Celebrating a Landmark Anniversary


President Joseph W. Polisi Looks Back on 25 Years at Juilliard

This article is based, in part, on excerpts from Joseph W. Polisi’s 2005 book The Artist as Citizen.

An avid runner, President Polisi leads a four-lap Juilliard Challenge around Lincoln Center Plaza in May 1989, as part of Juilliard’s first Rite of Spring celebration, marking the 76th anniversary of the riots that accompanied the premiere of Stravinsky’s masterwork. Zubin Mehta, then the music director of the New York Philharmonic, rings the gong in background.

(Photo by Gili Melamed-Lev)


As I reflect upon 25 years as president of The Juilliard School, a sense of awe still imbues my thoughts concerning this institution. For more than a century, Juilliard and its predecessor institution, the Institute of Musical Art, have existed to enhance traditions, create new work, and instill in young people the values and techniques for a life in the performing arts.

Becoming president of such a revered institution was not in my mind when I applied for the position in January 1984. As I saw it, I was too young (36), too inexperienced, and a bassoonist (not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a bassoonist, but the previous two presidents—William Schuman and Peter Mennin—were both distinguished composers). I had been appointed dean of the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1983 and was cozily ensconced in the community with my wife, Elizabeth, and two young children. But Juilliard faculty members Julius Baker and Dorothy DeLay urged me to apply, since the search committee had not yet found a replacement for Peter Mennin, who had died in June of 1983.

I approached the application process as a type of academic exercise, sprucing up my résumé and writing a rather provocative letter in which I suggested changes I felt the School needed. When I received an invitation to come for an interview, I truly believed there was a pro forma quality to the gesture, but was nervously pleased to be a player in this drama, however briefly.

The interview was scheduled for mid-February, but on February 16 my father died. He had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1980 and never returned to the robust and playful man whom I knew and loved. He was one of the great bassoonists of the 20th century (principal bassoon of the Cleveland Orchestra, NBC Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), and a Juilliard faculty member for more than 30 years. Although I never attended Juilliard, I always felt I tasted a part of that education by studying bassoon with my father. I was very close to him. In many ways, I had been mourning for my father since the time of his stroke, so when he died I experienced deep sadness but also clarity about the future. I decided to proceed with the Juilliard interview.

So I spoke to a small group of trustees, including Ralph Leach, the chair of the committee and the person who would oversee my hiring, about my vision of a future Juilliard. What chutzpah! However, since I felt no hope of landing the job, I thought I would be honest and frighteningly non-political.

After a scant half-hour I was thanked and shown the door. It had been an interesting experience, but I thought that was the end of it. I was close to being correct: I heard not a word from Juilliard until early May. By that time I was further settled in Cincinnati and desirous of putting crazy ideas—like being the president of Juilliard—out of my head. 

The telephone call came from the president’s assistant, who said the search committee wanted to see me again. Since I didn’t want to go through another pro forma experience and truly felt I had no hope of getting the job, I politely said that I was no longer a candidate. To my utter surprise, 15 minutes later I received a call from Peter Paine, the chairman of Juilliard’s board. No, he explained, there were not many finalists, and he did hope I would reconsider my withdrawal. I was stunned, and as I put down the telephone I wondered if I might actually attain this Olympian responsibility.

My return visit was quite different: it took several hours, and I met faculty as well as trustees. It was at one of the faculty meetings that I was asked the only question about music in all of the interview process that day: Vincent Persichetti, in typically eccentric fashion, queried how I felt about resolving diminished seventh chords, then answered his own question before I could utter a word. 

The next day, however, I had a wonderful and enlightening conversation about music, the arts in New York City, and other far-reaching topics with William Schuman, who would become my mentor and good friend. The board’s search committee was asking Bill to determine what I was all about as an arts educator and musician. I must have said the right things, because Bill supported my appointment.

Elizabeth and I were invited to one last meeting in early June so that the board could meet my wife and vote as a unified body. We were shepherded into a large room where I have a recollection of applause. I must have said something, but I have not the slightest memory of even a word. Then we said goodbye to each trustee as he or she exited. In celebration, I wanted to buy a chocolate ice cream soda, but settled for a Good Humor bar. 

Recollections of my first day as Juilliard’s president on September 4, 1984, center on one specific event. Because Elizabeth left home very early each day to teach French at Greenwich (Conn.) High School, it was my duty to drop off our 2-year-old son, Ryan, at a child care facility. As we entered the day care center that day, Ryan grabbed my right leg and wouldn’t let go. It took about an hour for me to realize my exit, and I spent the next five hours calling the center every 20 minutes to see how my son was doing. He survived, by the way, and graduated from Yale in 2004.

During the last 25 years, much of what I have tried to accomplish at Juilliard has focused on an improved learning, working, performance, and social environment for all members of the community, greater involvement of the Juilliard faculty in the governance of the School, significantly enhanced scholarships for our students, an intensified effort to increase the diversity of the Juilliard community and a concomitant emphasis on character education, and a vigilant stance on the attainment of the highest level of public performance.  I’ve also emphasized the importance of the liberal arts component of the undergraduate curriculum, the development of programs to encourage multidisciplinary work among our actors, dancers, and musicians, equal standing of dance, drama, and music within the School, and the overall enrichment of the School’s educational programs, based on a holistic goal of urging our students to understand the political, economic, and sociological environment within which they will present their art.

In 1985 I summarized the Juilliard experience as “nurturing excellence in performance, intellectual and artistic creativity, rigorous discipline, a joy in art, and a delight in life.” I am pleased to note that such a credo continues 24 years later.

The job of a president of an institution of higher learning requires multi-tasking at a high level. I’ve often been asked what endeavors were the most satisfying for me to address and look back upon. Obviously, 25 years of helping to lead this great school tends to blur the details of experiences, but many initiatives still remain brightly illuminated in my memory.

It was a great event when we opened the Meredith Willson Residence Hall in 1990. Its presence has transformed the community and allowed our students to interact in a way that had never existed before at Juilliard. In turn, the completion of our most recent renovation should address most of the physical plant needs of the School for many years to come.

I am also very pleased to observe a new level of intellectual and artistic rigor within the Juilliard environment. I’m particularly proud of the high quality of our Doctor of Musical Arts program, which asks for a world-class level of artistic ability and an extraordinarily high intellectual capability in our doctoral candidates. In addition, our undergraduate Liberal Arts program is now actively embraced by our students and provides essential writing and analytical learning experiences that will prepare our young artists for the complex world they will enter after graduation. These courses are wonderfully complemented by our offerings in literature and materials of music, music history, ear-training, and other classroom courses, which have been adapted over the years by the faculty to more precisely address the evolving needs of the profession and the pervasive presence of technology in our daily lives.

Over the years, newly created offerings including Jazz, Historical Performance, Mentoring, the Barnard/Columbia/Juilliard Exchange, Academic Distinction, and many more all have enhanced the School’s environment considerably and addressed the intellectual and artistic needs of our students. Obviously, I am enormously proud of the remarkable array and quality of performances in dance, drama, and music that we have presented in New York and around the world. Our collaborations with Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and Jazz at Lincoln Center have also provided valuable exposure to our students as they embrace the high standards of the professional world of the performing arts.

It has been deeply touching for me to see the growth of programs outside the walls of Juilliard that have been created through the artistry of our students and graduates to positively change the world of children and adults. Whether in Peru, Tanzania, Florida, or South Central Los Angeles, to name only a few locales, the idealism and creativity of our young artists have deeply affected thousands of individuals in profoundly meaningful ways.

I have always felt that today’s performing artists must rededicate themselves to a broader professional agenda that reaches beyond what has been expected of them in an earlier time. Specifically, Juilliard artists of the 21st century will have to be effective and active advocates for the arts in communities large and small around the nation. Our artists must be not only communicative through their art, but also knowledgeable about the intricacies of our society—politically, economically, socially—so that they can effectively work toward presenting the power of the arts to our nation and its people.

Finally, the privilege of experiencing the dedication, creativity, discipline, and humanity of the members of the Juilliard community on a daily basis continues to be an uplifting and extraordinary experience for me. From the wise counsel and leadership of our trustees, to the brilliance of our faculty, to the energy and creativity of our students, to the expertise, patience, and caring ways of our administrative staff, Juilliard truly exhibits the many positive attributes that nurture the artistic and intellectual growth of our young artists.

As I often say these days, I can no longer claim a high degree of objectivity regarding the Juilliard experience. However, I do honestly believe that The Juilliard School currently represents the highest standards in performing arts education in the world. It is an institution that exists to guarantee the continuation and enhancement of the artistic traditions of the past and present as well as the creation of new artistic experiences in the future. I know that through their art, the members of the Juilliard community will continue to bring an understanding of the human condition to the world’s population—a special gift that we should revere and foster in the time ahead.

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