Bennington in the Landscape of Higher Education (Winter 2014)
As I begin my second year as Bennington’s president, I am working every day to build on the hundreds of conversations I have had with students, alumni, faculty, staff, and parents over the past year. With each encounter, each moment, each day, I am ever more certain that Bennington has a crucial role to play in shaping the landscape of higher education today.
We have taken the summer to immerse ourselves in all that we have heard from you during the past year of listening, reflection, and dialogue. We emerge with our sights set squarely on three priorities that will propel our work over the next decade and into Bennington’s best future. You will be hearing more about these priorities over the next several months, but I wanted to take this moment to share our thinking thus far with you.
Fulfilling the promise of progressive education
Since our founding in 1932, Bennington has been a beacon for genuinely pioneering education. Today, Bennington must continue to be a leading voice for educational innovation and a laboratory for teaching, learning, and working.
The national conversation on the value of higher education requires it; our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and parents demand it. We will continue this work by honing and building upon the hallmarks of a Bennington education: the academic planning and advising process, the winter work term, and the supportive and collaborative community that provides opportunities for learning everywhere on our campus and beyond.
Building the Bennington network to extend our reach and expand our resources
Bennington’s best future lies in the hands of people who have experienced the power of a Bennington education firsthand. It is time—past time—for the College to engage alumni and parents (as well as institutional partners and employers and funders) more broadly and directly.
We need you as both thought partners and supporters. We have spent the past year in conversation with alumni across the country and throughout the decades about how you want to be engaged. We are now in the process of developing, together with many alumni, what we are calling theBennington Alumni Cooperative—cooperative because, like any good co-op, its success rests on the shared vision and shared efforts of its members. Together, we will ensure that the College continues to be a destination for talent and an incubator for ideas. You will be hearing much more about this from the alumni who are leading the charge.
Ensuring Bennington’s financial sustainability
It is incumbent upon those of us who believe in Bennington to invest in Bennington.
It is incumbent upon those of us who believe in Bennington to invest in Bennington (which also happens to be the theme of the just-launched Bennington Fund Decades Challenge, generously led by alumni and parents). At the same time, we must attract and generate new resources so that we may continue to invest in our people, our programs, and our infrastructure. And we must also invest in the long-term future of the College by building a significant endowment to provide a stable source of support for the College’s critical needs. Each year the College’s greatest single budget expenditure is for student scholarships. I am proud that we have been able to put a Bennington education within the reach of so many students, and I am committed to not letting finances be a barrier to entry. To secure this commitment for generations to come, we must resource the College not just for today but for the future.
This Work Is Underway
I am pleased to say that much of this work is already underway, and I want to share with you a few examples from the first two months of the term.
- We have 192 wonderfully diverse and talented students in this fall’s entering class—from a record 28 states and 27 countries. This is an extraordinary geographic range for a student body of our size. This year, 84% of our undergraduates are receiving need-based scholarships from the College, and 21% meet the federal government’s criteria for Pell Grants. Few of our peers, even those more highly resourced than we are, are doing as much to make their campuses accessible to low-income students.
- This fall we also welcomed a new vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, Hung Bui, from Colby College. Hung’s arrival coincided with the College’s introduction of the Dimensional Application, a new application option that invites students to individually curate a collection of their work that demonstrates their readiness to meet the demands of a Bennington education. What is distinctive about this application is the way a student demonstrates readiness—it is entirely of the applicant’s choosing—and how it is assessed—the body of work a student assembles is reviewed by a committee of 14 alumni and faculty in fields ranging from neuroscience to the arts to digital campaign strategy. Bennington is one of a few colleges that has introduced alternatives to the Common Application in recent years, and our announcement was covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, The New York Times, among others.
- For 10 days in September, Bennington’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) hosted 12 young professionals from Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, each committed to advancing issues of environmental sustainability. It was inspiring to see the impact they had on the faculty who invited them into their classrooms and the students who served as their hosts. And, the education was reciprocal. It was remarkable to engage with these young leaders as they learned how powerfully Bennington’s approach to advancing one’s work can be applied outside the framework of an undergraduate education. This initiative was led by faculty members Susan Sgorbati and Rabbi Michael Cohen and was informed by their ongoing work with the Arava Institute in Israel.
- Another example of how Bennington expands to incorporate both the deep-seated and the emerging interests of faculty: literature faculty member and long-time advocate for prison reform Annabel Davis-Goff is developing a curriculum and has organized several events around the issue of incarceration. The College hosted a two-day conference at CAPA this fall that brought together participants with a broad range of perspectives, including that of the formerly incarcerated, public health experts, advocates, service providers, policy-makers, law enforcement professionals, educators, and others. More than 175 people convened on the Bennington campus and their deliberations provided a rich lens for students, scholars, and experienced practitioners looking to deepen their understanding of the issue, and to advance it.
- In a project spearheaded by visual arts faculty member Jon Isherwood, the College has partnered with the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program to design a site-specific installation for its new embassy in Oslo, Norway. Students in the year-long course “Art in the Public Realm” are exploring what it means to design and implement public art projects, and their deliberations will inform the concept for the embassy project in Oslo. For more than 50 years, the Arts in Embassies program has engaged artists, museums, galleries, and private collectors to build cross-cultural connections through art. This project—embedded in an undergraduate curriculum—is among the first of its kind.
- This fall we offered a second online course for alumni, “Portraying Conflict: 35 Years of Instability in Afghanistan,” taught by anthropology faculty member Noah Coburn, who earlier this year served as an observer for the Afghan presidential and provincial council elections. The course ran for seven weeks and culminated last month with a talk by Noah in New York City. Last spring, the alumni who enrolled in French faculty member Stephen Shapiro’s “Americans in Paris” course were invited to join him in Paris for a cultural tour of the city. Next term, Japanese faculty member Ikuko Yoshida will explore the Japanese sense of beauty through the examination and practice of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. Registration is now open.
- Even as we take much pleasure in seeing these new endeavors and expressions of a Bennington education take shape and take hold, we celebrate what has always been at the core of the College’s genius: the inspired work of individuals. Consider this sampling of recent faculty work: a new biography of Leonard Bernstein by composer Allen Shawn; Kerry Woods’ collaboration with Eastern European researchers to study old-growth forests, which he pursued as a Fulbright Senior Specialist; countless exhibitions of new work, including solo shows by faculty members Mary Lum (Yancey Richardson Gallery), Barry Bartlett (John Davis Gallery), and Liz Deschenes (Walker Art Center), who also received this year’s Rappaport Prize; upcoming premieres by faculty members Sherry Kramer (drama) and Elena Demyanenko (dance); Paul Voice’s recent publications on philosopher Hannah Ahrendt; and too many other papers, performances, translations, compositions, and collaborations to list here. More news.
It is my challenge to you today—and I mean you and the community within hearing—to make of scalability something better than the word’s usual use. To make it a Bennington word.Jonathan Lethem '86
At my inauguration in April, Jonathan Lethem ’86 put forth the following challenge: “It is my challenge to you today—and I mean you and the community within hearing—to make of scalability something better than the word’s usual use. To make it a Bennington word. Not to franchise this place, to dot the landscape with Benningtons like McDonald’s, but to always keep in mind that the utopian experiment here will ultimately fail if it doesn’t seek to translate itself into the wider environment, to become a necessary expression of broader utopian possibility. The possibility, that is, of the things our culture too readily believes are impossible.”
I am continually inspired by what happens at Bennington and am thrilled to take up Jonathan’s challenge. I look forward to working together with you and with all who believe in Bennington’s capacity to transform possibility—for this College and our students, for higher education, and for the world.
With warm regards,