Leon Botstein: 'If I had known what I was doing, ... I would have said no'

Having experience isn’t always a good thing, because it can limit the imagination, says the president of Bard College and director of the American Symphony Orchestra.

In his book “Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture,” Leon Botstein calls for ending public schooling at age 15 or 16 and introducing college education.

Why? Because 16-year-olds are capable of doing university work then, he said.

He should know. Though he said his own experiences have not shaped his position, Botstein was 16 when he graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Chicago. At 23, he became president of the now-defunct Franconia College and in 1975 became president of Bard College.

Botstein is still president of Bard College, located in New York’s Hudson Valley. During his 36-year tenure, Bard has added eight graduate programs, has implemented undergraduate initiatives that have become national models, and has worked with the New York City Department of Education to establish early college high schools.

Botstein, who earned a Ph.D. in music history from Harvard University, is also the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, a position he has held since 1992.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about investing in youth and the leadership lessons he has learned during the past 40 years as a conductor and college president.

Q: You were 23 when you became president of Franconia College. Five years later, you became president of Bard College. How did you know you were ready to be the leader of these institutions at such young ages?

I didn’t know I was ready. I didn’t know what questions to ask. The advantage and disadvantage of being young is that you are completely clueless. I had no idea what I was doing. If I had known what I should be doing, I would never have done it.

It’s somewhat like a marriage. Brides and grooms look happy when they get married. But the reality is far different, and surviving a marriage is nothing like getting married. People think getting married is just fun and games and presents. It looks promising. But then, when nobody’s looking, it gets really hard. It’s not a bad thing, but that’s the reality. And nobody who is at all honest would say differently.

You know, people say, “Honey, let’s have a child.” They never say, “Let’s have an adolescent,” which means they don’t think long-term. They think, “Little baby! Cute little baby! Show grandma and grandpa!” That’s it. But then, you can’t give the baby away when it hits puberty and is no longer cute.

That’s why Americans don’t like adolescents, because everybody says, “Honey, let’s have a baby.” They don’t say, “Let’s have a grown-up! Let’s have a child who’s still at home at 27.” Or, “Let’s have a child whom I’ll have to worry about when she’s 33 and I have to console her after her second marriage breaks up.” People don’t think this way.

So if I had known what I was doing when I took those college presidencies at those ages, I would have said no. But not knowing what you’re doing can be very good, because you won’t be the purveyor of conventional wisdom about what can be done and what can’t be done. If I had a nickel for every time people told me that something I thought of doing was impossible, I’d be a very wealthy person.

Having experience and knowing what you’re in for is not always a good thing.

Q: And why should more mature leaders listen and invest -- and even overinvest -- in the young?

We do overinvest in the young. First of all, there is no doubt that we have an obsession with youth that’s cultural, but it’s also both ambivalent and hostile. It masquerades as envy; all middle-aged Americans actually envy the youth.

For example, our definition of sexual attractiveness is located too young in image. The mature woman and man is not the model. It is the pubescent, barely developed 17-year-old. This is a cruelty which we inflict on ourselves by creating a subtext of envy of the youth. So when you read what pundits and the media say about youth, it’s filled with envy, not support. We envy their hormonal agitation, their excitement, their energy and all that, because most adults lose it.

Most adults are disappointed people. Being an adult is not, for most people, a pleasurable thing, because it hasn’t quite worked out exactly as they wished. They’re not satisfied with their lives. They then focus on criticism of the youth or obsession with the youth as an intermediate means of trying to come to terms with their own life. The way we treat youth is filled with ambivalence and manipulation and dishonesty. And the victims of that mostly are American adolescents, who are between being an adult and being young.

We love children, because they look innocent and have the innocence to go directly to heaven. But the rest of society, once they’re mature, they become complex objects. We spend too little, really, demanding real educational achievement from our young, particularly our adolescents. We fail them educationally.

What we do with youth, actually, is we spend a lot of time investing in them, but the country doesn’t spend the time well. We don’t spend the resources well.

Q: You lay out in your book “Jefferson’s Children” how the country should invest in children educationally. You call for ending compulsory schooling at age 15 or 16 and introducing a university-type education at an earlier age. Bard also runs several early college programs in partnership with the New York City public schools. Why are you, as a college president, so interested in secondary public school education?

We know statistically that the onset of menstruation and the development of puberty has dropped. And it has to do with nutrition, vaccinations and general health. This means the distance from the onset of puberty of today’s 16-year-old is what it was 50 years ago for an 18-year-old. In other words, a 16-year-old is perfectly able to learn at a college level, and in fact is a more enthusiastic learner. One of the troubles with the current 18-year-olds is that they have too early a presumption of a certain kind of adulthood -- that they have to go earn a living.

We’re getting them a little too late, especially in science and mathematics. People say America’s not competing. It’s because the serious teaching of science and mathematics comes to them too late.


Q: You’ve previously said that one of the biggest challenges you have had in higher education is being able to innovate. What advice would you offer for other leaders, especially young leaders, who face resistance to innovation?

First of all, being innovative is not a matter of age. There are as many young rigid conservatives as there are young innovators; and among the older or middle-aged, there are as many innovators as well.

From my experience, it was helpful for me when older people who were innovators themselves were willing to help younger people try to be on the same path. So make alliances with people who can give you a hand in doing what you want to do.

My greatest role now is to encourage young innovators in my own institution to come up with ideas. We have a prison program; my young students started that. We have a great program in New Orleans; a young student started that. We have a very fantastic publication for Hispanic workers that a student in our region started and we then institutionalized. These are ideas that young people felt comfortable in coming up with. The same goes with the young faculty members with ideas.

You have to create an institutional structure, but young leaders need to find outside of their institution people who are sympathetic to the way they think and who don’t confuse age with authority and who don’t think that just because they’re older and have been around that they know what the story is.

I was taught by an older person how to listen. When somebody has a new idea, instead of jumping ahead and thinking, “Oh, I’ve heard this before” or “I know what this is about,” just hear people out. Listen very carefully to what they have to say.

I don’t mind if someone takes me for a ride. I don’t mind having been sold the Brooklyn Bridge five times. You have to be essentially optimistic. You also have to sympathetically and empathetically imagine that the person might be right, as opposed to thinking you have to show that you’re the smart one and that you know what’s wrong with it before it’s even built.

Q: What are the similarities and differences between leading an orchestra and leading a college?

There are some very clear differences. Conducting is essentially without words. Conducting is a physical pantomime, using your hands and your body in order to shape, direct and elicit sound and respond to sound. Leadership in a university setting requires the command of language.

Now, it’s not a neat division, because your gesture, your body and your physical emotions affect your response. Preachers or pastors, for example, move. They not only have a voice, which has a timbre, but they have a manner. The way they use hands, body, face -- all that influences the way you receive what it is they might be saying. By the same token, conductors primarily use their physical gesture, [but] they also speak, and their capacity to speak can influence. But you can conduct an orchestra that doesn’t speak the same language as you. You can’t run a university if you don’t have a common language with the constituency, students, faculty and so on. That’s a big difference.

However, there are many similarities. One is that authority and respect is not gotten by fear but by persuasion. You can’t govern by fear and by simply a condition of authority and power.

The conductor probably has the capacity to determine how something will go, but in order to make it really effective, he has to have the cooperation of those people doing it with him. In previous generations, one viewed conducting much more as authoritarian, sort of a tough conductor with tantrums. That doesn’t really exist anymore.

A university is much the same way. Your success is dependent on your capacity to persuade. Sometimes it’s cajoling, but it’s ultimately persuasion.

Q: What have you learned about how to persuade effectively?

The first thing is that you have to have something to contribute to the quality of their lives. In an orchestra, you have to appeal to their ambitions to be well-regarded, to play well, to have good musical experiences, to make their rehearsals not boring, to make the organization successful, to get a good response from good audiences. They have to see it as a key to their success.

The same is true of the university. People who are doing research have to feel that you’ve enabled their capacity to research. You have to be in a position where students feel they’ve gotten ahead and learned something. The faculty have to feel that you’ve been supportive of what it is they want to do: you’ve been able to bring resources to bear that they couldn’t; you’re able to provide them with better salaries and working conditions; you’re able to give them better students to work with, better colleagues, better facilities. So you’re held accountable to delivering concrete results.

You can’t just have good ideas. Anybody can have a good idea. You have to be responsible for both sides of the proverbial ledger: ideas and the practicality, the income and the expense. You have to be able to make ideas practical, which means you have to get the funding. You have to make it realistic.

That requires also the capacity to persuade people to compromise and to have patience. You have to modulate people’s expectations by persuading them to wait reasonably and reminding them that they’re not going to get everything they want. It’s not because you don’t want to give it to them but [because] it’s not realistic.

A conductor should be less tolerant of compromise, because in conducting, you are there to make music and you can’t be satisfied with anything but the very best. That’s where the comparison between conducting and leading a college doesn’t work.

In the university, it is about tolerating the gray. Life is not about black and white. There is no perfect game. There is no no-hitter. It’s messy. You always get bruised. There’s no perfect outcome. You can’t succeed with every student. You can’t make every faculty member happy. That’s why running an institution is not a performance. It’s something you live with day in and day out.