Interview with Bennington College President Mariko Silver

The following is the transcript of a phone interview conducted by Mike Goldin '14. It took place on Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 2:00pm EST.

MG: Are you having a good summer?

MS: Yeah, it’s just too damn hot! It’s really, really gross here in DC.

MG: You’re planning to move up to Vermont, of course.

MS: Yeah, we’re getting all packed up and everything. It’s amazing how much stuff you can accumulate. Before I called you I’ve just been going through and getting rid of papers and who knows what. Things you intend to save for a couple of days get saved for a couple of years.

Photo Credit: Bennington College Communications Office 

Photo Credit: Bennington College Communications Office 

MG: Let’s say we meet on an elevator. You tell me you’re the president of Bennington College, and I say I haven’t heard of it. In 30 seconds, what’s Bennington College all about, to you?

MS: With the caveat that I’m still learning about Bennington, obviously—you probably know a lot more about Bennington than I do. What attracted me to Bennington—I’ll put it in those terms—is that it’s really a place that is about individual learning, but it’s about individual learning in the context of a community. I think the combination of the plan process and Field Work Term, really can, at its best, really can position students exactly for the 21st century workforce, by which I mean not just necessarily a grind of a job, but a real career of lifelong exploration and learning, self-exploration and experimentation.

MG: Hypothetically, let’s say the President job at Bennington was a 4 year deal with no possibility of extension regardless of your performance. What are your objectives if you only have four years—how do you leave your mark?

MS: I think there are a lot of opportunities to improve and better integrate the Field Work Term into the Bennington learning experience. My impression talking to some folks up there is that the Plan Process is wonderful, but it's a constant work in progress, so I think there are probably some opportunities there. One of Bennington’s strengths I think is that it's interdisciplinary and how it offers students an opportunity to really pursue their own interests, and thinking about whether that has yet been maximized.

MG: Liz will still be on campus as the Director of CAPA. She’s influential—she was the president for 25 years and did incredible things. You can’t ignore that. How are you hoping to work with Liz going forward?

MS: Well I certainly don’t plan to ignore her, even if such a thing were possible! Liz and I have already started talking and working together, and I think it’s actually going to be a really wonderful relationship. I’ve really enjoyed talking through ideas with her, and I think CAPA is an increasingly important part of Bennington, and what Bennington has to offer. I think there are some real opportunities, with Liz’s full focus on CAPA, to bring it to its fullest realization.

MG: What are some websites that you read every day? What’s in your bookmarks bar?

MS: I read the New York Times, I read the New Yorker—I don’t read it every day, I read it when it comes—I read The Economist but, again, not every day. I read Foreign Affairs, I read Dawn’s Digest, which is a news service about International Development, and I read the BBC website.

MG: I’ll ask you about Bennington specifically in a bit, but when you look at undergraduate education more generally in this country, what do you see as worth paying attention to? What trends and ideas are worth watching?

MS: There’s no question we have to be paying attention to the broader debate about higher education and the value of higher education. I think there are a lot of institutions that would prefer to stick their heads in the sand and assume the debate will blow over; I think that gives short shrift to the debate and in the long run gives short shrift to the institutions [themselves]. I think that’s a discussion worth engaging.

I think that the questions about to what extent interdisciplinary thinking can be fruitfully brought to bear, and getting people out of their disciplinary silos to really try to tackle a host of problems—some of which people might traditionally call “real world problems,” if you will, but many of them are conceptual problems or are questions of art and representation but they really would benefit from intense interdisciplinary thinking.

MG: For liberal arts colleges in general, can we still use the same justifications for a liberal arts education that have been used for so long, or do the liberal arts need a new reason for being?

MS: I don’t know that I would put it as such a dichotomy. I think that there are elements of what has traditionally been called a liberal arts education that have extraordinary value, but I think nothing should be set in stone. There used to be a very clear and strict definition of what it meant to study the liberal arts that has morphed somewhat over time, and I think morphing over time is probably good. I think keeping one foot clearly placed, at least so that we know where we came from even if we decide not to pursue it is important, but constant process and institutional self-examination is vital.

MG: Bennington, at an institutional level, lives paycheck to paycheck. We have to raise money every year to meet our operating costs and we don’t have much of an endowment, so we’re not well insulated from broader changes in the market for education. My apocalyptic vision for 2020 is that Bennington has been bought out and we’re the Nike-Aramark College for Sports Medicine. How do we avoid that fate?

MS: That’s quite a vision! But of course that’s part of the president’s job, to speak to the financial health of the College. I think that there are a lot of ways to do that. I think that there are a lot of innovative funding models that we can come up with—we have ideas for some of them, but there are many more out there. I think we have to be more clear about what a Bennington education offers; when I was up there for my interviews and talked to students and faculty and staff, it was clear that everyone who’s there understands what a Bennington education offers, but it takes immersion in it to understand it. We need to do a better job of projecting all the Bennington is so that you don’t have to be in it to know it.

MG: You worked at the Department of Homeland Security for a time. Is that the kind of place where everybody has to learn how to shoot a gun?

MS: No, not at all—in fact, many of those people you would never want to have a firearm!

MG: So tell me a little bit more about your work there. Certainly the DHS is controversial and at a liberal campus like Bennington, people have their reservations about the work that the DHS does.

MS: If we really go off on this tangent this could be a four hour interview, and I’m happy to have a separate discussion about this, but I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding out in the world about what DHS does, partly from what I would contend is a very unfortunate name—but nobody’s going to be spending their political capital on changing that any time soon.

When I was at DHS I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and the Acting Assistant Secretary for International Affairs; so really what I did was work with foreign constituencies, other country’s governments, other country’s advocacy organizations, so on and so forth, to either build policies that were complementary or aligned. So for example, if you look at the work that we did with Canada and Mexico, up until probably about three years ago you had a situation in which border management and border infrastructure were not coordinated. So you could have, let’s say, in the United States you would build a border entry point—a port of entry—somewhere in Texas. But for whatever local political reasons, Mexico was also building a port of entry, but they were building it three miles away, so you had to build a road between these two ports of entry—so there wasn’t a joint process for doing that.

So there are some things like that which, I guess on a certain level are boring, they’re not the kind of big, sexy spy things that people think of, but they are fundamental to government functioning; these are things that you might expect already are the case, but they’re not. So we did some things like that, and there’s a whole long list of things. If you really want to look at, for example, what we did with Canada there’s a page on the DHS website about “Beyond the Border” which is a big program that I worked on.

[DHS] also tries to align policies about things like what kind of ID you have to present before you can get on an airplane, or what kind of information is transmitted about you when you get on an airplane; exchanging best practices, so a lot of the conversation we had with India, for example, was about things like policing in large cities. Obviously, after the Mumbai attacks, it was very clear that policing in large cities in the way that we think about it in the west had really not been a priority in India—they didn’t really know how to do it. So can you translate some of the practices here to what happens there, can we learn things from what happened and what went wrong in Mumbai and apply them here? Those sorts of things.

My feeling about the specific work that I did—now I should say, my politics lean left, for whatever that’s worth—and all of what I did, I felt very comfortable with. I didn’t do anything that I felt uncomfortable with, that I thought if I were out there in the world rather than doing this job or being asked to do this or that thing, that I would think “you know, that’s really not what I want my government doing.”

I’m happy to talk at length about DHS and the structure and what it does and doesn’t do—it’s not a spy agency, it has nothing to do with this NSA business—because of the name and because of the circumstances under which it was created I think there is a different perception about it than what the actuality is.

MG: You’ve been with DHS, you’ve worked with public universities in Arizona, you were in the governor’s office—you’ve been at a lot of big organizations. Being the president of a college is obviously a leadership position, and it’s also something of a managerial position. How do you anticipate it might be challenging for you to transition your mindset from one where you were working in huge organizations to a much, much smaller one?

MS: In the DHS context, I had responsibility for a small shop that oversaw a lot of people—sort of loosely oversaw a lot of people. It happened to be part of a larger bureaucracy which was itself part of a larger bureaucracy, and then DHS is obviously part of a larger federal bureaucracy, so in that sense the managing up, if you will, is different, but in the managing out I think there are probably a lot of parallels. In an academic institution you have a lot of independent and semi-independent moving parts, so in that sense some of the basic management questions are not that different.

From a leadership perspective, I was providing leadership to something that was more on the scale of a Bennington than the entire federal government or the entire DHS, while reaching out to other entities that we wanted to coordinate and collaborate with and build partnerships with. There are multiple communities that are connected to or should be connected to Bennington that are not in or of Bennington, so in that sense there are some parallels.

In terms of my work at ASU, it’s not only a big public institution—it’s the biggest. I had the great opportunity to be at the right hand of the person who was leading that whole operation, and I would take on various sub-projects within that organization while also being part of the leadership team that was thinking about the whole organization, so I had a real balance of experience there really getting to understand what the transformation that Michael Crow was leading was right for people on the ground, if you will, but also the view from the top. I hope that’s incredibly valuable when you’re coming in at the top of an organization.

MG: As faculty and staff phase in and out of the College and new hires are brought onboard, what are you going to be looking for—what is the right stuff, as you see it—to be a faculty member or administrator at Bennington? Obviously competence is step one.

MS: Competence is a good start! It’s different from position to position. Whether it’s faculty or staff, you’re building a team—especially at a place the size of Bennington. Not that everybody has to get along all the time, but you want to build a team that’s going to work well together and gel well together, so you have to think position by position, but you also have to think about the whole composition of the team. That’s certainly true of the staff, it’s true of the faculty and that’s true in terms of thinking about not just interpersonal capabilities, but complementary skills.

Obviously, every Bennington faculty member has to have a passion for teaching. Every Bennington staff member has to have a passion for participating in an institution—and I choose that word very carefully—participating in an institution and a community that is committed to teaching and the development of students and individual learning. At the same time, the scholar-practitioner teacher model that Bennington has and has had since its foundation, I think is one of the most compelling parts of the way that the faculty is crafted and the kind of teaching and learning that can happen at the College.

So those are over and above competence, as you say; those are certainly characteristics that I’ll look for. And I would say that, in keeping with what I said about it being a team, it’s a real community, and I think it’s important that when thinking about who to bring in, that that be a genuine value.

MG: The other side of that coin is students. The assumption at Bennington is that a student be imaginative and creative—those are sort of ground rules, or permission-to-play. Above and beyond that, what kinds of students does Bennington need to be appealing to? What kinds of students should Bennington be interesting to?

MS: I think you’re right, that those are the baseline assumptions—that a student be curious, be interested, be somewhat self-motivated and have something or many, many things about which they feel a strong passion about and feel really drawn to. Those three things together—self-motivation, curiosity and creativity—I think some people would call an entrepreneurial spirit, even though it’s not necessarily applied to business; that’s something that I saw in a lot of Bennington students.

Another thing I saw in a lot of the students who are currently there is an interest in and capacity for self-reflection. It seems to me that structures like the plan process probably encourage that, which I think is great, because those are tools that you need to survive in today’s world; they’re not tools that are necessarily teachable directly, although they are learnable, and they’re not tools that are emphasized in a lot of educational experiences, which I think is a shame. People have to try and find them later if they’re thoughtful enough to even know that they have to try and find them!

Those I think are some of the characteristics. I would like to see Bennington become more diverse in myriad ways. I’d like to spend a fair amount of time with students and really understand what the student experience is like today at Bennington—what’s wonderful and what can be improved?

MG: We have a Dean of Field Work Term now, which people have been curious and in some instances sceptical about—is Holly going to sit at the same table as the other deans?

MS: She will. It’s a new structure and formation, but she’s certainly part of senior staff.

MG: Our Dean of Students left the school earlier this year, and in general we’ve lost a lot of staff from the Office of Student Life. Is the Office of Student Life going to remain a skeleton crew, or will we ever have a Dean of Students again?

MS: It’s too early for me to know. I can tell you that there is already concerted effort underway to really think carefully about—I know that there was even a retreat a couple of days ago, and I’ve been talking with staff about that—that we are going to be thinking very carefully about student life and what support student life really needs at Bennington. I think it would be really easy to go out and say “oh my god, that person left, we’d better go out and hire somebody who looks like that person,” but I think we have a real opportunity here to think very carefully about whether what was being delivered before is what needs to be delivered in the future.

Where I sit, coming from ASU, obviously the kind of student life support that’s required at an institution like that is very different from the kind of student life support that’s required at Bennington. There is no question that there will be student life support, it’s just not clear yet what the best structure is.

MG: At this particular moment in your life—you, yourself—why are you at Bennington College?

MS: The basic answer is what I said at the beginning: I think it’s a really exciting and inspiring place. I was attracted to the innovative work, thinking, teaching and learning approaches that help to shape the Bennington community. I think there is a valuable national discussion underway about the value of higher education; I think Bennington is actually perfectly positioned in many ways to engage that discussion in a substantive way—not by what we talk about, but by what we do—and I think very few other schools actually are.