One role model for college presidents

REMEMBER the tall, gangly kid in the fourth grade who would raise his hand, look out from underneath his glasses, and matter-of-factly tell the math teacher the answer she had written on the board couldn't possibly be right?

The high school freshman with books in one hand and a violin case in the other, who, when he passed a gym, thought Phys Ed stood for physics?

The college sophomore who, after challenging the history professor on superficiality of presentation, was invited to take over the class, did, and was so interesting the other students stopped cutting?

These students would be exactly the kind of person to run a college someday. Leon Botstein was one of them. He now runs both Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Mass. Both schools are nationally recognized for their undergraduate writing programs, in which the entire freshman class spends three weeks at the end of summer before school starts undergoing the intellectual equivalent of Marine boot camp, only with pen and paper. Fourteen years ago Leon Botstein became one of the youngest college presidents in American history. At the age of 23 he took over and briefly revived the nearly bankrupt, nonaccredited Franconia College in New Hampshire.

A graduate of the University of Chicago and Harvard, Mr. Botstein champions the small liberal arts college and the unique educational contribution it can make to individuals in an increasingly complex world.

At a time when presidents of American colleges are so tied down and weakened by interest groups and regulations that few can provide strong leadership (according to a study conducted by former University of California president Clark Kerr), and when there is a lack of focus in undergraduate humanities programs (according to a study by the National Endowment for the Humanities), Botstein represents a breed apart.

''College presidents ought to be prepared to go in without a contract, without job security, and really operate from a position of strength,'' says this son of Polish refugees (both doctors) in an interview at his office here on the Bard campus.

''The proof of the pudding is: 'Can I deliver the goods for the institution?' It's strong leadership that draws high-quality people to a place, that really takes the hard decisions in questions of recruitment of faculty and staff, that has the vision with a group of people to try to put together a first-rate institution,'' he says.

By contrast, he continues, at most colleges ''adequate leadership (means) no failures, no leaks in the boat, no sinking - management which is kind of equilibrium. And in the long haul, what you're really doing is sinking on an even keel, either intellectually or as institutions.''

For Botstein, a college president must approach the faculty as an ''extremely complicated and difficult constituency. It's like driving a bus with hundreds of back-seat drivers. And their back-seat driving cannot be trivialized. It's not as if they're not clever, smart, intelligent people who know what they're talking about.''

Qualities he feels a president must possess to win over a faculty and truly lead are ''substantive intelligence, serious idealism, not just managerial skill , not political savvy, no drinks and dinner, no cocktail circuit.

'' This is not a constituency that can be easily massaged, in the ordinary sense. They're very rigorous in the standards of respect.''

Fund raising goes with a college president's ivy turf. For Botstein, the entire matter is one of very clear principles.

''Most people think fund raising is some kind of manipulative strategy of cajoling people - that it's high-level salesmanship. It really isn't. Fund raising is about giving pleasure to other people through the substance of that which you carry. People like to give to universities because they like to be in contact with what the university represents, which is scholarship, teaching, reflection on serious issues.''

With a smile, he adds, ''the fund raising is only difficult . . . when you don't get the money. The asking itself is not difficult.''

Botstein finds education facing an ''extreme crisis in the character of what the high school graduate can do and what . . . the undergraduate . . . emerges with after four years.''

He finds that we live in a time in which the historical sensibility is severely underdeveloped. ''If Jefferson had turned over in his grave with the Weathermen on the extreme left in the '60s, he would turn over in his grave with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority in the '80s as well,'' he says.

''That's where the university really is an anchor to the society against its extreme tendencies. It's the beacon on the hill for a democracy,'' and the curriculum, he adds, keeps the beacon light burning.

Botstein sees traditionalism in a student's education as a dynamic concept, not a static one. One of the things that he believes is misread in the history of American education is ''the idea that those things we consider to be tradition are canonizations of what was a dynamic force. We need to be the dynamic force in our own time within that tradition. Not apart from it, but within it.''

But the recent criticisms about a lack of focus in what undergraduates are taught in the humanities should not be viewed as a kind of collegiate extension of the ''back to basics'' movement, he says.

He views the objections to this ''essential curricula'' problem as twofold: How can you teach it? How can specialists teach areas that are beyond their specialties?

''The best general-education teachers are those with a real firm understanding through detailed study of a particular field - what it means to command knowledge of a certain kind in a specialized way. Then one has to be able to step out into the larger arena as part of a coherent program of study for undergraduates.'' For similar reasons, he favors the abolition of separate schools of education and departments of education to train elementary and secondary teachers.

If one cannot step outside of one's specialty and talk intelligently to undergraduates, ''then it seems to me that one makes a mockery of why one becomes specialized in the first place,'' he says.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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