|Cruising the Turk Coast, Le Rosey
by Edmund F. “Ned” Brown, IV
What makes it the world’s most exclusive school?
Much has been written over the years about Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland ... school for the rich and royal, most exclusive boarding school in the world, etc., etc. As a former alumnus of the school (anciens or old boys as we call them ), I would describe the school as a place where interesting young people can come together from all over the world, be equals (regardless of one’s family wealth or social status) and develop life-long friendships. Ask anyone familiar with the Le Rosey alumni network, and they will tell you that none other exists like it in the world.
This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time on a private boat with Philippe and Anne Gudin, Directors and owners of the school for the past thirty years. Philippe has been the General Director and guiding force of the school, while Anne has devoted extraordinary attention to the young students (ages 9-12) and raising their own four children. In the school’s 125-year history, the Gudins are only the fourth generation of owners who created such a remarkable institution. And quite likely, their son Christophe (who also attended the school), will become the first General Director of Le Rosey and bring his own unique perspective.
|Philippe Gudin -- and I want to be objective here in spite of being a close friend -- is a visionary in education. He is not an “in-box” sort of manager; meaning that unlike many headmasters who deal with the problems “du jour” that arise, Gudin takes a larger and longer view of education. In fact, he has had so many visions over the years, they all could not be contained within Le Rosey. Gudin has created and owns several other leading schools in Switzerland that each, in their own way, meets a specific need. Gudin’s mind is facile and always working. People will approach him endlessly about starting another Le Rosey in Japan, or China, or the Middle East.
While he always listens patiently, his response is generally the same, “There can only be one Le Rosey.” Gudin is open to extensions of the Le Rosey concept though. He has the ability to see things and connect the dots. For instance, a wonderful old building has become available along Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) that Gudin is contemplating as a Le Rosey annex for 40-45 girls ages 12-16. As he explained to me, “There are some parents (particularly from the Middle East) who prefer their young daughters to be in an all female environment. I understand their feelings, and it makes sense.” The last sentence is “typique” Philippe Gudin and also inherent in good marketers: they listen to the marketplace, identify unfilled needs, and act.
|The cruise I was on with the Gudins and twelve honors students this past week was such an idea for Gudin. He loves sailing the Turkish coast and eastern Greek isles and has done so for many years with his family during the summer. His wife, Anne, enjoys teaching about early Middle-Eastern history. So Gudin decided to combine the two. Each year for the past four years, he takes 12-14 honors students (who have earned high GPAs) on a week-long cruise aboard a private boat. The school pays for everything. The week is not a vacation for the kids. Every day there are cultural and philosophy lectures, visits to historical sites, conversations on geopolitics (particularly focused on Turkey and the Middle East), all in addition to the student's regular studies.
Gudin is reluctant to talk to the press about Le Rosey, because as he says, “Eventually all they want to talk about is which famous person is sending their children to Rosey.” My approach with Gudin was different. I had serious questions I wanted to ask based on his and Anne’s three decades of experience. I wanted to ask (among other questions): What makes Switzerland unique as a place for an international school, do children with so-called “privileged” backgrounds present unique challenges, how do you help mold them into their own confident personalities, and what do you see ahead for Le Rosey in the next decade and beyond?
|Malcom Gladwell, in is his recent best-seller “Outliers” says that there is a rule of 10,000 hours of practice for extremely successful people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Beatles to get really good at what they do. Philippe Gudin has educated well over 10,000 students personally in his thirty years running Le Rosey and his other schools. Gudin seemingly remembers each and everyone. Here is what he had to say about what is probably the world’s best known private school and his vision for education. And I have to add, it was all done while sitting on the rear deck of a private yacht cruising the magnificent coastline of Turkey ... life hardly gets better.
What makes Switzerland different from other countries to have an international school?
P.G.: As you say in the States, location, location, location. If you are in England, you have the British mood and British culture. You can call it an international school, but it really is not. Same as in France, Spain, the U.S. or anywhere else. In Switzerland, we are at the crossroads culturally and historically. There is an absence of a strong dominant culture. We have Anglo, Germanic, Italian, and French. It is a combination of all European cultures with just about enough American culture. Geneva is an international financial center, and the younger people are influenced by American videos, iTunes and the like.
P.G.: How is this financially possible? We have two fabulous campuses, Rolle in the fall and spring, Gstaad in the winter. What other school has this? The first problem is the up-front cost of land. We bought our land nearly a century ago at a fraction of what it would cost today. The question is not if you can build a world-class school, it is where you will build it?
It is the hurdle I point out when someone suggests building a Le Rosey elsewhere. We are growing, expanding and improving our infrastructure all the time. Let me give you two examples.
We have been in Gstaad for 95 years, the town is wonderful to us, but we physically cannot grow there. The difference in physical quality between our Rolle campus versus the Gstaad facility grows wider each year. We already have the girls’ chalets two towns over in Schonreid.
It is a short train or cab ride to the mountains in Gstaad. We have identified a property in Schonreid whereby we could start from the ground up. We can build new classrooms, new chalets and bring everyone together. The second example is an interesting project and business my son, Christophe, is doing. His premise is that schools basically teach pretty much the same way as they did 50 years ago and longer. Technology can greatly enhance the teaching experience for both the teacher and student. Every school is different.
For instance, a school in the Silicon Valley could well have a higher threshold to technological innovation than let’s say an Eastern U.S. prep school. The level of comfort to using technology as a teaching tool will vary school-to-school. It requires a lot of analysis and planning. Le Rosey is one of his first clients, not so much because he is my son, but more because we are committed to offering our students and teachers the best technology tools in teaching and learning. And (laughing) I think my son would prefer not to have his father as a client.
|Is there an ideal age for a child to attend Le Rosey?
When the child and/or the parents are ready. It could be 6, 10 or 16, every situation is unique. Do you know that compared to other private schools, we have a larger percentage of students who are the only child in that family? Here, the child can develop with other children their own age and under proper supervision all of the time. In some cases, the parents might travel a lot, and we handle the difficult parts of raising the child: proper manners, good study habits, cleanliness, looking out for their fellow students, etc. The parents can be with their children on holiday every six weeks and experience all the fun parts of parenting. Many of the parents come and go regularly to visit their children. And not too surprising, we have a large number of parents who take up residence in Gstaad during the winter months when we are in session there.
Are some parents over-protective of their children?
One of the most important things we try to do with each child is help them build autonomy and confidence. Ned, when you came from Chicago over 45 years ago, you spoke with your parents maybe once each week or every two weeks. You were forced to be autonomous. Technology has changed that, whether it is the use of cellular phones, which every student has, or using e-mail. We encourage the children to communicate with their parents, but the parents also have to trust us. Every child is different and progresses at a different pace along the autonomy path, but eventually, they all get there. Le Rosey graduates, and we hear this particularly from college admissions officers, are more poised and confident than many of the candidates from other schools. They don’t go off the deep end when they get to college and have some freedom, because we taught them and gradually gave them autonomy at an early age.
|Let’s say the son of the wheat czar in the Ukraine or the son of the sugar king in West Africa, both billionaires, send their kids to Rosey. How do the sons develop their own sense of self with their fathers’ successes as backdrops?
P.G.: Both are recent and true situations. You know, the Swiss are different. We are more discreet, especially when it comes to money. A well-known Swiss banker passed away a few years who attended Le Rosey. He was without peer in Geneva and the Swiss private banking world. He was a man of tremendous character, and he attributed much of that to the years he spent at Le Rosey. This banker also has a wonderful son, who also attended Le Rosey. So, I like to think that as an institution, even with different leaders in charge of the school, there is a continuity of quality and commitment. We try to do a good job of educating all of our students, regardless of their background, and also help them develop their individual character. There is a strong sense of tradition at Le Rosey.
Let me ask an indelicate question, but it is always out there in cyber-world as to some of the students who attend Le Rosey. When I was at Rosey, there were two boys, nice guys, whose father happened to be the head of the secret police in a corrupt Caribbean nation -- not such a nice guy. Or there could be the children of a reputed drug czar attending Le Rosey. Is that ever a concern?
Never. We do not put the sins of the parents or the family on the child. We don’t care what the parents did or do. As long as the parents share the vision and values of Le Rosey, and what we are trying to do, their child is welcome. When a child enters Le Rosey, they become a Roseen, they become part of the Rosey family as well as children in their own family. And we know from experience and feedback over the years that the Rosey family, students with other students and students with teachers is a very strong family indeed.
|Has the recent economy affected enrollment at Le Rosey?
P.G.: To the contrary. This is both good and bad news, and I will tell you why. First, the demand by parents to send their children to Rosey has never been greater. It is far greater than what we can offer. But here is the problem: the very rich in the world are getting richer, and the poor, poorer. Le Rosey contributes a substantial amount financially to a school in Mali, Africa. It has 700 students. And a number of our students go there to volunteer. We talked about the growing disparity between the rich and poor with the students on this cruise. The situation in central Africa is unsustainable. We are just a small school, but nevertheless, we are trying to do our part to remedy the situation. Our students are very aware of the situation, and they want to help. But the leading nations of the world need to contribute more.
Would you like to see the Obama girls attend Le Rosey?
P.G.: (Laughing) That’s tough! O.K, let me try to be objective here. I believe Le Rosey is perhaps the near ideal environment for the two Obama girls, and I mean this with no disrespect to their current private school in Washington, DC, Sidwell Friends School. Their father grew up internationally. Both parents are well-educated and place a high value on education. The Obama girls are the right ages to learn languages -- children learn much quicker when they are younger. The girls would get an experience that they cannot get at any school in the States, and probably more likely than anywhere else, they would be treated no different than any other kids. You know, if they went to Le Rosey, it would be a little difficult to do sleepovers with their friends at the White House. Politically, I think it would be impossible for President Obama to do this, no?
|What is the most important lesson you have learned in thirty years running Le Rosey? (Note: this was the only question Gudin asked for awhile to contemplate.)
Difficult. One learns so many things over 30 years. I have learned not to be overwhelmed by small every day poisonous problems. Being naturally a perfectionist and active, it was not until I went through a traumatizing experience that I learned to delegate those things that should be delegated. I’ve learned to think fast over the years, to follow my instincts and take action rather than analyze extensively, even though I might be wrong and need to correct my decisions midway. I listen to many, but decide alone.
Teenagers have a right to make mistakes; we must keep giving them our trust again and again even if they might fail to make good use of it. Anyway, their progress in autonomy and wisdom comes with age. We are happy when our students listen to us, and accept our teaching. We are also happy when they express their personality and charisma by disagreeing with us.
This has been a great week for me, especially spending time with the students and listening to what they have to say. May I come back on next year’s trip?
P.G.: We will ask the students on the boat to vote on the quality of your lectures.
So Le Rosey is a democracy?
P.G.: (laughing) NEVER.
|Photographs by Ive DeLisle.|