As a one-time marine paratrooper, Vietnam combat veteran and professor of military history, Josiah Bunting III was a wildly implausible choice for president of a women’s college. But that is the responsibility 33-year-old Si Bunting accepted last September at Briarcliff, a 71-year-old, private institution 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Other educators thought it a risky undertaking.
Despite its reputation as a genteel school for rich girls, Briarcliff was about ready to close its doors. Enrollment had dwindled and the college had begun to spend its endowment. The demoralized faculty and angry trustees were at each other’s throats. The apathetic students were more interested in fashion than in their academic futures.
Now, at the end of Bunting’s first year, Briarcliff is a happier place. Acting like a commander, he has silenced much of the bickering, begun to expand the curriculum, taken steps to upgrade the faculty and generally stood the college on its pretty little head. He instituted monthly seminars starring such worldly provocateurs as theater critic John Simon, writer Tom Wolfe and feminist Gloria Steinem.
Perhaps most usefully, Bunting has convinced high school counselors that Briarcliff would no longer automatically be a refuge for girls that Smith and Vassar rejected. And to achieve a more heterogeneous student body and further dispel the school’s image as an exclusive finishing school for the daughters of the rich, he has increased the scholarships available. The Bunting strategy has worked. Enrollment for the fall term is up 70 percent, and the school’s prospects for survival have markedly improved.
Bunting’s own education, as it happens, was not without problems either. He was expelled from one prep school, he recalls, for being a “generally terrible” youngster, and his mediocre academic record at another school kept him out of college. At 17, the restless Bunting enlisted in the marines. He still considers his two years as a leatherneck paratrooper “the best life for a young guy.” His enlistment up, he entered Virginia Military Institute, and graduated with honors and a commission as a second lieutenant in the army. Postponing service, he went on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. There he earned an M.A. in history and met Diana Cunningham, an ex-Hollins student at the Sorbonne, who became his wife. The Buntings now have two children, Elizabeth, 6, and Josiah, 4.
In 1966 he went into the army. For two years he served in Vietnam as a plans officer in the Mekong Delta. In 1969 he returned to the U.S. to teach history at West Point, with the rank of major. In January 1972 Major Bunting resigned his commission (then taught military history briefly at the Naval War College as a civilian before going to Briarcliff.) “I wish to disassociate myself from the active implementation of our policy in Vietnam,” he said when he quit the army, “because I doubt the ability of any young officer to make changes from within.” It was not an entirely unexpected move for a man who had written The Lionheads—a critically applauded, antimilitary first novel based on his Vietnam experience. This month he published his second novel, The Advent of Frederick Giles, the story of an American family in England which he means to be an attack on knee-jerk liberalism.
Diana Bunting, who loathed being an army wife, has settled comfortably into their big campus house. She has learned to cook for 12 instead of four at a moment’s notice, and their door is always open to students and faculty. “Just the fact that we’re in his house is different,” says Elaine Moore, a former student, who is the new Dean of Students. “We were never invited to the president’s house before Si came.” This summer, the family will retreat to their house in Newport (acquired in his war-college days) where Bunting will work on his next novel. He’ll be back in the fall, determined to “gear girls into productive lives—not just playing tennis.” That’s not bad for a man who first read Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique on his way to his opening interview at Briarcliff last summer.