After more than thirty years at the helm of the Juilliard School in New York City, Joseph Polisi, F70, stepped down last summer. Polisi, an accomplished bassoonist and author, burnished the school’s reputation even as he transformed it. He grew the endowment from $63 million to nearly $1 billion, built Juilliard’s first dormitory, added programs in jazz studies and historical performance, and launched an initiative to provide the arts curriculum for an international group of for-profit elementary and secondary schools.
Polisi now serves as Chief China Officer of Juilliard’s new program in China, driving toward the Tianjin Juilliard School’s planned opening in the fall of 2019. He is also working on his third book, a history of Lincoln Center. Polisi, who received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Tufts in 2017, spoke with us from his office in that complex. This is what he had to say.
Leaders are guilty until proven innocent. Professional musicians in orchestras tend to be skeptical about the ability of conductors to approach the music. It has to be proven that they know what they’re talking about. As president, I’m sometimes like the conductor. I earned my graduate degrees in music at Yale, and when I first came to Juilliard, I started asking for enhanced liberal arts courses and more rigor in writing. Some instrumental faculty members back then were concerned, as they said, that I was turning the school into another Yale. I think that meant there was more emphasis on intellectual activity than there was artistic activity, which was not the case, but there was a lot of skepticism.
Never embarrass a colleague who makes a mistake. In any orchestra, it’s exceedingly bad form to turn around and look at a musician who didn’t play something correctly. It makes them feel embarrassed, and it’s not good teamwork. I learned this from my father, who was the principal bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic and was on the Juilliard faculty for more than thirty years. The lesson applies to everything in life. When people fall, it’s time to help them get up.
Get into the weeds strategically. I don’t think being too aloof from details of admissions processes or financial aid is a good thing. It’s important to get in those weeds occasionally. But at the same time primarily the president’s job is to create an environment where everybody flourishes.
Mediocrity is like carbon monoxide. You can’t see it; you can’t smell it. Just one day you’re dead. You can’t smell excellence either, but you feel it. It challenges you, it makes you better. If you don’t have a sense of excellence, whether you know it or not, you become diminished. I learned discipline from my parents, who were both performing artists. Being a serious artist involves real physical and mental stamina. One has to be vigilant to maintain excellence in other vocations as well.
Get angry only when you plan on getting angry—and only when it’s to your benefit. I read this in a 19th-century British diplomat’s primer when I was at Fletcher. I think about it all the time. I just had a student meeting yesterday where I repeated that to myself. “Do you want to get angry here, and if so, why?” The answer was no, I didn’t want to get angry. Of course, sometimes it’s good to get angry, so people see that you’re not a pushover. But you do it very sparingly.
The arts offer a way to lead by example. The United States and its State Department are missing the boat on public diplomacy. During the Cold War there was a lot of cultural exchange—Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong going to Africa to perform, for example. Those types of programs are now gone, and there’s no plan of action. Soft power and cultural diplomacy are important in our world, especially in today’s presidential administration. The misunderstandings about the United States have multiplied to the nth degree, and one way to bring people back is through the arts.