News and analysis
January 05, 2016

Max Kenner: Prison Path to Higher Learning

Stefan Falke

Max Kenner, 37
Founder and Executive Director, Bard Prison Initiative
Annandale- on-Hudson, N.Y.

At a time when many people question the value of a liberal- arts education, Max Kenner believes — fervently — that studying the humanities and sciences can transform lives.

The prison-tutoring project he started in 1999 as a student at Bard College has grown into the Bard Prison Initiative, a rigorous academic program through which prisoners can earn associate and bachelor’s degrees from the college. Nearly 300 students at six correctional institutions in New York State are studying subjects such as Mandarin, calculus, and comparative politics.

Almost 400 incarcerated students have earned degrees in the decade since Bard began awarding them. Many go on to find satisfying jobs or pursue their education upon release — and less than 4 percent return to prison, compared with a nationwide recidivism rate of more than 50 percent.

"We can’t work to make things less bad," says Mr. Kenner. "Our goal has to be to make things better."

The program made international news in September when its debate club beat Harvard’s prestigious team.

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The contest reflects a culture of high expectations. Mr. Kenner insists that professors hold prison learners to the same standards as traditional Bard students. Even though many of the participants are high-school dropouts, there are no remedial courses.

After a competitive admissions process, students get thrown into the deep end, says Mr. Kenner.

"They succeed because they sense something really extraordinary is at stake, and they’re up to it," he says. "They really want to be there."

Mr. Kenner is skeptical of the measurement mania that grips both education and the nonprofit world. When people talk about the value of tony, private schools that cater to the wealthy, he argues, they don’t rely on statistics.

"The metrics that are fashionable in philanthropy and among decision makers at every level in education are hard for me to understand in any way but as a way to rationalize and operationalize the entitlement and the privilege of the elite," he says. "It strikes me as very much analogous to the scientific racism of a hundred years ago."

The nonprofit has resisted calls to expand its programs. "We think we’re successful because we operate on a human scale," says Mr. Kenner.

Instead, it started the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison to encourage other colleges to take up the mission. Grinnell College in Iowa, Notre Dame University and Holy Cross College in Indiana, and Goucher College in Maryland are among the institutions that have answered the call.

With the growing agreement among both liberals and conservatives about the need to overhaul the criminal-justice system, there’s a real possibility for long-term policy change, says Mr. Kenner. The Bard Prison Initiative will be a strong advocate, he says, pushing for dignified, rigorous education to be part of the solution. And he believes the nonprofit’s approach can reach other "unconventional students" whose academic potential has been written off. He declines to provide details now, but says enigmatically, "I’m so excited to make the move beyond the prisons."

Send an email to Nicole Wallace.