Bard College has a mission to invest in programs that are in the public interest and serve underserved and underrepresented populations. That commitment to civic engagement received a huge boost this week with the announcement of a $60 million challenge grant from George Soros, chairman of the Open Society Foundation.
Bard expects to strengthen its wide network of civic projects, which includes the well-known Bard Prison Initiative and early college programs in New Orleans public high schools and other urban centers.
The 151-year-old New York state-based college for the liberal arts and sciences administers the prison outreach effort and its early college programs as part of the new Bard Center for Civic Engagement, which serves as an umbrella for the college’s array of initiatives. The formation of the Center was approved by the college’s board of trustees this past January and officially launched this spring.
“The Center for Civic Engagement allows Bard to tell the story of the breadth of activities that we are taking,” says Dr. Jonathan Becker, vice president for International Affairs and Civic Engagement and executive director of the Center. “It’s facilitating coordination and cooperation amongst the various endeavors.”
Soros’ grant requires Bard to match it with $120 million from other donors. The first round of funding is expected to come at the beginning of the new academic year. The Center will make Bard’s civic engagement mission much more visible and impactful, school officials say.
“Our hope and our belief is that this grant will inspire other philanthropy,” Becker says. “This grant ensures that we will be able to continue what we’ve been doing and do it even more effectively.”
The Bard Prison Initiative was started by Max Kenner in 1999, when he was a student at Bard, and has been an official part of the college since 2001. Becker says it is the largest degree-granting program for incarcerated students in the U.S. There are currently more than 200 men and women enrolled at five prisons in New York State. BPI also runs the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, where it supports other colleges establishing similar programs.
“These are full college programs where students enroll in coursework that spans the breadth of the liberal arts,” says Kenner, executive director of BPI. Courses are taught by Bard faculty. Students that complete the work earn associate or bachelor’s degrees.
“The grant will enable us to continue to offer what we think is a college education of the very highest quality for people who otherwise would have no access to college,” he adds.
The Bard Early College in New Orleans is currently running in 12 public high schools. Faculty are identified and approved by Bard. Courses meet the standards of college education. One hundred percent of the seniors who completed this program last year went onto attend four-year colleges. At present, the courses are run on site at the 12 schools, but there are discussions to move it to a central location.
“As people understand what Bard does, it will first be easier for us to hold up what we do as a motto for what higher education should do,” Becker says. “Second, people will realize that these aren’t programs done in isolation, but with a common theme of what we call the private institution in the public interest.
“We choose challenging places to go. We believe it can have a huge social impact.
“We believe through activities we will attract a committed student body. We will attract faculty who have a wide array of interests. We will have an impact on public policy in the United States and abroad.”