by Gennady Shkliarevsky
The news that George Soros, a man who is well known both in financial and political circles, gives $1 billion to education has spread like wildfire in the mainstream media. The announcement explains that Mr. Soros and his organization—the Open Society Foundations (OSF)—partner with Bard College to create a worldwide network of educational institutions. This new venture, according to Mr. Soros, will pursue several objectives. On one hand, he sees this new venture as a way to advance the cause of open society and to fight against authoritarian nationalism and climate change. On the other hand, he also says that the creation of this network will promote quality education and “personal autonomy.”
Mr. Soros made his announcement in a speech that he delivered at a dinner hosted by the OSF in Davos. The speech was clearly political. Mr. Soros talked about the major political problems in the world today and criticized China, India, and Russia. The speech also included scathing passages devoted to President Trump. The tone of the speech was somber. Mr. Soros recognized that the cause he was advocating had suffered several major setbacks. He expressed doubts that the impeachment was going to work and admitted that President Trump might be re-elected. However, Mr. Soros told his audience that giving in to despair would be a mistake. He called for a long-term strategy and action.
The appearance of the subject of education in this mostly political speech is somewhat puzzling, but it indicates that the new educational venture is primarily to serve Mr. Soros’s political agenda; educational goals are more than likely to be secondary to the political agenda.
The choice of the partner for Mr. Soros’s new venture is even more puzzling. 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 is mostly known for its mercurial president Leon Botstein. A self-described Renaissance man, Botstein wears many hats. He has been the president of Bard for several decades. He has pursued a side career as an orchestra conductor. Finally, Botstein also often plays the role of what we call these days “public intellectual” who volunteers his opinion on practically any subject as long is it captures headlines.
Indeed, Bard College has partnered with the OSF in educational ventures before, and Botstein plays a major role in the OSF and the Central European University created by George Soros. Bard College plays a very important role in Al Quds University in Jerusalem—a scene of several anti-Semitic rallies during which the participants displayed the Nazi salute. However, the choice of a small liberal arts school with limited resources for a major venture is puzzling. The question naturally arises: What could have prompted this unlikely partnership? Answering this question may help understand the real motives and the future of the OSUN.
Mr. Soros’s speech provides some insights into his motivations. As the speech indicates, Mr. Soros is aware that the wind is no longer at his back and that the road ahead will be uphill. His educational initiative is his answer to the challenges he sees in the future. In other words, his primary motivation is a long-term strategy to achieve his political goals.
These political goals emerge from the ideological vision of open society that Mr. Soros adopted long time ago. Popularized by Carl Popper, an Austrian philosopher, the ideology of open society was a response to Soviet communism back in the 1950s during the Cold War era. This ideology was largely abandoned during the detente. The fall of the Soviet Union and communism made it totally irrelevant. Yet Mr. Soros has remained remarkably committed to this ideological vision. He has become its chief and only advocate. He turned open society into his personal ideology and created an organization to promote it.
This organization—the OSF—is little more than a quasi-religious sect led by a currency speculator with political ambitions. It probably would be unnoticeable if not for Mr. Soros’s uncanny knack for buying political influence and making political 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 mayoral and governor races. He characterizes his activities as “political philanthropy”—a euphemism for what we usually call buying political influence.
As his speech indicates, Mr. Soros is very frustrated by recent political setbacks and is in search of a new strategy. The new educational initiative is his response to this challenge. Politics is the primary motivation for it, and its goals are political first and educational second.
Leon Botstein is Mr. Soros’s partner in this new venture. Botstein’s motivation for participating in this deal is of a different nature. He has been Bard’s president for several decades. His singular distinction as a college president has been to achieve prominence by pushing the college to live way beyond its means. Bard that has a minuscule endowment ($300 mil.) runs programs all over the world that cannot be sustained from the endowment and require constant infusions of cash. On average, Bard needs annually between $80-85 million just to balance its budget.
Under Botstein, Bard constructed several expensive buildings that have little educational value and represent a substantial burden on the college. One of them is the state-of-the-art concert hall designed by Frank Gehry that cost over $60 million but is basically used for occasional concerts and during a couple of weekends in the summer for the music festival that prominently features Botstein. Most events held at the Gehry building are for local entertainment and do not attract wide audiences; so much so that Bard has to offer tickets at heavily discounted prices and free tickets for students just to fill the concert hall. Yet the building and its facilities have to be maintained year-round and require permanent staff. There are several other concert halls on the Bard campus that are perfectly commensurate with college’s needs and are much cheaper to maintain.
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. Again, the college has no expressive educational need for this impressive and expensive acquisition. It uses the Estate grounds for occasional lectures and film screenings but has to maintain the property and provide permanent staff year-round.
Botstein’s policies have placed a very heavy burden on the already strained finances of the college. The independent consultants invited by the Bard Board of Trustees have concluded that Bard needs $500 million into its endowment to sustain its current operations. The college currently needs $80-90 million annually, just to balance the yearly budget.
Bard has never had much success with its endowment. In the current economic conditions, the prospects are even dimmer. The creation of the OSUN that makes Bard part of the OSF network solves this problem with one stroke of the pen. There will be no problem for the OSF that controls close to $30 billion to provide additional cash infusions to balance the annual budget. The price, of course, will be Bard’s loss of independence, despite assurances to the contrary made by Botstein. Certainly, a small college will not be an equal partner to the organization that controls vastly more money. Moreover, this organization is primarily political in its orientation and will be motivated by its decisions by politics first and only secondarily by education.
What is the future of this venture? The motivations in creating the OSUN are primarily political. Hence the education it will provide will reflect this fact. The OSUN will use education for ideological and political purposes—to advance and promote the vision and ideology of open society. Combining education with ideological and political goals can only amount to indoctrination, which is what Mr. Soros expects from his investment. Botstein has already taken the position of OSUN’s chancellor for a couple of years and after which he plans to retire (as he confided in his interview to the Wall Street Journal), leaving the rest of the college to pick up the pieces.
The creation of the OSUN is designed to benefit Soros and Botstein, who are the principal orchestrators of this scheme. The real losers, in this case, will be the people at the bottom of the food chain. The college and its faculty, who have not been consulted nor involved in any way in the discussions of this deal, will lose what little autonomy and control they may still have. The parents and students who will be lured into this new network will also be among the losers. The “education” that OSUN promises will serve primarily to indoctrinate students in the ideology of open society and to make them into warriors for Soros’s cause.
Gennady Shkliarevsky is Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College, specializing in Russian and Soviet History.
Opinion pieces express the views of the authors and not necessarily the Sentinel.