The BFP caught up with Bennington College President Mariko Silver over this past Field Work Term to see how she’s settled in to life at Bennington, what she makes of the school, and her plans for its future, academic and otherwise.
Bennington Free Press: What’s struck you most about the school since you first arrived, and has that changed as you’ve spent more time here?
Mariko: If I can count ‘first arrived’ as when students got here, as opposed to physically came on the campus? When I came for my interviews I certainly had an opportunity to talk with students, and I was impressed by the students I met, but of course you know they trot out a selection of students when you come for interviews. But the thing that I’ve been most surprised––I don’t know if I’d say surprised––but I think excited by, is to realize how representative that group [they trotted out] was of the Bennington student population and how really remarkable Bennington students are, and their level of intensity, curiosity, and their level of engagement, which you just don’t see at other places.
BFP: How has the first year been going for you? Anything more or less challenging than expected?
M: Childbirth was really easy this time. So, that was a surprise. But other than that, I would say the faculty conversations have been really incredible. When you start interviewing to be a college president anywhere, and you start talking to fellow college presidents at other places, or people who are retired college presidents from other places, they will almost all tell you, or they’ll ask you, “What’s the faculty like?” Because if you think about the day-to-day interactions of most college presidents, they are either working with the faculty to make various things happen, and in a lot of cases what that means is, sometimes fighting with the faculty. And even from the very beginning, sometimes fighting with the faculty. But what I have found here that is so amazing is how eager the faculty are to get engaged and how interested they are and how full of ideas they are about the institution. In a lot of places––not just colleges and universities––what you find is that people are full of ideas about them, or about their own area, or about their own area of interest. In lots of organizations: big companies, non-profits, the government, struggle to get people to see the big picture. What they say in government is, “Where you sit is where you stand.” Where your desk is, where your bread is buttered, is what influences your stance. And what I’ve found here is really remarkable, and maybe this is a better answer to your “What surprised me?” question, is that there isn’t that kind of “turf-y” where you sit is where you stand thing. Which doesn’t mean that faculty members don’t care about their disciplinary areas––of course they do, they care deeply about them, otherwise they wouldn’t have devoted their entire lives to that. They care deeply about them, but they also care about each other and they care about the students, and the overall student success in a way you just don’t see at other institutions––and they care about the institution, and the ethos, and the culture, and the spirit of the institution, in a way that, again, you just don’t see. That care isn’t about “What is this institution going to do for me?” It’s about the lived experience of the institution, which is very different.
BFP: Are there any places in the towns of Bennington and North Bennington that you’ve come to enjoy?
M: In North Bennington, over Field Work Term, three times a week my kids have gone to the VAE for playgroups there, and so we love that, and the McCullough Library––they love that too. Certainly those things. The reading group at the Bennington Free Library. But, you know, for the over two set, I would say we also love the farmer’s market. We go every time it’s up, regularly [in the summer] every week. We love that. We love Clear Brook Farm, we love Crazy Russian Girls (you can tell we like to eat), and [Bakkerij Krijnen], which is wonderful and some of the best bread to be had anywhere. We’ve had a great time. I bought some Christmas presents at Bennington Potters and Catbird Studios. Earthy Crunchy Mama before it moved away. And the new Made in Vermont store in Bennington. I should say hiking and biking as well. We’ve been doing that a lot.
BFP: In getting to better know the school, what about your time here has influenced your perspective on the college’s future?
M: I had a great time in New York at the event in Matthew Marks’ gallery, meeting with alums from all eras. It was great to see Bennington alums who were there with their roommates, from the forties and fifties, all the way up through the 2000s. It was really great to see everybody and talk about Bennington’s future, and what they want to see. To me the most exciting thing right now is really listening to people who are here now: the students, the faculty, the staff. But also listening to the people who are out there in the world, being very Bennington out there in the world. We actually asked the folks gathered there, and we’ll ask the folks gathered at the various alumni events, what do they want every Bennington student to learn? And what are the three words they would use to describe Bennington? I’m really interested to hear what comes back, and I’m really interested to start digging into that. What does it mean if we want every Bennington student to live an audacious life, as one of our alumni said.
BFP: What is your favorite aspect of campus, either a building, natural feature, or something the students do as a group?
M: Pick one favorite? Well, back to the hiking thing, we have a hiking backpack for the girls, and we’ve really loved hiking around the Mile Around Woods and finding all kinds of funny little ways around.
BFP: Do you have any changes planned––major or otherwise––that the student body should be excited about or aware of?
M: I was really excited about the sustainability conversation that we had at the end of the term. I know, while it was a packed house, there were students who wanted to come who weren’t able to be there, and so what the changes are exactly I don’t know, because I think the best thing to do is for us to define them as a community and decide on them as a community. But I’m very excited about that conversation and what it can bring and I look forward to continuing it. The other thing, we also had an open session for students and faculty and staff to come and talk about the website. We’re going to totally redo the website. To me there’s no question that we need to totally redo the website. We’re going to do that, and I look forward to any more student feedback about how best to do that: what kind of features you all would want to see, what do you wish the website did that it doesn’t do––other than work on a mobile phone. That’s the baseline. We’ve definitely got to do that. But in terms of other kinds of functionality, things that would really ensure that it will reflect Bennington as an experience and not just in pictures and words. That’s the challenge that we’re throwing at developers, that they’re all very excited about, but I think, rightly, kind of terrified by. How do you make a website that is navigable and understandable, and isn’t so innovative that nobody can use it, but also that actually feels like the Bennington experience? The way that you move through the website is somehow giving you a sense of what it is to be at Bennington. Most college websites––or anybody’s website, really––are kind of flat. You can get the information that you want, but there’s nothing unexpected. There’s nothing interesting about the website itself. It’s the content that’s interesting. So, how do we do both?