Elizabeth Coleman, president 1987–2013
One of the country’s leading innovators in higher education, Elizabeth Coleman became the ninth president of Bennington College in 1987. Her vision for the liberal arts and their role and reinvigoration in society has been widely recognized—she has spoken internationally on the topic, including concluding the 25th anniversary TED “Ideas Worth Spreading” Conference. Coleman’s 25-year tenure as Bennington’s president coincides with the College’s most significant period of growth in its history: record levels of philanthropy, enrollment, and applications for admission; a campus reclaimed, expanded, and renewed; an internationally distinguished faculty of teacher-practitioners; and several major new programmatic initiatives garnering national attention for the College. In 1994, Coleman led Bennington College through an organizational restructuring initiated by the Board of Trustees to reanimate Bennington’s vanguard educational mission. Prior to assuming the presidency at Bennington, Coleman was the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she founded and directed the school’s first ventures in undergraduate education. She was a professor of literature at SUNY-Stony Brook. A scholar of Shakespeare and Henry James, Coleman graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and received her PhD with distinction at Columbia University.
Michael K. Hooker, president 1982–1986
Bennington’s eighth president, Michael Hooker, received an undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He served as dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, and taught philosophy at Harvard University. While at Bennington, Hooker oversaw a further refinement and integration of the winter internship term, which had been a central part of a Bennington education since its founding. After leaving Bennington, he went on to serve as president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the University of Massachusetts system, then as Chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In 1984, he was featured in Esquire’s story on the “Best of the New Generation.” He wrote articles on applied ethics and chaired a biotechnology advisory panel for the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment in addition to developing an Internet-based academic program at Chapel Hill.
Joseph Murphy, president 1977–1982
Political scientist Joseph Murphy was Bennington’s seventh president. He attended the University of Colorado, received his bachelor’s degree from Michigan’s Olivet College, and received his doctorate from Brandeis University. A recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and others, Murphy served as director of the Peace Corps’ Virgin Island Training Center on St. Croix; as assistant office secretary in the Department of Health Education and Welfare in Washington; as an associate director of the Job Corps in the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington; and as director of Peace Corps operations in Ethiopia. He was the Vice Chancellor for Higher Education for the State of New Jersey and president of Queens College before coming to Bennington. Under Murphy’s leadership, the College established among other initiatives a distinguished visiting lecture program that would bring to Bennington several Nobel laureates among many other notable writers and public intellectuals. After leaving Bennington, Murphy served as Chancellor of City University of New York until his death.
Gail Thain Parker, president 1972–1976
Gail Thain Parker was a literature professor at Harvard when, in 1972, she was selected to lead Bennington College. During her tenure, the College opened the 120,000 square-foot Visual and Performing Arts center, which serves as a signature campus building to this day. She graduated summa cum laude from Radcliffe and received a PhD in American history from Harvard. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1963, she was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in 1964–1965. She published The Writing on the Wall: Inside Higher Education; Mind Cure in New England: From the Civil War to World War I; College on Your Own, and scholarly works in New England Quarterly, Women’s Studies, and Harvard English, and edited The Oven Birds: American Women on Womenhood 1820–1920. Following her presidency at Bennington, Parker taught at Rutgers and became a Senior Vice President and Director at PaineWebber Incorporated.
Edward J. Bloustein, president 1965–1971
A former political analyst for the Department of State, Edward Bloustein received his undergraduate degree from New York University and later, on a Fulbright Scholarship, a bachelor of philosophy degree from Oxford. He earned a PhD from Cornell University as well as a law degree, serving as the editor-in-chief of the Cornell Law Quarter. He went on to teach as a professor of law at New York University Law School. As president of Bennington, he oversaw the transition to a co-educational institution and was instrumental in a major campus expansion, including three new student houses, a new science building and lecture hall, and plans for a visual and performing arts center. After leaving Bennington, Bloustein went on to lead Rutgers University, which established the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy upon his death.
William C. Fels, president 1957–1964
An administrator with extensive experience in educational finance, William C. Fels became the fourth president of Bennington. He received his undergraduate degree from Columbia College and a Master’s degree in English from Columbia University. He held honorary Doctors of Law degrees from Middlebury College and the University of Vermont. Prior to coming to Bennington, he taught at Cooper Union and served as associate provost of Columbia University. He was secretary and then associate director of the College Entrance Examination Board, editing the College Board Review and The College Handbook and essentially creating the College Scholarship Service. In 1960, while at Bennington, he served on the first planning committee for President-elect John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Under his leadership, the College built the Edward Clark Crossett Library, designed by the award-winning modernist architect Pietro Belluschi. He was vice chairman of the American Council on Education, vice president of the Vermont Foundation of Independent Colleges, and a director of the New England Council.
Frederick H. Burkhardt, president 1947–1957
Bennington’s third president, Frederick Burkhardt, earned degrees at Columbia and Oxford before receiving his PhD from Columbia in 1940. He led Bennington College for a decade, during which time the College became a kind of Mecca for the visual and performing arts. Visitors to campus included Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Morris Louis, Adolph Gottleib, Joseph Cornell, Larry Poons, Isaac Witkin, William Turnbull, Kenneth Noland, and many others—many of whom received their first solo exhibitions outside of the commercial galleries at Bennington. Leaving in 1957 after celebrating the 25th anniversary of the College, Burkhardt moved on to work with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), where he served as the institution’s first president. He also served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, directed the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna, vice-chaired the National Advisory Commission on Libraries, and was appointed by two U.S. presidents to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. He would go on to found The Darwin Correspondence Project in 1974, which has published 15 volumes of Charles Darwin’s letters, with aims to publish more than 30 volumes in all—creating the first authoritative text of Darwin’s correspondence.
Lewis Webster Jones, president 1941–1947
Bennington’s second president, Lewis Webster Jones, was an economist. Before coming to Bennington, he served on the staff of the Foreign Policy Association and the League of Nations. He received his undergraduate degree from Reed College, after which he did graduate work in economics at Columbia University and special studies at the London School of Economics and at Cambridge and Geneva Universities. He received a PhD from the Brookings Institution in Washington. Under his leadership at Bennington, the winter internship term would extend to 12 weeks from the original 8. After retiring from Bennington, he became the president of the University of Arkansas, Rutgers University, and, finally, the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Robert Devore Leigh, founding president 1928–1941
In 1928, four years before the College would begin, Robert Devore Leigh was recruited by the Bennington College executive committee to serve as the first president of Bennington. Born in Nebraska, raised in Seattle, he received an undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and a PhD from Columbia University. Prior to coming to Bennington, he was the Hepburn Professor of Government at Williams College. He previously taught at Reed College and lectured at Columbia University and Barnard College. At Bennington he oversaw the construction of the original campus, which was built by more than 100 local craftsmen, many of whom had been out of work since the stock market crash of 1929. Leigh was the author, in 1929, of the Bennington College Prospectus, which outlined the “Bennington idea.” After presiding over the forging of Bennington’s structure and its early operation, he resigned from Bennington to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.