According to the 2012 American College President Study, the average tenure of a university president is seven years, which makes Dr. Joseph Polisi's more than three decades as president of Juilliard exceptional by any measure. Not just because he is the school's longest-serving president, but because he has accomplished so much since he took the position in 1984. From an expanded physical plant and more robust financial aid to interdisciplinary programs and plans for a new global campus in China, Juilliard is a very different institution than it was 33 years ago, one that's much stronger and better prepared to face the challenges of the rapidly changing arts landscape.
"Juilliard was always a great place, but I think one that always has to stay ahead of the curve, and I believe we've done that," Polisi says. Though only 36 when he took over the Juilliard presidency, Polisi was well equipped for the role. He'd grown up in a musical family; his father, William Polisi, had been the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic and a teacher at Juilliard. Joseph Polisi, himself a bassoonist, came armed with two master's degrees and a doctorate from the Yale School of Music, as well as a bachelor's in political science from the University of Connecticut and a master's in international relations from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. And he'd held senior administrative positions at prominent conservatories including executive officer of the Yale University School of Music, dean of faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, and dean of the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.
At Juilliard, one of Polisi's first major accomplishments was getting the Meredith Willson Residence Hall built; completed in 1990, the dorm now houses approximately 40 percent of the students. "It's helped develop community and allowed our students to work in a more focused way," he says. More recently, he oversaw the Juilliard portion of architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro's 2009 renovation of Lincoln Center, which added 45,000 square feet of teaching space, orchestral and dance rehearsal spaces, a black box theater outfitted with cutting-edge technology, new social and study spaces for students, and much more.
But the changes at Juilliard haven't just been physical. The author of The Artist as Citizen (published in 2005, with a revised edition following in 2016), Polisi strongly believes that Juilliard students and graduates should be well-rounded members of society as well as artists. Not just so they are better prepared with the entrepreneurial skills necessary to manage their own artistic careers or getting a job outside of the performing arts, but also to understand, connect, and effect change in the world.
And so Polisi has created many programs to advance this mission—everything from educational outreach programs with teaching and performance in schools and health care facilities, to the Music Advancement Program (MAP), which provides instrumental instruction to promising students from diverse backgrounds. "There's a greater responsibility for artists than just getting the notes, steps, or lines right—one has to go beyond technique and cross the bridge to artistry because that's where communication happens," Polisi says. "The arts provide empathy, the understanding of the relationship of one human being to another; and nuance, especially, which is the ability to see that there are enormous levels of subtlety in human interaction, it's not black and white."
Besides providing opportunities for students to bring the arts and their powerful message into the world, Juilliard under President Polisi has developed interdisciplinary programs and an expanded liberal arts curriculum, and offers an exchange program with Columbia and Barnard. "We teach them how to think out of the box and use their skill sets in different ways to be functioning artists, create their own ensembles and 501(c)'s and to take hold of their future instead of expecting somebody to take care of them," Polisi explains. Indeed, with more than 40 percent of the American workforce expected to be self-employed by 2020, Juilliard's Alan D. Marks Center for Career Services and Entrepreneurship gives students access to a wide range of career services and teaches them entrepreneurial strategies.
With college tuition rising steadily, parents are rethinking the cost-benefit of a higher education. Polisi has made financial aid a central focus, adding numerous full-tuition opportunities for students, including the Kovner and Jerome L. Greene Fellowships. Today, the school boasts a high discount rate in that it gives back, on average, 62 cents for every dollar it takes in tuition (only 10 percent of U.S. colleges and universities offer a discount rate higher than 60 cents). "It's always been one of my dreams to make Juilliard tuition-free," Polisi says. "The recession of 2008–09 knocked us back a bit, but we're in good shape again." Indeed, the school now boasts an endowment that's nearly one billion dollars for a student body of about 850 students; per capita that's one of the highest in the nation.
Globlization and technology are two other revolutions that have picked up steam exponentially in recent years. Under Polisi, Juilliard has been on top of these developments, and is in the planning stages for opening The Tianjin Juilliard School in China, which will grant master's degrees as well as having K–12 programs.
As for technology, Polisi has pioneered a number of online initiatives that include an increasing array of digital education products. Last month, the school launched Juilliard Open Classroom, a series of online courses taught by Juilliard faculty for artists and arts lovers of all ages and abilities (open.juilliard.edu).
"It's a very deep dive over six weeks with a lot of work that individuals have to do to keep up," Polisi says of the initial piano skills course, which includes one-on-one interaction with teaching assistants, master classes, and uploading and sharing of students' own work with each other. In 2015, the school also released a number of apps, including Juilliard Open Studios, which provides interactive, behind-the-scenes views of the institution (a look at dance performances from user-chosen camera angles, for example).
"The history of music is really a story of the continuing growth of technology," Polisi explains. "The original harpsichord plucked the string and then evolved into the fortepiano that hit these strings and then on to the significant technological advancement of the modern Steinway. We don't usually talk about music in this way, but there's a lot of engineering going into these changes." The same might be said of Polisi's work at Juilliard for the past 33 years.
Tom Samiljan was Time Out New York's first classical music editor and writes for Travel + Leisure, Bloomberg Pursuits, and L'Uomo Vogue.