Commencement 2017: Biographies – Joseph William Polisi, F70

Joseph W. Polisi, DMA, musician, scholar and president of The Juilliard Schoolis awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 161st Commencement on Sunday, May 21, 2017.
Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography


President of the Julliard School for more than thirty years; influential writer on music, public policy, and the arts; accomplished bassoonist—you have broadened our appreciation for the importance of the arts in contemporary society. Your tenure at Juilliard has seen unprecedented growth and a renewed curricular emphasis on humanities and the liberal arts, and under your leadership the school has truly become a mecca for aspiring actors, dancers, and musicians from around the world. Believing that talent shows itself fully in its impact on society, you ask students to cultivate a civic spirit as well as their artistic gifts. The training in international relations you earned from the Fletcher School at Tufts has helped spark a powerful kind of diplomacy, one that uses the arts to advance international understanding and collaboration. In that spirit, you founded Juilliard Global to provide broader access to the Julliard experience through site-based and digital education. For inspiring a world-encompassing vision for the arts, and for demonstrating their ability to lift the human spirit, Tufts is proud to award you the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts.


JOSEPH WILLIAM POLISI, F70, has been president of The Juilliard School since 1984. In addition to serving as an academic leader for more than forty years, he is an accomplished bassoonist who is known for his influential writing on public policy and the arts. Polisi is a champion of the importance of a liberal arts education, even for the most gifted performers. Many students have heeded his call to balance hours sequestered in the practice room with active engagement in the world around them. In his book of essays, The Artist as Citizen, he wrote, “There should be no dividing line between artistic excellence and social consciousness.”

Polisi first studied music with his father, William Polisi, principal bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic and a Juilliard faculty member. He continued playing as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, although he majored in political science. It was the Vietnam era, and he was active on campus, serving on the student union’s board of governors and organizing a popular speak-out forum series. He went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations at The Fletcher School.

Polisi worked briefly as a journalist, but soon realized that his true passion was music. He enrolled at the Yale University School of Music, earning a Master of Music in 1973, a Master of Musical Arts in 1975, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in 1980. He went on to become executive officer of the Yale School of Music (1976–80), dean of faculty at the Manhattan School of Music (1980–83), and dean of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (1983–84) before becoming the sixth president of Juilliard. At Juilliard, he led a $300 million capital campaign and oversaw the construction of the school’s first on-campus housing and a $199 million renovation of the main Juilliard building, completed in 2009. His engagement with the international community that was nurtured at Fletcher saw new expression in 2010 when he founded Juilliard Global, a program to bring Juilliard expertise to selected sites around the world, and in 2014 he introduced Juilliard Global Ventures, a major initiative to reach students in new locations through site-based and digital education. A major component of this initiative is the Tianjin Juilliard School, a branch campus scheduled to open in China in September 2019.

He has championed the inclusion of liberal arts and humanities courses in the Juilliard curriculum, believing that performing artists need broad skills to advocate for their art. “These artists must be not only communicative through their art, but also knowledgeable about the intricacies of their society—politically, economically, socially&ndashso that they can effectively work toward showing the power of the arts to nations and their people, ” he wrote. In the same vein, he asks students to share their gifts at local hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

Polisi has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States. He has produced several recordings, primarily focusing on contemporary American music, and recorded a solo album of twentieth-century bassoon music. He wrote a 2008 biography of composer and arts administrator William Schuman, entitled American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman.

Polisi will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.