Joseph W. Polisi, CLAS ’69, president of The Julliard School, grew up in Queens, the son of a ballet dancer and the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, who taught him to play the bassoon. That might make it seem inevitable that he would choose a career in the arts. But not to a 17-year-old selecting a college.
“I really wanted to get out of New York – to study outside of the city,” he recalls.
Outside it was. His father had taught some music classes at UConn, and even though admission was difficult in the 1960s for an out-of-state student, Joseph joined the freshman class at Storrs.
He brought his bassoon with him, joining the orchestra, playing chamber music, and soloing in a concerto at Von der Mehden Recital Hall. But an introductory class in political science taught by faculty member Frederick Turner inspired him to major in that subject, not music. He carried his new interest into his extracurricular activities, too.
He was elected to the Student Union Board of Governors and ran a “Speak Out” series of forums during the contentious Vietnam War years. The Civil Rights movement was strong, the African American Association was active, and there was “a lot of political activity on campus at the time,” he says. Speak Out attracted enormous crowds and speakers ranging the spectrum from the SDS to Young Republicans.
His interests ranged into other areas, too. He organized a poetry series. He took a class in Chinese history. And as a junior he joined the first UConn study abroad year in Rouen, France, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth Marlowe, CLAS ’70, MA ’76, who had transferred to UConn from Albertus Magnus College and who later earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UConn in French.
The Rouen experience forced him to learn French, since he lived with a French family and all classes were conducted in French. His class in the history of the Battle of the Bulge, in French, had by March only reached 1939 in the chronology of events, he remembers. And he had to adapt his bassoon playing to the French system, which is similar to baroque bassoon.
Polisi drew a low number in the Vietnam draft lottery, but on April 1, 1967, he tore his knee “to shreds” in a bicycle race around what was then the fraternity quadrangle. Getting up the stairs to his classes in Monteith became a challenge.
On the advice of Prof. Turner, who was a Fletcher School graduate, Polisi deferred his plans for law school and instead earned a master’s degree in international relations from Fletcher in 1970. He and Elizabeth married, and he worked at what was then the Meriden Journal newspaper as a reporter while she worked for the Meriden health department.
He did not feel comfortable with his career direction, however.
“It was about relevancy – a term that’s not used much any more – what did you want to do with your life,” he says. “What was I really passionate about? Music.”
He went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Yale, getting up at 5 a.m. for four years to squeeze in practice time. While he completed his graduate studies, Elizabeth taught French at The Choate School.
Polisi has performed throughout the U.S. as a bassoonist, and he recorded a solo album of 20th-century bassoon music for Crystal Records. He taught music briefly at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, then moved back East to be an administrator at Yale, dean of faculty at Manhattan School of Music, and dean of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. At the age of 36 he was selected as the sixth president of The Juilliard School.
Along the way he has written essays and articles and given speeches about the state of the performing arts and education, collected in his book, The Artist as Citizen (Amadeus Press, 2005). His new book is a biography of his mentor, composer American Muse: The Life and times of William Schuman, scheduled for publication by Amadeus Press in October 2008.
He still plays the bassoon, with chamber groups and often with students in the Juilliard orchestra and in special concerts.
“It’s part of my life,” he says.
He carries that passion for music, and for exposure to the liberal arts, into his work today. When parents of prospective Juilliard students ask him, as they often do, whether their child will be able to find a job after graduating, he asks, “Is your child passionate about being a musician, dancer, or actor?”
If so, he assures them, Juilliard is a fantastic place for them to study.
People who choose a life in the arts have to be passionate about what they want to do, he adds.
“The classical arts world has a profoundly rich tradition that must be sustained,” he says.
He believes there is another dimension to artistic training, however. He is known for leading revisions in the curriculum that have placed a new emphasis on the humanities and liberal arts. Performing artists need that background in order to be effective advocates for the arts, he says.
As Wynton Marsalis wrote in a foreword to The Artist as Citizen, “At Juilliard, Joseph has exerted enormous effort to initiate a broader liberal arts curriculum to ensure that students develop their entire intellect. “
That stand initially was not always well received, as Polisi relates in his book.
“I recall one trustee complaining to me early on that no student could ever again participate in a competition, since they would be stuck in a library studying and could no longer practice,” he wrote.
Today, however, liberal arts study is part of the undergraduate program, and, according to Polisi, students have requested more liberal arts courses and a demanding curriculum.
Some of his interest in the humanities and liberal arts no doubt stems from Polisi’s undergraduate years in CLAS, where he remembers courses and teachers in English literature, history, economics, political science, and the romance languages that influenced his life.
“The base of everything I do at Juilliard goes back to the liberal arts experiences I had at the University of Connecticut,” he says.