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National CrossTalk Summer 2002
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On Its Own Terms
After a controversial restructuring, Bennington College continues its non-traditional approach

By Kathy Witkowsky
Bennington, Vermont

One of three essay questions included on the Bennington College application is this: Design a structure or series of structures to define a play area that creates the thrill of the unknown.

One possible response: Submit a map of the school itself. Located on the gentle slopes of a 550-acre former dairy farm in southern Vermont, the college is dedicated to the notion that students should explore and follow their passions, trust their instincts, and find work so engaging that it feels like play.

On a chilly spring night, in a small classroom in "the Barn," Bennington's modest version of main hall, college president Elizabeth Coleman-Liz, as she's known to both faculty and students-demonstrated how she translates that philosophy into practice. A handsome woman with a shock of gray hair and an air of authority, Coleman, 64, listened intently as each of her seven literature students described the challenges they were encountering in their independent studies. One by one, Coleman responded to their concerns.

  • To a freshman who had chosen to study Sophocles' Philoctetes (a play so obscure that Coleman herself hadn't previously read it): Think about why this particular Greek tragedy engages you. Don't worry so much about what the critics say; look to yourself to puzzle through it.
  • To a student intrigued but overwhelmed by conservation issues: You're afraid of failure? What exactly would that be? Nothing's perfect. Just try to figure out which conservation issues matter to you, and why.
  • And to a student writing about magic realism, but struggling to focus ("I'm literally exploding with ideas!" the student exclaimed, when it finally was her turn to speak): Continue writing stream of consciousness, then address one particular question or issue that comes up.

"I think all schools should treat students like Bennington treats students," said Coleman, herself a product of a much more traditional education at the University of Chicago. In her usual pull-no-punches style, she had a blunt one-word response for those who believe that only a select group of highly motivated and self-directed students can benefit from the school's no-requirements, optional-grades approach: "Bullshit!"

Discovering your passions and taking responsibility for yourself is something that all students should learn, she said. The intensity of her students' intellectual curiosity-and Coleman's respect for their abilities-would have been noteworthy under any circumstances. That this scene was unfolding just eight years after Coleman led Bennington through a radical and highly controversial restructuring was a remarkable testament to her leadership, which her fans call brilliant, her critics call autocratic, and nearly everyone considers fearless.

Once headed toward bankruptcy, Bennington is not only solvent, it is once again in the vanguard of progressive education. Enrollment, finances and morale are all up, and Coleman is getting the credit for it. "Liz created one of the great economically motivated changes at the school, making it look like principle and not desperation," said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers' College at Columbia University. "I can't think of one other college president in America who could pull that off."

Historically tuition-dependent, the tiny liberal arts school faced skyrocketing costs, plunging enrollment and a $1 million deficit during the early 1990s. In addition, according to Coleman, the school was adrift and sinking fast. Since its founding in 1932 as an all-women's college (it became co-educational in 1969, though women still comprise 70 percent of undergraduates), Bennington had considered itself a leader in progressive education, the place where Martha Graham began to develop modern dance, and Buckminster Fuller built one of his first geodesic domes. But in more recent years, it was perhaps best known as the most expensive college in the country, as well as being a place for "artsy weirdos in the woods," as director of admissions Deane Bogardus put it.

Although it no longer is even close to being the most expensive college, Bennington still attracts artists and independent thinkers. With the help of faculty advisers, students design their own curricula, which gives them the ability to pursue unusual academic combinations: science and theater;
photography and mediation; biology and international relations. If they want to study a subject that is not offered, they are expected to arrange a tutorial. Many colleges will allow students to design their own programs; the difference at Bennington is that all students must do so.

"You're put on the line in terms of your education," explained Abbey Salon, 23, of Ridgefield, Connecticut. After her sophomore year at Clark University, Salon transferred to Bennington, where she is studying literature and earning a master's degree in teaching. At Clark, she said, "You have a set amount of courses. There's no asking what your education is. Here you're asked to justify everything."

"There aren't many institutions where the students even know what the pedagogy of the school is or means," noted admissions director Bogardus. "I think ours do. And they're very vocal about it." The Bennington approach does not work for every student. "I call this Camp Bennington," said freshman Phoebe Judge, 18, of Chicago, who plans to transfer to Mt. Holyoke College or Vassar College, where she hopes to find a more challenging and more structured academic environment. "I want a place where I don't call my professors by their first names," she said, conceding that the teachers "do know more than the students."

But for Mary Catherine La Mar, the student who was "literally bursting with ideas" in Coleman's tutorial, Bennington is the school she has been searching for. "College shouldn't be a factory," she said. "People say, 'Just play the game.' Well, I don't want to pay money to play the game. I really want to get an education." A couple of years ago, before she knew anything about Bennington, La Mar was enrolled in a political theory course at Columbia University. But she became incensed when the professor distributed a handout that cited key pages of the course readings-ideas the professor clearly wanted included in the final papers.

"I was horrified," she said. "It was like being a parrot. I felt gypped. I thought, 'This isn't learning.'" Cut to February 2002. La Mar, now a 25-year-old junior at Bennington College, was in Boston for her winter field-work term, desperately trying to figure out how to approach her independent study on magic realism. For weeks, she read everything she could find at the public library about the subject, in an effort to discover what questions interested her the most. The irony-that she was just a stone's throw away from Harvard, Tufts, MIT, Boston University and Boston College-wasn't lost on her. "I thought, 'Right now, there is a class being offered in magic realism,'" she recalled, laughingly describing her frustration.

And while some of those classes may have made her life easier, La Mar doesn't regret navigating her way through her own process of discovery. Bennington, she is convinced, is the right place for her to do that. "I love it here!" she said. "You're constantly being asked, 'What are you really interested in?'"

According to its website, Bennington "does not expect students to conform, but to transform." Like graduating senior Kati Bicknell, 21, who was a blue-haired high school cheerleader in Richford, Vermont before coming to Bennington (where she dyed her hair orange and decided to study video and fashion so she could open a design studio in Chicago), Bennington students do not necessarily want to eschew the mainstream. Much like the school itself, they simply want to interact with the world on their own terms.

"Bennington has to justify itself. It's not an automatic for anyone," said Coleman, president since 1987. But without a massive overhaul, she said, Bennington would not have survived-certainly not in a form true to its mission. "It was a matter of time before this college would have been in tremendous crisis," Coleman said, defending the sweeping set of measures she helped enact in 1994. Among those actions was the abrupt firing of 20 teachers whose positions were eliminated, and refusal to renew the contracts of five others. In one fell swoop, Bennington cut its faculty by about a third.

"The last thing I was interested in was this kind of radical surgery," Coleman said. But Bennington, she said, had "lost its edge" and was no longer able to attract the number and quality of students it needed. Previous attempts to improve the situation with less extreme measures, such as cutting administrative costs and reducing faculty through attrition, had not worked. Eventually, it became clear that more drastic measures were needed. "This college had one serious shot at protecting its values," Coleman said.

Cutting faculty and eliminating some of their classes (art history, for example, was folded into art classes, to cut costs) was only part of a huge college reorganization. In an effort to get the school back on track, Bennington announced that it would abolish its "presumptive" tenure system (which, pending review, renewed faculty contracts every five years) and instead would offer contracts of varying lengths that may or may not be renewed; replace academic departments with interdisciplinary faculty "program groups"; and return to a practice of hiring only "teacher-practitioners" who were actively engaged in their disciplines.

To ensure that students don't become too isolated from the world beyond Bennington's pastoral borders, they have long been required to spend eight weeks each winter working or interning off-campus. After the restructuring, the school also initiated programs designed to increase interaction between Bennington students and the blue-collar community where the college is located.

And in an effort to shed that nagging reputation as the most expensive college in the nation, Bennington promised to cut tuition by ten percent after inflation over the following five years. (The plan worked: With current annual tuition and fees at $26,540, and room and board another $6,700, few people would call Bennington a bargain, but last year 68 schools cost even more.)

The ensuing media coverage-which included articles in The Christian Science Monitor, U.S. News & World Report, and The New York Times Magazine, among other national publications-astonished Coleman, who was publicly demonized by some of the dismissed faculty, 19 of whom subsequently sued the school. (The suit finally was settled in December 2000, when Bennington agreed to pay $1.89 million to the 17 surviving faculty members and to apologize to them. Bennington still denies any wrongdoing; the settlement, said David Rees, Bennington's director of communications and external relations, merely "seemed expedient.")

"I don't know of any time in the history of higher education when any institution has attracted such attention," Coleman said. "It seems like if something happens at Bennington, it's sexier than if it happens somewhere else."

There is a reason for that, said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). "I think Bennington is the case study, writ large, for the struggles of academic politics," Warren said. "The fundamental question that is posed at Bennington in a more dramatic way than at any other place is: 'Who governs?'"

For better or worse, Coleman clearly wields a tremendous amount of power. Her critics, generally fired faculty, say she is arrogant and uncompromising, that she runs Bennington like her personal Mom-and-Pop store; her fans, including Bennington's Board of Trustees President Deborah Wadsworth, consider her a visionary. "Liz has been quite extraordinary in bringing Bennington back from a low point in its history," said Wadsworth, president of the nonprofit policy research organization Public Agenda. "It's in very, very good hands."

Coleman, though, is quick to point out that the school's restructuring was not a unilateral decision but rather one undertaken with generous input and support from the college's trustees, and only after a year-long series of public meetings. That made the personal attacks very painful, she said.

Perhaps more painful was the immediate aftermath. In 1995, one year after the restructuring, enrollment sank to a record low 285, and the campus was bitterly divided over whether Coleman was the school's savior or the anti-Christ. And the controversy didn't go away. In the spring of 2000, in response to Bennington's decision to dismiss several faculty members, including a philosophy teacher who had publicly criticized Coleman and was fired mid-semester, the American Association of University Professors organized a protest. More than 100 supporters marched onto the Bennington campus, where Coleman greeted their leaders with college t-shirts, and students drowned them out with loud music and gongs.

Bennington remains on the censure list of the AAUP.

"The college doesn't have a system of academic due process where the burden is on the administration to show adequacy of cause before terminating a faculty member," said Robert Kreiser, AAUP associate secretary. "Therefore, from our perspective, the exercise of academic freedom is at risk."

Not true, responded college spokesman David Rees. The AAUP "is an organization devoted to preserving tenure," said Rees. That puts it at direct odds with Bennington, which "has never had tenure, has no academic rank, and is devoted to giving every faculty member-regardless of seniority-the maximum possible freedom to teach, create and research what he or she loves and wants most to explore with students."

Academic freedom is not at risk, Rees said. Just the opposite, "Bennington's uncommon pedagogy depends on academic freedom, on collegial governance, on systems of regular, rigorous and honest evaluations, and on due process."

Longtime biology teacher Elizabeth Sherman said that even though she herself has been "defrocked" from tenure, she has faith in the current system. "I cannot work just to protect the common denominator," said Sherman, who serves along with Coleman on the recently revamped Faculty and Performance Review Committee. "Do I wish I had a guarantee that I had an income for life? Yes. But I feel that if I do my job I'll be rehired."

Part of the nature of Bennington is that some faculty do come and go. Because the school is so small, those changes are keenly felt. But Rees said that the school is not the revolving door that critics like to portray. This year, he said, the school renewed 19 of 20 contracts that were expiring.

Nor is Coleman as intractable as her critics say, accordingto Sherman: During a debate this spring over one faculty member's contract, she said, "minds were changed."

Another faculty member who asked not be identified scoffed at the allegation that Coleman dismissed teachers because they have publicly criticized her. "A story about your own martyrdom is much more interesting than a story about your professional incompetence," he said.

The AAUP censure aside, some higher education observers consider the Bennington reorganization a resounding success. "What once was a very artsy institution with the highest tuition in the country is now an institution pressing the academic envelope about who governs and what it means to be a progressive institution," said NAICU President David Warren, adding that he was sometimes "dumbstruck" by what goes on at Bennington.

As the leader of the "poster child" for progressive education, Coleman "represents a kind of radical wishful thinking," Warren said. "I can name almost no one who has acted with quite the full force and effect that Liz Coleman has." Indeed, the numbers look good. Bennington's on-campus undergraduate enrollment has increased to 537 this past academic year, and is projected to be 585 for the coming school year, just shy of the school's maximum capacity of 620. That is the highest enrollment since 1990, when it was 570, and twice as high as it was in 1995, the year after the restructuring.

The freshman year attrition rate has declined from 40 percent in 1993 to 12 percent. This year's graduation rate was 70 percent, much higher than the historical rate of between 50 and 60 percent, said communications director Rees. That has allowed Bennington to increase the faculty, too: from 51 in 1995-'96 to 75 this coming academic year.

College officials say the future appears even brighter. The graduation rate for 2002-'03 is expected to exceed 80 percent. The number of applications is up from about 600 for the 1998-'99 school year to between 750 and 800 for 2002-'03. And more of those applicants are choosing to come to Bennington: last year, 41 percent of the students accepted by Bennington matriculated there, compared to just 28 percent three years ago. More than 75 percent of students receive at least some financial aid from the college.

The quality of those students is also better: Forty-eight percent of last year's freshmen graduated in the top ten percent of their high school class, and their average combined SAT score was 1,191, up 41 points since 1997.

Students say they have noticed the difference. "Morale has never been higher since I've been here," said graduating senior Rachael Torchia, 22, of Portland, Oregon, who said she hoped to use the photography and mediation skills she learned at Bennington to work with troubled teenagers, which she had already begun to do during her senior year. "I think people genuinely love it here."

"Students are coming here because it's their choice-their first choice," said junior Emily Keegin, 21, of Sausalito, California. Keegin didn't even apply anywhere else, and she now works part-time in the admissions office, exchanging e-mails with prospective students wanting to know about everything from contra dancing to dormitory bathtubs. "We're told to be completely honest," she said; that way, applicants can "self-select," which helps reduce the attrition rate.

The school also has dramatically improved its financial situation. It no longer has an operating deficit, and has raised an unprecedented $47 million since the restructuring. Initially, most of the support came from foundations, but $38.5 million has come from alumni and individuals, far more than they had ever contributed before, said Sherri Mylott, Bennington's vice president for development. "The alumni are very happy," she said. "I constantly hear, 'We feel the energy, we see it in the publications, we feel it on the campus-it's real.'"

Students agree. They're aware of the controversy over the restructuring, but for the most part, they said, it's ancient history. "It's becoming a lot more comfortable to joke about it," said student government president Kamal Shaikh, 24, a graduating senior from Karachi, Pakistan, who said he had tremendous respect for President Coleman. The big issues on campus these days are class scheduling and student input-hardly revolutionary topics. Students acknowledged that it was sometimes painful to see Bennington dismissing teachers they were fond of. And they expressed some misgivings about the way those teachers are treated. But they also felt confident that, on balance, the system worked in their favor.

"I think it's better to lose good teachers than to only have mediocre teachers," said graduating senior Melody Zilber, 21, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, a painter who considers Bennington nothing short of "utopia." Like many of her classmates, Zilber spent the bulk of her college career at Bennington's Visual and Performing Arts Center, or VAPA, which functions as the heart of the school. Whereas many college students rally around intercollegiate sports teams, which Bennington doesn't have, Bennington students rally around their work-and much of that work goes on in the darkrooms, theaters and art studios of VAPA.

Faculty members, as well as students, are encouraged to collaborate and experiment. After longtime dance instructor Susan Sgorbati and costume design instructor Daniel Michaelson became certified mediators, they developed a course in mediation. The popular class attracts about 25 students each year, and advanced students assist professional mediators in local courts. Building on that success, Sgorbati and Michaelson founded Quantum Leap, an outreach program that allows Bennington students to work with local at-risk high school students.

Her professional progression isn't as illogical as it might seem, said Sgorbati: Like dance improvisation, mediation is about making order out of chaos. What is unusual, she said, is that Bennington allowed her to pursue it. "To switch fields like that in academia is not a common practice," noted Sgorbati, a Bennington graduate who said she "can't imagine teaching anywhere else."

Bennington even gets high marks from painter and performance poet Carol Diehl, though she was shocked-and disappointed-that her teaching contract wasn't renewed this spring, after four years. "I'm a big supporter of Bennington," said Diehl, who loved the flexibility to design her painting courses to fit her philosophy. She plans to write a book about the process and teaching of art. Faculty aren't treated fairly, she said, but added, "I am absolutely one hundred percent grateful for my experience."

So, too, are most of the students. "The only thing the school wants from you is for you to tell them what you want from life," said Summer Zandrew, who graduated in 2000. Now living in Chicago, Zandrew, 27, credits Bennington with giving her the confidence to pursue her painting; already, she has sold almost a dozen pieces. "The actual information they gave me was nothing. The information they inspired me to get for myself was amazing," said Zandrew. "Bennington kind of takes away all the fear."

Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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