A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

The Little College That Could: Bard Partners With Open Society Foundations to Help Save the World

The Bard College campus is knit together from repurposed estates, and feels as though it exists in a world of its own, tucked away in a narrow section of Route 9G between Red Hook and Tivoli. The institution, though, is engaged with the wider world in ways many colleges never dream of. On July 1, Bard announced a $100 million grant from the Open Society Foundation, “to support and extend its commitment to innovative higher education programs in the United States and around the world.” 

That commitment is expressed in the programming of the Bard Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), a multifaceted endeavor that puts teeth in the college’s core philosophy that “higher education institutions can and should operate in the public interest.” What that has come to mean, in 2020, is that aspects of Bard’s wildly creative, yet meticulously rigorous style and curriculum are available to otherwise underserved learners—from five of New York’s prisons, to eleven early colleges for high schoolers. The Clemente Courses provide “transformative educational experiences” for adults facing economic hardship and adversity in ten states, and outposts in Europe, Asia, and Russia. No matter who or where you may be, if you’ve got the motivation and mind, Bard would like to meet and educate you. 

Oh, and if you’re local, they can help you educate your kids during the pandemic.

Much of the brilliance of CCE programs begin with student initiatives. Undergraduates participate in a Trustee, Leader, Scholar program in which they “propose, design, and implement civic engagement projects based on their own passionate interests.” When it comes to the execution of these projects, students know that professors and administrators have their backs; the school’s institutionally just as committed as students are expected to be. CCE student projects that began, but didn’t end there include, the Bard Prison Initiative, the Bard Early College in New Orleans, Brothers at Bard, which provides academic enrichment and mentoring for young men of color from underserved backgrounds in the City of Kingston; La Voz, the only Spanish language magazine in the Hudson Valley, and the Bard Farm, producing more than 20,000 pounds of vegetables a year for the food service and to sell to the community.

The $100 million from Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, will be disbursed over a decade. The grant will help the college to strengthen and expand CCE programming as a founding partner, along with Central European University of the Open Society University Network, with a total endowment of $1 billion and tasked with increasing global access to higher education for underserved populations, including but not limited to “incarcerated people, the Roma, refugees, and other displaced groups.” 

Jonathan Becker, Director of the CCE, believes wholeheartedly that the college’s devotion to engagement beyond barriers has hugely beneficial impacts on the education students receive right here in bucolic Annandale-on-Hudson. “A student in Annandale knows that he or she has classmates—members of the same academic community, engaging with a similar curriculum and facing similar intellectual challenges—who are incarcerated, who are in high school in Cleveland, or who are in Bishkek,” Becker wrote in a 2019 piece for the Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education. 

“They meet them in person through exchanges, through virtual classes, or when, in the case of BPI [Bard Prison Initiative], released students walk across the same stage at commencement. As a number of alums have noted, this knowledge and shared experience animates their understanding of their own education and the connection between education and social change. They have come to see the fact that close to 40% of all students enrolled in US-based degree programs at Bard are Pell-eligible as a cause for celebration and not of jealousy.”

Bard’s Prison Initiative, launched in 2001 as a response to the throttling of college education in prisons nationwide, is the largest of its kind in the US, enrolls 300 students annually and has founded a partner network spanning 15 states. BPI students very seldom end up back in prison, with a recidivism rate of just 2.5% (among those who get no such opportunity, the rate’s twenty times that high) and twenty of them had, as of last year, gone on to earn graduate degrees. The BPI is featured in a four-part Ken Burns documentary, College Behind Bars, that is currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix.

Becker calls it the “ecosystem of engagement,” and it stretches into urban centers like Newark, Cleveland, and Baltimore—into Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Palestine in an effort to,“establish liberal arts and sciences as an accredited form of education in places where it has shallow roots,” Becker writes. Meanwhile, CCE has established a robust COVID-19 response, helping families with remote learning, getting meals to seniors and streaming music online. There’s a Model UN, a debate society, and a lively exchange program with West Point.

Initial projects stemming from the Open Society University Network include Tomorrow Is Now: The Eleanor Roosevelt Conferences, a series of Zoom sessions examining what the legacy of the world’s first lady—a Bard neighbor, after all—might have to teach us in this curious moment. This month’s session will be Monday, August 10, 9-10am, or you can watch the entire series online.

To learn more about Bard’s Center for Civic Engagement, visit cce.bard.edu.