The Liz Coleman Retrospective: Part 1 (1987-1994)

By Mike Goldin '14

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Once upon a time in the 80s, Bennington College nearly ceased to exist. This is not a trivial distinction- most small and poorly endowed colleges that nearly cease to exist simply do in short order. Standing at the edge of its own fiscal cliff and with the force of declining application numbers at its back, the school’s situation had long been worrisome, if not outright grim. This was Elizabeth Coleman’s Bennington, circa 1987; the same Bennington that had chewed through its previous four presidents in disconcertingly quick succession. By the time Coleman officially steps down from her post at the end of the 2012-2013 academic year, she will have served as the school’s president longer than the past four did combined.

And, barring any unforeseen calamity, Bennington College will still exist.

Things got worse before they got better, however- that much is well known. If the College had been looking over the cliff’s edge in the 80s, by 1994 it was falling vertiginously towards some unknown bottom, encouraged- and then pushed- over the precipice by the Board of Trustees with the publication of the Symposium Report and the firing of 27 professors who comprised one third of the College’s faculty. With only 285 students in tow, the task of saving Bennington was left to its ninth president and a hard core of true believers in the faculty and staff. Slowing the free fall- even stopping it- would still have likely meant the end of history for Bennington College; the school needed to re-invent itself almost completely as a matter of life or death. “Bennington,” Coleman said at the time, “has got to do something that no one else is doing, and it’s got to do it superbly well. If we’re not a little bit grandiose, we’re nothing.”

The Bad Beginning

The Bennington that Coleman inherited upon her arrival in 1987 was sleepy. The once revolutionary institution which had hosted Buckminster Fuller, Helen Frankenthaler and Martha Graham had slowly devolved, and the legendary Thursday night poker games between Kenneth Burke, Stanley Hyman, Paul Feeley and former College president Fred Burkhardt were an obscure and cloudy memory, the kind which one might even mistake for a dream. In the eyes of the public, Bennington had transmuted itself from a sterling institution on the leading edge of liberal thought and artistic practice to a kind of hedonistic dumping ground for well pedigreed children with too much money. Bennington had become, in Liz’s words, mediocre. Bennington was

also approaching bankruptcy- fast. The College’s outgoing president, Michael Hooker, had been selling land to make payroll. His next move? Mortgaging the campus to borrow money. Hooker departed Bennington on short notice in 1986.

With the specter of bankruptcy looming and the school’s budget running at a deficit of one million dollars annually, the task most immediately at hand was clear. By 1987, salaries had been frozen for three years (in the midst of Reagan- era inflation, no less), the physical campus was falling into disrepair, and money for financial aid was scarce. That last point was especially poignant- Bennington’s declining academic reputation was very much linked to a student body that was not publicly seen as being of the caliber it once was, and this was due in no small part to the school’s inability to offer competitive grants and scholarships. It was a death spiral: the absence of scholarship money degraded the quality of the student body, which in turn hurt application rates, which eventually led to declining enrollment, which left the school with even less money. Mansour Farhang has been on the faculty since 1983, and remembers a student body that “for several years [was] not intellectually challenging or curious as a group.” It was becoming apparent that theschool’sfinancialissuesfundamentally could not be solved in any sustainable way without addressing the academic issues to which they were intimately linked. Before Coleman’s arrival there had been rumors- which the BFP could not verify- that Michael Hooker had advised the Office of Admissions to begin accepting applications on the basis of where applicants lived. Things were not looking good.

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Politics, Divisions & “Participatory Negation”

Marta Stringham, an employee of the College who has worked on Cricket Hill since 1980, remembers the Bennington of old as a very different place relative to what it is now. “Now everyone [will] sort of work together- all the offices work together, faculty work together, students work together- it was all very separate back then. They didn’t do a lot of interdisciplinary anything.” Prior to the Symposium, the faculty of the College were arranged in what were called divisions: highly autonomous discipline silos which were self-governing and, in practice, accountable to almost nobody- especially the President’s Office. Faculty meetings were contentious affairs which touched on academics only infrequently, and focused largely on salary and other administrative issues. Farhang recalls “a number of faculty members, largely in the literature division, who behaved towards the president as if he, and later she, was a stranger- as if they owned the College. The idea of cooperation, the idea of addressing the common challenges facing the institution was not at all their concern, and it led to every clash later on.”

By the Fall of 1993, enrollment at Bennington had dwindled to 457 students; the College needed 600 just to break even. A political stalemate between Coleman’s administration and the faculty was strangling efforts to revive a school which was quite close to death, and Coleman remembers being surprised by the extent to which it was “impossible” to turn Bennington around in certain areas. Attempts to make change were continually overwhelmed by intractable issues pertaining to the very nature of the administration’s relationship with the faculty- issues which, by some accounts, had a legacy dating as far back as 1975 to the young Harvard Ph.D. who would become Bennington’s most scandalous president, Dr. Gail Thain Parker.

1994 was not the first time an administration had tried to re-invent Bennington College; in 1975, after a generally tumultuous three years wherein president Parker and the Board managed to alienate much of an already radical faculty, a Board appointed subcommittee tasked with evaluating the College’s financial prospects produced a report so infuriating that its publication will likely only ever be remembered as a complete disaster. At the meeting wherein Parker was to present it formally for the first time, the faculty dramatically voted to eject all administrative personnel in attendance from Barn 100, and after several hours of debate produced a vote of no-confidence in a president they saw as unfit, uncaring and uninterested in involving them in the College’s decision making processes. This was perhaps the galvanizing moment in which much of the faculty seemed to have permanently entrenched itself against the Board and the president’s office. Parker later said of the faculty’s intractability that they were not so much interested in participatory democracy as “participatory negation.”

Eighteen years later in the Spring of 1993, the College’s Board of Trustees announced it would suspend business as usual to begin a process which, evoking Plato, they called the Symposium; a program to “review and reanimate [the College’s] programs and ambitions.” In a letter to students from the chairman of the Board announcing the Symposium, no mention was made of faculty cuts or downsizing. One year later, at the end of the Spring term in 1994, one third of the faculty, 27 professors, were fired.