Bard College History

The Bard College of today reflects in many ways its varied past.
Bard was founded as St. Stephen’s College in 1860, a time of national crisis. While there are no written records of the founders’ attitude toward the Civil War, a passage from the College’s catalogue of 1943 applies also to the time of the institution’s establishment:

“While the immediate demands in education are for the training of men for the war effort, liberal education in America must be preserved as an important value in the civilization for which the War is being fought. . . . Since education, like life itself, is a continuous process of growth and effort, the student has to be trained to comprehend and foster his own growth and direct his own efforts.”

This philosophy molded the College during its early years and continues to inform its academic aims.
Presidents of Bard College*

Presidents of Bard College*

  • George Franklin Seymour 1860–1861
  • Thomas Richey 1861–1863
  • Robert Brinckerhoff Fairbairn 1863–1898
  • Lawrence T. Cole 1899–1903
  • Thomas R. Harris 1904–1907
  • William Cunningham Rodgers 1909–1919
  • Bernard Iddings Bell 1919–1933
  • Donald George Tewksbury 1933–1937
  • Harold Mestre 1938–1939
  • Charles Harold Gray 1940–1946
  • Edward C. Fuller 1946–1950
  • James Herbert Case Jr. 1950–1960
  • Reamer Kline 1960–1974
  • Leon Botstein 1975–
*Holders of the office have been variously titled president, warden, or dean. 
Bard College President Leon Botstein, photo by Steve Pyke.
John Bard, ca. 1890.

Early Years

St. Stephen’s College was established by John Bard in association with leaders of the Episcopal Church in New York City. For its first 60 years, St. Stephen’s offered young men a classical curriculum in preparation for their entrance into the seminary. But even as a theologically oriented institution, St. Stephen’s challenged its students to be active participants in the direction of their intellectual paths over the four years of study. In support of this venture, John Bard donated part of his riverside estate, Annandale, to the College, along with the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, which is still in use.

With the appointment in 1919 of Dr. Bernard Iddings Bell as warden, the College began a period of transition to a broader and more secular mission. Social and natural sciences augmented the classical curriculum, and the student body was recruited from a more diverse population. In 1928, a time of increasing financial uncertainty, St. Stephen’s became an undergraduate school of Columbia University—and a nonsectarian institution. Over the next decade, under the leadership of Dean Donald G. Tewksbury, Bard further integrated the classical and progressive educational traditions, in the process becoming the first college in the nation to give full academic status to the study of the creative and performing arts. In 1934, the name of the College was changed to Bard in honor of its founder.
Dorothy Lasker '48 and Margery (Jerry) Rosenblum '48 practice archery on campus, late 1940s.


Beginning in the mid-1930s and throughout the war years, the College was a haven for distinguished writers, artists, intellectuals, and scientists fleeing Europe. Among these émigrés were philosopher Heinrich Bluecher and his wife, the social critic Hannah Arendt; violinist Emil Hauser, founder of the Budapest String Quartet; precisionist painter Stefan Hirsch; labor economist Adolf Sturmthal; and Werner Wolff, a noted psychologist. Bard’s international outlook was reflected in a variety of programs and initiatives, as well as in its faculty. During the war, the College welcomed an elite group of soldiers who were to be trained in the French and German languages and cultures; and in the late 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt was a frequent participant in Bard’s international student conferences.

Bard underwent another “redefining” moment in 1944, when it opened its doors to women. The decision to become coeducational required Bard to end its association with Columbia, thus paving the way to its current status as an independent, nonsectarian liberal arts college. The same year marked the arrival of the first female faculty members.

The faculty of the postwar years included Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Anthony Hecht ’44, William Humphrey, and Theodore Weiss. This partial list indicates that Bard had assumed a place of eminence in the teaching of literature and writing and was attracting leading thinkers in the social sciences. The College also continued to demonstrate its commitment to global issues of education and democracy. In 1956, Bard provided a haven for 325 Hungarian student refugees after their participation in that country’s revolt against its Stalinist government. Gyula Nyikos, the chief English instructor for these students, said of Bard’s president at the time, “Jim Case didn’t open the doors; he flung them open.”

The 1960s marked a period of significant growth for Bard. Under the stewardship of Reamer Kline, who served 14 years as president of the College, the number of students and faculty increased, as did campus facilities, and the curriculum was expanded, particularly in science and the visual arts. Bard also demonstrated an early commitment to civil rights. In 1962, Bard was among the first colleges to award an honorary degree to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Denise Ahearn Carson ‘65 recalled those days on the occasion of the Class of 1965’s 50th anniversary, saying, “It was incredibly intellectually stimulating, because of a high-quality faculty, and an exciting time of change in the world. The Bard culture seemed to be recognizing those changes well before the general population realized that we could all be part of movements and causes.”
President Leon Botstein, ca. late 1970s.

Changing Times

In his preface to Reamer Kline’s 1982 history of the College, Leon Botstein, who became Bard’s 14th president in 1975, noted a common belief tying together Bard’s various incarnations as a training ground for Episcopal clergy, a progressive campus, and an outpost of European and American intellectualism. He wrote, “All are expressions of the one continuing conviction that by education, by leadership, and by means of institutions formed for the purpose, it is possible mightily to improve the quality of life—and to build a better society.”

Under Botstein, Bard has continued to innovate, take risks, and broaden its global outlook in pursuit of these goals. He has overseen curricular innovation—including the nation’s first human rights major; the Language and Thinking Program, an intensive three-week presemester workshop for first-year students; and Citizen Science, an intensive program that introduces all first-year students to natural science and the ideas of the scientific method—and the development of a new model for the liberal arts college as a central body surrounded by affiliated institutes and programs that strengthen core academic offerings. This model is flexible enough to include programs for research, graduate study, and community outreach, yet each affiliate is designed to enhance the undergraduate experience by offering students the opportunity to interact with leading artists, scientists, and scholars.

A number of these initiatives developed within the Bard Center, which was established in 1978 to present artistic and intellectual programs. Bard Center fellows and visiting scholars and artists give seminars and lectures to undergraduates and the public. Programs include the Distinguished Scientist Lecture Series, which has brought 45 Nobel laureates to Bard, and the Bard Fiction Prize, awarded to emerging writers who spend a semester in residence at the College. Also under the Bard Center auspices is the Institute for Writing and Thinking, which has had a major impact on the teaching of writing in high schools and colleges around the country and internationally. The Bard Music Festival, which each year illuminates the work and era of a specific composer, presented its first season in the summer of 1990. The festival’s home since 2003 has been The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, a venue designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

Other affiliated programs on campus and across the United States include Bard College at Simon’s Rock: The Early College (1979) in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts (1981); Levy Economics Institute of Bard College (1986); Center for Curatorial Studies (1990); Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture (1993) in Manhattan; Bard Center for Environmental Policy (1999) and Bard MBA in Sustainability (2012); Bard Prison Initiative (1999); Bard High School Early Colleges in Manhattan (2001), Queens (2008), Newark (2011), Cleveland (2014), and Baltimore (2015); Master of Arts in Teaching Program (2004); Bard College Conservatory of Music (2005); Hessel Museum of Art (2006); Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities (2006); Center for Civic Engagement (2011); Longy School of Music of Bard College (2012) in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the Levy Economics Institute Master of Science in Economic Theory and Policy (2014).
Students at Al-Quds Bard, photo by Susan Gillespie.

International Reach

Bard has also expanded its presence abroad under Botstein’s leadership, and furthered its efforts to promote freedom of inquiry internationally. In 1990, the College developed the Program in International Education (PIE), which brings students from emerging democracies in Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia to Bard for one year or one semester of study. This program is one of many overseen by the Institute for International Liberal Education, which was founded in 1998 to develop long-term collaborations between Bard and other leading institutions around the world. These partner campuses now include the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of St. Petersburg State University (Smolny College), the first liberal arts program in Russia, which was founded as a joint venture of Bard and St. Petersburg State University; Al-Quds University in the West Bank, which collaborated with Bard in 2009 to create the Al-Quds Bard College for Arts and Sciences and a Master of Arts in Teaching Program; American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where Bard established a dual-degree program in 2010; and Bard College Berlin: A Liberal Arts University, a partner institution since 2011.
Neil Gaiman, photo by Kimberly Butler.

Distinguished Faculty and Alumni/ae

During Botstein’s tenure, the range and distinction of Bard’s faculty have continued to grow. Noted writers and artists who spent time at the College include Chinua Achebe, widely revered as the founding father of African fiction; Nobel laureates Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Isaac Bashevis Singer; writers Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Cynthia Ozick, and Caleb Carr; poet Anne Carson; filmmakers Arthur Penn and Adolfas Mekas; and Tony Award–winning choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Today, Bard and its on-campus affiliates boast eight recipients of MacArthur fellowships: poets John Ashbery (emeritus) and Ann Lauterbach; artist Judy Pfaff; photographer An-My Lê; journalist Mark Danner; soprano Dawn Upshaw; pianist Jeremy Denk; and novelist Norman Manea. Other renowned and award-winning faculty members include writers Teju Cole, Nuruddin Farah, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Mendelsohn, Joseph O’Neill, Francine Prose, Luc Sante, and Mona Simpson; poet Robert Kelly; composers Joan Tower and George Tsontakis; anthropologist John Ryle; photographers Stephen Shore and Gilles Peress; filmmakers Peter Hutton and Kelly Reichardt; journalist Ian Buruma; foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead; Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Elizabeth Frank; and performance arts curator Gideon Lester.

Bard alumni/ae have also been an influential force in the arts and in the physical, social, and political sciences—and in the life of the College. A short list includes actors Blythe Danner ’65, Chevy Chase ’68, Adrian Grenier ’98, and Gaby Hoffmann ‘04; filmmaker Gia Coppola ’09; playwrights Nick Jones ’01 and Thomas Bradshaw ’02; dancer Arthur Aviles ’87; sculptor Rita McBride ’82; photographers Tim Davis ’01 and Lisa Kereszi ’95; ground breaking artist Carolee Schneemann ’59; musicians/songwriters Richard M. Sherman ’49 and the late Robert B. Sherman ’49, Donald Fagen ’69 and Walter Becker ’71 (founders of Steely Dan), Billy Steinberg ’72, and the late Adam Yauch ’86 (a founder of the Beastie Boys); scientists László Z. Bitó ’60, who was instrumental in developing a drug used to combat glaucoma, and George Rose ’63, an influential biochemist and biophysicist; Fredric S. Maxik ’86, a leader in environmentally innovative lighting technologies; environmental writer Elizabeth Royte ’81; Pia Carusone ’03 and Betsaida Alcantara ’05, in politics and government; and journalists William Sherman ‘68, a Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting, Matt Taibbi ’92, and Ronan Farrow ’04.

Several recent graduates exemplify Bard’s emphasis on active engagement. As a student, Max Kenner ’01 began a project to bring higher education into New York State prisons. Today, he oversees institutional initiatives for the College and serves as executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which has granted degrees to approximately 350 incarcerated men and women since 2005. Mariel Fiori ‘05 was a student when she cofounded La Voz, the only Spanish-language news and cultural magazine serving the Hudson Valley’s Latino community. She continues to edit the award-winning publication along with her work as radio host, translator, educator, and community organizer. Stephen Tremaine ’07 turned a student project to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina into a full-time initiative: Bard Early College New Orleans, which brings college-level courses and teachers directly into public high schools. Other alumni/ae have held leadership positions with Bard’s graduate and affiliate programs, including Nayland Blake ’82, chair of the ICP-Bard Program in Advanced Photographic Studies; Jonathan Cristol ’00, longtime director of Bard’s Global and International Affairs Program in New York City; Valerie Thomson ’85, principal of Bard High School Early College Queens; and Dumaine Williams ’03, principal of Bard High School Early College Cleveland.
Students at Bard High School Early College Queens, photo by Scott Barrow.

Recent Initiatives

In 2013, Bard made national headlines by offering a new application option that bypasses standardized tests and admission processes, enabling motivated students to gain admission through an essay test. Members of the Bard faculty evaluate the essays, and applicants who score B+ or higher receive an offer of admission. Also in 2013, Bard forged a partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies and launched Bard Works, a career-oriented professional development program for juniors and seniors.

The Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA) opened within the Avery Arts Center in 2014. CMIA brings together key aspects of film culture, including public screenings, publications, and archival development. Also debuting in 2014 was Bard High School Early College Cleveland, the Levy Economics Institute’s Master of Science in Economic Theory and Policy, and a 3+2 dual-degree option that offers undergraduates the opportunity to earn both a B.A. and an M.S. in economic theory and policy in five years. In spring 2015, the College inaugurated Bard Launch, a fund-raising platform to support student-led projects, which began as a partnership between the Center for Civic Engagement and the Office of Development and Alumni/ae Affairs.

Looking Ahead

In fall 2015, the Dance Program begins a multiyear partnership with the Trisha Brown Dance Company that will include undergraduate courses, interdisciplinary collaborations, and public performances. This fall also marks the debuts of Bard High School Early College Baltimore and Bard Academy at Simon’s Rock, a two-year college preparatory school for 9th and 10th graders on the Great Barrington, Massachusetts, campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock: The Early College. Also launching in 2015–16 is The Orchestra Now, an innovative program for postgraduate musicians. The program, a collaboration of the College, Longy School of Music of Bard College, and Bard College Conservatory of Music, offers experiential orchestra training and leads to a master of music degree in curatorial, critical, and performance studies. Bard is one of several partner institutions involved in the Warren Street Academy, an alternative school in Hudson, New York, which is slated to open as early as spring 2016. Faculty from various Bard programs will provide college courses to high school seniors; a full four-year early college program will launch at a later date.