Dreaming Joseph

A Liz Coleman Story by Briee Della Rocca 

Liz Coleman once wrote, “Whenever I mention Bennington, something is bound to happen.” It’s true, and the same can be said about Liz. Take, for instance, the fact that most people have an opinion of her, and usually a strong one. Or that everyone seems to think they know her, or know someone who knows her. Reaction to Liz is usually black or white and almost always extreme—responses, in other words, that are typically reserved for politicians and celebrities. And Liz is neither. 

Seven years into her tenure at Bennington, when most college presidents are looking to move on, Liz Coleman became a household name as the leading figure in a major restructuring undertaken by the College, a year-long process known as the Symposium. The attention was astounding, maybe even historic. “No one could have imagined anything like it,” she says. “When it was clear that Bennington was contemplating changes that might be quite radical, I had no illusions. I knew it would be a rough course. But at the same time none of us could have possibly anticipated the firestorm, or that it would be focused laser-like on me.”

The story of the Symposium at Bennington has been told so many times—more than 250 times in fact— that most people think they know it. It goes like this: Bennington College was in financial trouble so the College abolished tenure, dismantled the academic department structure, and red a third of its faculty. It is in this sensationalized narrative, played out in every major media outlet that Liz Coleman the caricature was born.

But what the media missed in its maelstrom was the more consequential story about the conditions necessary to bring about real institutional change, and why it matters that a tiny college in Vermont was putting them to the test. The Symposium, according to those instrumental to the process, was not only about saving Bennington College but also about reimagining institutional structures—sacred cows, many of them—as exible tools that could put ideas front and center, that could respond to the emerging, contingent, and interconnecting nature of those ideas, and that could be a source for ongoing renewal. If Bennington succeeded, it would be a model for colleges everywhere facing similar constraints on their capacity to make choices and changes.

For blazing this trail the trustees found their match in Liz: “She was beginning a second five-year term, so she had been at the College long enough to understand and believe in its promise but not so long as to lose faith in the possibility of change,” they said to Trusteeship magazine in 1995. “Most importantly, she had personal qualities of courage, wisdom, principle, and stamina that would enable her to match the board’s resolve when the going got tough.”

Whatever your take on Liz, most agree about her courage. It is usually the very first thing that people mention when they describe her and, for that matter, describe what they most desire in the next president. When asked about courage, Liz refers to insights provided by Aristotle and Plato. “For Aristotle, courage in a crisis situation becomes the most important virtue because every other virtue is dependent on it. And Plato has a wonderful way of getting at what it is. Essentially, he says, courage is saying the same thing all the time.”

Rebecca Stickney ’43, a member of the search committee was asked what she thought of Liz. “I think we ought to give her
the whole joint.” 

In a speech at Harvard’s School of Education, Liz talked about the Symposium process in just these terms. “At Bennington the leadership story is about a collection of trustees, who, in the face of excruciating political pressure to end the uncertainty, chose to engage in an institutional symposium for a year and a half and then, in the face of daunting economic pressures, issued a report that takes on the great questions of liberal education—those that have been asked forever, those just beginning to emerge, those as yet unheard. They did so with passion, without apology, and with an astonishing faith in the value of that education.” Looking purely at the facts, there is no mistaking the intelligence of the decisions. But there is an emotional dimension to the story that suffocates logic and dispassion. It was traumatic. In spite of the community-wide meetings that took place for more than a year and the Board’s attempt to reveal the stakes, the warnings that change was coming, when it came—when it was time to carry out the changes and make the difficult decisions— it would come as a shock. And the shock would be personal and public. “I was portrayed as heartless, brutal, sadistic, a horror of a person—and that’s the tip of the iceberg. How does it feel? Terrible. People would say, ‘Liz, you have to be thick skinned,’ which is hard to do when you feel like your skin has been stretched to the breaking point. In addition, as the president, I had an obligation to speak for the College. That, to me, included speaking for people who had lost their faculty; people who thought that there wasn’t a need for the Symposium.”

When you read the reports, you might wonder why Liz stayed. She will tell you that in addition to the vitriol there were amazing things that happened during that time. Amazing kindness, generosity, and concern not only from colleagues, students, and alumni, from total strangers. She sits up and leans forward when she finally comes to the heart of it. “What really kept me going was that this was all about something really important. It wasn’t just about making sure Bennington survived; it was a chance to realize Bennington’s stunning potential. That made it worth putting one foot in front of the other no matter what was happening.”

When Liz talks about the classroom, it is as if she’s describing a sacred space. 

It is difficult to discern, so many years later, what of Bennington Liz molds and what of Bennington was waiting here (Liz will tell you it was all waiting here). Before Liz came to Bennington she was writing a lot about the absurdity of sequential learning; the limits and rigidity of the academic departmental structure, and the important role work must play within the curriculum. It was all very Bennington, unmistakably Bennington. But Liz, at the time, didn’t know all that much about Bennington. “I knew about Bennington the way everybody knew about Bennington, by reading the papers, from friends who had more direct experience, its general reputation. It was all from a distance.” That is until she was suggested to Bennington’s Presidential Search Committee by two different alumni in academia.

The committee put her on the shortlist and in front of everyone and anyone who had anything to do with Bennington. As a finalist, Liz got to experience Bennington. And what happened to her is suggestive of what happens to most people who visit Bennington. “The moment I got here I could feel Bennington’s intensity. It was palpable, electrifying. Something was actually happening to people here. I saw firsthand that the focus was what people were thinking about, their ideas. It is intense, and it is an intensity that makes Bennington a very precious place.”

The people and their work were not all that moved Liz. She recognized that there was something moving about Bennington itself. “There are very few institutions in the eld of education that are interesting institutions, precious few. They may have very interesting students, they may have interesting faculty, but Bennington is actually an interesting institution.”

Liz is particularly drawn to big ideas, seemingly impossible ideas, or to be most precise, ideas with impact. It’s what she saw
in Bennington when she came and what she looks for still. It was what fueled the Symposiun and the College’s ongoing curricular initiatives. Throughout Liz’s tenure she has made a conscious effort to create an environment that protects the free flow of ideas. 

After that visit, Rebecca Stickney ’43, a member of the search committee, was asked what she thought of Liz. “I think we ought to give her the whole joint.”

And they did.

In her inaugural remarks Liz Coleman recalled Howard Nemerov describing Bennington as “a dreaming Joseph.” Twenty years later, I asked her what she thought Nemerov meant. “Oh yes,” she smiles. “Dreaming Joseph. What do I think that’s about? Well, I think it has to do with overreaching or extending into territories that are daring, with grandiosity and imagination. I think it’s about ambiguity; I love the ambiguity.” Indeed it is ambiguous, so ambiguous that if you ask anyone familiar with the story to interpret it, their interpretation tends to say more about them than the story itself. A lot like Bennington and, for that matter, Liz.

“Anyway, what happens to Joseph, again and again, is that he’s in situations that are beyond endurance. His fate, his eld is going in the wrong direction; all the alignment of forces say he’s in deep trouble. And again and again his dreams save him. He shoots for the stars and makes it.”

Dreams come up a lot at Bennington. They come up a lot in conversations with Liz, but dreams, when talking with Liz, are more often than not called ideas. “Ideas are rare,” she explains. “No one ever has enough money. Bennington pointedly didn’t have enough money, but no one ever does have enough. But what you often don’t have at all are ideas. That’s not the case at Bennington. This is a place that’s alive to ideas. It’s a place where ideas actually matter, where they are at the very center of an education.” Liz is particularly drawn to big ideas, seemingly impossible ideas, or to be most precise, ideas with impact. It is what she saw in Bennington when she came and what she looks for still. It was what fueled the Symposium and the College’s ongoing curricular initiatives. Throughout Liz’s tenure she has made a conscious effort to create an environment that protects the free ow of ideas. Take, for example, what happened in 2009 when the stock market crashed. Almost every college president in the country was frantically churning out statements reacting to the financial crisis. If you read one, it was likely that you got the gist of them all. They were assurances of the health of the institution, followed by forecasts of budget cuts, halting building projects, salary freezes, and layoffs. But Liz waited. “Part of me was convinced that we shouldn’t respond. Inevitably those statements, while meant to be reassuring, were also playing to a mood of crisis, and the necessity for retreat—often from business as usual and almost always from more ambitious projects. To me that impulse seemed like a mistake. But as more and more institutions made statements, it became clear that our silence would be an issue. And so gradually we decided to respond,” she stops. “And, I say ‘we’ because one doesn’t make these decisions alone.” So she began to write. “As it is with so many situations, it’s not enough to reassure people. Nor is one’s audience just the Bennington College community. What do you say, in short, as the head of one of the great colleges in this country, at a time of apparent crisis? What of all the things that could be said from this position are most in need of saying?”

In March 2009, after most college presidents issued their first statement— many of them well into their second or third letters—Liz wrote with Bennington’s response. In it she wrote: 

“We are fully aware of the magnitude of the crisis and appreciate that the current situation can change significantly and that it is more than likely going to get worse before it gets better. In such an atmosphere of concern and uncertainty, freezes, across-the-board cuts, and a backing off of new projects are especially tempting. The problem is that they are formulaic ways of dealing with an evolving situation and necessarily sideline the role of exibility, imagination, intelligence, and judgment. Those are Bennington’s stock in trade and we are particularly loath to abandon them, most especially in times like these. It is worth remembering that Bennington began in 1932 during the Great Depression and prevailed against unspeakable odds. Given that history we are unlikely to abandon at this moment the remarkable faith of the founders in the power of ideas and the human resourcefulness such ideas unleash.”

Presidents, especially college presidents, like to play it safe. They are a self-conscious group, wary of risk and outside-the-box responses. Most do what they are expected to do, and say what they are expected to say. Not Liz, and that makes her very rare.

Bennington itself was a risk, not only because of when it opened, but also because of what it opened. It was the first college to put visual and performing arts on the same academic footing as the social and hard sciences. Bennington pushed interdisciplinary work as essential. It maintained that faculty members should be both good teachers and active practitioners. And from the very beginning, it required that all students spend an entire term, every year, in the field.

The risks that once put Bennington on the map as one of the most radical institutions of higher learning in the country are no longer risks but givens. You’d be hard pressed, for instance, to find any college without a visual and performing arts building or major. More colleges and universities are attempting to infuse some flexibility into rigidly defined major structures. A greater number of institutions are compelled by the value of interdisciplinary learning and its importance in an uncertain world. Many colleges now build in internship requirements, although few, if any, require a full work term every year. And less than 20 years after the Symposium, many liberal arts colleges are beginning to adopt its core elements by eliminating presumptive tenure systems in favor of contracts, creating budgets for innovation in programming, and constructing avenues around the academic department structure.

But even as more and more colleges adopt Bennington’s structures and principles of education, it remains distinctive and important. “Bennington is a leader and produces graduates with the capacity for leadership. They have a well-grounded self-confidence, a willingness to put themselves out there to achieve something worthwhile, and the ability to mobilize others in pursuing those ends. These are essential characteristics of leadership that we talk about in this country so much but rarely produce,” Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College and president of The Spencer Foundation says. “A college doesn’t achieve such outcomes without itself taking genuine risks. Other colleges and universities depend on Bennington to do things differently, to take new directions; that’s fundamental to its role as a leader.”

Bennington’s ability to reclaim its position as a leader in higher education was in no small part because of Liz’s own advocacy for a reimagined, reinvigorated role for the liberal arts in America. Widely recognized as a thought leader in higher education, Liz has spoken nationally and internationally about the need to reform the fixed nature of higher education, one that pushes students toward increasingly narrow areas of study. “From what I have been able to discern the only real and ubiquitous source of curricular hierarchy in higher education is the presumption that a progressive shrinking of subject matter is somehow equivalent to intellectual advancement,” Liz has said. But really, she explains, “the most important distinction in collegiate education is not between general and special, but rather between serious and trivial, responsible and irresponsible, better or worse.”

It is in this context that the Center for the Advancement of Public Action was born, and it is where Liz will spend the next leg of her tenure at Bennington, leading the initiative as CAPA’s inaugural director. It’s a hybrid role that marries Liz’s trail-blazing leadership and what she sees as her most authentic craft: teaching.

“If you were to ask me ‘do you have a craft?’ I’d say it’s teaching, certainly not being a college president.” Most of her writing is about the curriculum and the possibilities the classroom offers. It does not matter with whom she is talking—faculty, students, staff, parents, the media, or donors—when she talks about the classroom; it is as if she’s describing a sacred space.

“Words cannot adequately capture what Liz has done for Bennington— her vision, imagination, and courage are immeasurable,” Deborah Wadsworth, trustee and former Board chair, said. “But it is her understanding of the power of liberal education as the very heart and soul of a civil society that is unparalleled. And that at the heart of liberal education lies the awesome responsibility of the teacher. And what a teacher she is—whether in the classroom, boardroom, or colloquy with fellow faculty, teaching is for Liz an ethical and aesthetic activity in pursuit of a more realized life.”

To see most clearly what Wadsworth described, you need to watch Liz teach. Last term she co-taught a course, Workshop on Human Rights: Women and Girls, with music faculty member Susie Ibarra. Liz and Susie are sitting among the students at the table, neither at the head. The class is discussing their last reading assignment, the 2004 United National Development Program Report on “Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World.” The discussion starts slow, with moments of elongated silence—the kind of silence that is tempting for a teacher to interrupt. But neither does. They wait for the students to continue. It picks up. Students begin to gain new insights by analyzing the text; they build on each other’s insights, feed them, tease them, argue, and defend their positions. They’re discussing human rights.

And soon they’re digging deeper, getting more and more focused about what they mean, what they see, what they don’t see. The discussion begins to take a turn toward the abstract. In the course of conversation, one student poses this: “If you give women rights in some cultures, isn’t that taking away what some men in those cultures consider to be their rights?”

Before any other student jumps in, Liz leans over, looks at the student, and asks, “What is a right?”

The student begins to sense, based on the question, that she has gone down an ill-fated path. She tries to explain what she meant when she asked the question. Liz stops her. “OK, let me put it another way. Do I have the right not to inhale smoke and the toxins that includes?” The student nods. “But what about the smoker? Does he have a right to smoke around me?” The class pauses from its moments-earlier fast pace. They are just about to say “Yes, of course,” when Liz answers her own question. “I would say, no, smoking is not a right.”

All too often what we take in when reading is what we already believe or care about. Allowing the world someone else has made to become yours is a very difficult thing to do, but once you do it, you are never the same. 

The students are stumped. They can’t believe the president just said that people don’t have the right to smoke. In fact one student verifies. “Wait, so are you saying that people don’t have the right to smoke?” Liz doesn’t dwell on the example. Instead, she comes back to the point. “So the question is, what exactly is a right? And how does the way you are using it expand or diminish the possibilities for insight?”

This is the kind of thing Liz does a lot in the classroom, and in her work outside of the classroom. I ask her about this. She begins to talk about the role of presuppositions, of preconceptions in shaping what we see and what we think. She elaborates by talking about drawing as a way of seeing—her discovery that the only way to accurately draw something is to rid yourself of all of your associations of what it looks like. “No easy task,” she says. “Once you realize that prior knowledge can actually get in the way of seeing—the great challenge becomes how you use what you already know or think you know in a way that does not get in the way of seeing what you don’t yet know. This is also the essence and challenge of reading—the craft of taking things in: in effect letting the text write you, allowing it to determine what you are registering and when—who you actually are for that moment. It’s the opposite of picking and choosing. All too often what we take in when reading is what we already believe or care about. Allowing the world someone else has made to become yours is a very difficult thing to do, but once you do it, you are never the same.”

Liz Coleman is complicated text, and like most complicated texts, she is easily misunderstood. To know her is to understand what it is to exist in abundant nuance and context. You must know Liz for a long time, in time’s many moments, in order to most clearly see what she has done at Bennington and what she has contributed to higher education—and what she had to go through to get there.

But it is much easier, much more sensational to take Liz Coleman out of context, to bound her to a moment in time, to project assumptions about her motivations, to pick and choose, to condemn her or make her a hero. It’s a tempting impulse; one might even say a human impulse. But it is an impulse that doesn’t get you very far. Indeed if there is any real truth, it is that Liz Coleman is a lover—of people, of ideas, of human possibilities—in short she is as Bennington as it gets.