of Bard for several decades and subject of a recent, admiring, New Yorker profile; he has pursued a side career as an orchestra conductor; and finally, he also often plays the role of what we call these days a “public intellectual” who volunteers his opinion on practically any subject as long as it captures headlines.

Botstein plays a major role in the OSF and in the Central European University created by George Soros. Indeed, Bard College has partnered with the OSF in educational ventures before. However, the choice of a small liberal arts school with limited resources for such a major venture raises the question: What prompted this latest partnership?

Soros’ speech at Davos provides some insights into his motivations. He is aware that the wind is no longer at his back when it comes to achieving his political goals.

These goals emerge from the ideological vision of open society that Soros adopted long ago. Popularized by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, the idea of the “open society” was a response to Soviet communism back in the 1950s during the Cold War era. This ideology was largely abandoned almost 30 years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union and communism made it seem increasingly obsolete. Yet Soros has remained remarkably committed to this ideological vision. He has become its chief, and arguably only, powerful advocate.

The Open Society Foundations is a curious kind of liberal advocacy institution, in that it is organized around the personal ideology of a currency speculator with the rather ambitious goal of reshaping the political culture in multiple continents. The organization’s highly visible public profile reflects Soros’ knack for using his personal wealth to purchase political influence and connections. He has been a major donor to the Clintons and other Democratic politicians. He has given money to campaigns for district attorneys, judges, as well as local mayoral and gubernatorial races.

As his speech indicates, Soros is very frustrated by recent political setbacks and is in search of a new strategy. So what do Bard College and its President Leon Botstein have to offer in this new venture?

As a college president Botstein has achieved prominence as a result, among other things, of pushing the college to live way beyond its means. Under Botstein’s direction, Bard is running programs all over the world. The problem is that these programs cannot be sustained by the school’s $300 million endowment, which may seem like a lot, but is miniscule by the standards of major universities. In an interview with Botstein last year, The Wall Street Journal described the endowment as “tiny.” To stay afloat, the school requires constant infusions of cash. On average, Bard needs between $80 million and $85 million annually just to balance its budget.

Under Botstein, Bard also constructed several expensive buildings of questionable educational value that impose a substantial burden on the college. One of them is the state-of-the-art Fisher Center concert hall designed by Frank Gehry that cost over $60 million. Since there were already several other concert halls on the Bard campus prior to the new construction that appeared to be perfectly commensurate with the college’s needs and are much cheaper to maintain, it’s reasonable to ask what additional purpose was served by the new Gehry building.

According to the listings on the Fisher Center’s event calendar webpage , in the six-month period between October 2019 and March 2020, there were events—whether professional or student-led—taking place, on average, 10 days out of a given month. For the rest of the month, the calendar is empty. Despite the relative infrequency of its event programming, the Fisher Center building and its facilities have to be maintained year-round and require a permanent staff. One recurring event that has become a fixture at the center is the summer concert series that prominently features Botstein’s own performances.

Botstein has also acquired some very expensive properties in the neighborhood of the college. One of them is the Montgomery estate—a jewel of Victorian architecture and design purchased for $18 million in 2016. Again, the college has no express educational need for this impressive and expensive acquisition. According to a report in a local newspaper, Botstein said at the time of the purchase that the stately, million-dollar properties at the site would be used “for public programs and to free space on campus for up to 100 additional student housing beds.” The same article states that the previous Montgomery Place owners had “considered selling the property in 2010 because maintenance had become too expensive” before they were bailed out by benefactors. Today, it is Bard College paying to maintain the property and provide permanent staff year-round.

On paper, the creation of the OSUN that makes Bard part of the Soros OSF network could solve Bard’s considerable financial problems with one stroke of the pen. OSF’s $1.2 billion budget makes Bard’s $100 million needs look like small change. The risk, of course, is that the price will include the loss of Bard’s independence, despite assurances to the contrary made by Botstein. Certainly, a small college will not be an equal partner to an organization on the scale of the OSF. And if OSUN succeeds in using Bard as a vehicle to achieve the vision laid out in Soros’ speech and currently implemented by OSF, the school’s principal mission could become political rather than educational.

Soros’ statements explicitly connecting OSUN to his political vision strongly suggest that he sees his investment in schools like Bard not in purely academic or philanthropic terms, but as a means to advance his ideology of the open society. However, in a letter distributed to Bard’s faculty, Botstein has expressed a different view of the relationship, writing: “The ideals and goals of OSUN reflect key elements of Bard College’s unique educational programs and innovations developed over the past several decades. OSUN is a vote of confidence in Bard’s innovations.” Botstein’s confidence in OSUN, however, must be considered in light of another fact he disclosed in the letter: “I will serve as OSUN’s first Chancellor concurrently with my duties as President of Bard.”

As it turns out, any apparent conflicts of interest between Botstein’s responsibilities to Bard and his role in OSUN may soon become irrelevant. In a message delivered in meetings with Bard faculty and administrators last year, and repeated in public statements, Botstein announced that he planned to retire soon.

Gennady Shkliarevsky is professor emeritus of history at Bard College.