By Celene Barrera ‘15
As many of you may know, The Bennington Free Press will no longer be producing print issues as of Spring 2014. This issue is the first of three to be published this term before we make the transition to an all-digital student publication. This decision was something that we are taking very seriously; we will be discussing it at length in a future issue.
To mark this change, we have, through a generous donation by Clark Perks ‘89, received an archive of Bennington newspapers dating back to as early as 1986. At ten years, The Bennington Free Press is the longest surviving student-run newspaper at Bennington College. The story behind the creation of various papers leading up to the Free Press is a fascinating partition of Bennington’s history.
Before the BFP, there was The Commons. Volume 1, Issue 1 of The Commons was published on October 15, 1986. The staff was minimal: John McManus, Adam Stern, and Timothy Halpern are listed in the staff box. In an age without social media, political commentary and international news briefs are regular columns. Advertisements are smattered on every page, many from local businesses that students still enjoy today such as Spice n’ Nice and Subway.
A note from the Editorial Staff reads: “Welcome to THE COMMONS. Today’s issue represents the beginning of what we hope will become a larger, more comprehensive paper in the future. We have, at this printing, created a framework that is both physical and ideological. “
The Commons was a paper designed to reflect the students and philosophies of the College. One of the recurring columns is a record of SEPC minutes, the other of the Student Council. No one is entirely sure what became of the Student Council. It seemed to be a tenant of the Bennington activist community. Activist is probably one of the best words to describe these papers from the late 80s: from news to articles, the transparency in student thoughts and opinions is easy to see. An article from September 16, 1989 plainly asks: “What Happened to the Student Constitution?” The voice is clear, and, in the spirit of most Bennington students, evokes a mood that punctuates a palpable level of frustration:
“…I have stories…; about fighting to keep students from being unjustly punished; about how the opportunity to repair our own damages was taken away; about how student apathy hit us like a plague. I’ve seen a turn-over in administration and now I’ve even seen our Student Constitution disappear.”
Robynne Kingham, the writer of the story, continues on to say that the Student Constitution was left out of the Handbook and then essentially The Student Constitution, which is not in effect today, outlines a structure likely unimaginable at Bennington today.
“This was our contract with the administration, and it has been broken.”
The last issue available from our archives was published Friday, April 14, 1989. From there, our archives indicate that in the early 90s, there was an absence of papers, followed by an abundance of papers: a competition between The Bennington Voice and The Bennington Free Press. The Bennington Free Press became the paper that would be present for the next ten years.
So what does the future hold? From these papers, one could playfully joke the college has been stuck in a virtual time-loop. The dining hall food still irritates many, there is no way to actively pursue any sort of judicial conflict resolution, and we still don’t know why there is always such a high turnover with college staff. Moves have been made to try and rectify the lack of a central representative voice for the college community; notably, the Bennington Ethos Project. There is so much we have yet to understand. Questions remain, twenty five years later, that we still cannot answer.
Perhaps, in some respects, we have gone forward. Yet, in many, we have not gone backward but stayed complacent. If anything, through time the opinion voice of Bennington has been decentralized. Aside from the Free Press, opinions are now expressed through manifestos on the Internet, blogs, and other digital means. What was once a hub for community engagement and transparency has now dwindled. What was once clearly delineated meeting minutes has now diverged into closed doors and confusion. As always, the time is for something, some form of action. It needs to be beyond a series of Bennington-esque conversations.
Now is the time for student-activist journalism. I welcome your submissions, your letters to the editors, your thoughts.