An Open Letter to the Next President of Bennington College
By Emma del Valle '13
Dear Mystery President,
I cannot begin to imagine the enormity of the commitment that you are making in becoming President of Bennington College. Granted, as far as institutions of higher education go, Bennington is relatively marginal. It’s not Harvard or MIT or even Middlebury; actually, its most recent claim to fame was as a joke on “30 Rock” comparing it unfavorably to the latter college. It is not the home of a prestigious press, or a widely acknowledged hub of research in any particular field. Ideologically, it is an ongoing experiment in the approach to a liberal arts education. That is its founding principle, and however many complications have arisen from it, it remains the distinctive quality of a Bennington education. Although Bennington College is not a recognized brand name, and your assumption of its leadership may not even graze the national headlines, you are taking on a daunting responsibility. Despite Bennington’s moderate obscurity in the larger scope of education in the United States, it contains in microcosm all of the complex problems that face any college, compounded by unique conditions stemming from a small endowment, limited resources, an unconventional academic structure, and an administrative body in near-constant flux.
There is a good deal going on in the higher levels of the administration that I, and the rest of the student body for that matter, know nothing about, and cannot speak to. Addressing these concerns, which are nebulous to me but probably overwhelming for you, could easily be completely absorbing. A long-standing issue at this school has been the opacity of its administrative actions, and a marked disregard for or ignorance of the perspectives of students. Because there is no student government to speak of, there are few avenues by which we can voice our opinions and contribute to the growth of the College as a unified whole. This separation is alienating, and a disadvantage to the College. Dissatisfied students become apathetic alumni, and apathetic alumni do not often become generous donors. You know, or will come to know, better than I how important alumni donations are to Bennington's continued existence, and how delicate this College’s financial situation is. Monetary concerns account for so many changes which directly effect the experience of students, but they are rarely explained to us. I know many students who feel manipulated or extorted because of this shadowy handling of financial limitations that ought to be common knowledge, and yet are handled in a way that implies either secrecy or indifference. The feeling of being milked for money in the interests of projects that will not come to fruition during our enrollment detracts from our education.
I understand that the long-term plan for Bennington is most likely at the forefront of your thoughts, and that you already have an agenda in mind. Securing funds, increasing Bennington’s profile, attracting prospective students, developing existing academic programs, and creating new ones must all be top priorities for you. In order for Bennington to come through this period of transition as a stronger, more functional, and more honest institution, you will need to make communication with students a meaningful component of in your decision-making process, rather than an empty dialogue to which you pay lip service. We do not know the half of what goes into keeping Bennington alive, but we know better than anybody else here what effects your choices have on the outcomes of the Bennington education. And ultimately, this education is the product on which you will be staking your reputation. Individual students will come and go at four-year intervals (more or less), which is a short time when compared to the span you might be at the helm. But they are, each and every one of them, purchasing access to the school and participating in an academic process you have claimed responsibility for improving and upholding. This is a small school, small enough to allow you to observe the slow evolution of the student body in greater detail than you could almost anywhere else, and I hope you are fascinated by it. This school is small enough to allow you to make yourself accessible to students, and has an inherent flexibility that will give you room to build genuine student feedback into the structure of the College.
Students can tell you what works, and alert you to aspects of the academic process which have since become unproductive. They can help you build a college that lives up to its founding principles more fully than it has in its entire history. If you listen to them, you can deepen the meaning of an education at this school. You will also make your life more complicated, and your job more difficult. You will have more problems to wrestle with, and divide your conscience. The more voices you listen to, the more directions you will feel pulled in. Some decisions that you make will necessarily displease the student body, even if you have no choice. But if you strive to make the administration more transparent, and to give your students the opportunity to play their essential role in the Bennington experiment, you will preside over a better college than the one you arrived at. These expectations, however reasonable, seem idealistic to me as I write them. But I hope that you can fulfill them. It would be easy to focus on making Bennington College a more profitable organization, or to make it famous. I hope, however, that you will do the dirty, often thankless, always difficult task of listening to your students, and that you will eventually leave this College secure in the knowledge that the students who studied under your Presidency are your truest legacy.