Pit Stop #43: Bennington College

What do Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, and Bennington, Vermont have in common? Not a whole lot …except that each is home to an institution of higher education with a relationship to NECHE.. . and each happened to be on my visiting schedule in the past two weeks. You’ve read about Fulbright University Vietnam and Sampoerna University Indonesia — but in the case of #43, that small, bucolic town is home to Bennington College, accredited by NECHE since 1935. 

While I’ve spent a happy amount of time in the Green Mountain State, I’d never before been to Bennington. It’s about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Boston and a trip totally worth taking. This past weekend was a busy one at Bennington College. On Thursday, it celebrated the re-opening of one of its iconic historic buildings, The Barn, after a tragic fire two years ago. On Friday, the trustees were gathering for their spring meeting, to which President Laura Walker had invited me for a session. And Saturday was Commencement, always one of the most significant days of the year on any college campus. 

Bennington’s history is fascinating. Founded in 1932 as a women’s college (it became co-educational in 1969), it was deeply influenced by John Dewey as one of its original trustees who helped create many of the college’s signature programs, including a term of fieldwork that is required of all students each year. According to its website, Bennington is the only college in the country to require an annual internship since its founding, and the first to include visual and performing arts as full-fledged elements of its liberal arts curriculum. 

Bennington has a proud legacy of innovation and experimentation.

The most well-known and controversial policy was the 1994 Symposium Report of the Board of Trustees. The Symposium process began with the declaration that the college suffered from a growing attachment to the status quo and concluded with the adoption of several recommended changes, including embracing the ideal of the teacher-practitioner; the abandonment of academic divisions; a reduction in tuition (at the time, Bennington was the most expensive college in the country); and the replacement of tenure with a contract system. This system maintained a previous practice of five-year reviews regardless of seniority, but limited the presumption of renewal and asked each faculty member to develop his or her equivalent of a “plan” on which past performance would be evaluated and future plans would be blended with institutional aspirations and priorities.

Things are not always quite as bucolic as they seem.

Did I mention this last measure was controversial? A lawsuit followed, filed by faculty (the suit was eventually settled), and that very public controversy resulted in an enrollment decline from 600 to below 300. Enrollment today approaches 800, but one might say that it’s taken a few decades for Bennington to recover. 

President Walker, Bennington’s 11th President, arrived in the summer of 2020. She began her career as a print journalist, but moved to National Public Radio and eventually went on to lead New York Public Radio, the nation’s largest independent non-profit public radio station, for 23 years. Her leadership of NYPR was characterized both by extraordinary innovation and fearless journalism, as well as the development of a sound and strategic long-term financial model. Seems to me she and Bennington make a terrific pairing.  

Everything about Bennington feels special. From its stunningly beautiful campus to its student-directed pedagogy–from having no majors to every student mapping out an individual plan of study (The Plan)– from the Field Work term to a student body filled with scholars claiming international citizenship — clearly, Bennington is an exceptionally unique place. 

I arrived on campus the afternoon before my meeting with trustees and was able to spend a few hours strolling across a good bit of its 440 acres. Students and parents were preparing for graduation and moving out day. But I was there to work and on Friday I met with a very engaged group of trustees to discuss national and regional trends in higher education, the future of the small residential college, and Bennington’s important place in the landscape of American higher education.

So glad I made the trip! 

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