Bennington College president reflects on six-year tenure
NORTH BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Mariko Silver can easily remember when she started her tenure as president of Bennington College — she was eight months pregnant at the time.
One of the first things she did in her new role was to get the college’s North Gate, which had been blocked off with bricks, opened up, allowing community members to walk the paved road around campus.
“I was tired of lifting the double stroller up and over the (gate),” she said, of the walks she would take with her children. “But of course, then I thought, ‘What about other people that want to come?’ So it’s all well and good to say that we welcome the community. But we have to meet it. And the physicality of the campus has to show that.”
Besides opening the North Gate, in her six-year tenure, Silver is credited with overseeing creation of a long-term strategic plan that has included stabilizing the institution’s finances, renovating and enhancing key campus structures and forging institutional partnerships that expanded opportunities for learning.
In April, the college announced Silver will step down at the end of this month to become president and CEO of the New York City-based Henry Luce Foundation.
Provost and Dean of the College Isabel Roche will serve as interim president while a committee appointed by the board of trustees conducts a national search for Silver’s replacement, who is expected to be named during the 2019-20 academic year.
“I was thinking this morning about how incredibly beautiful it is here, and how much I’m going to miss living here, and how much my family is going to miss living here,” Silver said in an interview with the Banner Monday.
Her children’s growing up will be defined by the experiences they’ve had here, in a beautiful place where they’re excited about the outdoors, and as for her — she remembers the college’s commencement ceremonies.
“Commencement is always a wonderful experience,” she said. “It’s sort of designed to make memories.”
Silver contrasted serving as president at Bennington College with work she’s done in public policy and at larger institutions.
“When you work at the federal government level, you’re making decisions that are going to affect hundreds of millions of people,” she said. “And that can be heady and exciting, and certainly is very gratifying in its own way. But you very rarely get to see the whole arc of how people experience those decisions.”
But at a place like Bennington College, it’s a “human-scale” community, she said.
“The opportunity to really be a leader in that environment is both humbling and gratifying, and it’s very different from being at a very large institution in a large city, or in the federal government,” she said.
Silver previously served as a senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University, as acting assistant secretary for international affairs and deputy assistant secretary for international policy in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, and as policy adviser to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Being involved in educational institutions, she said, gave her the opportunity to see how students grow from when they arrive to when they graduate.
“It’s an extraordinary time of personal growth, and to see these young people find their way in the world is truly exciting,” she said. ”...Bennington College is a remarkably vibrant creative community, from the point of view of the arts, yes, but also ideas. To see the way that people roll up their sleeves and do the work is always a reason to be proud to be a leader of this institution.”
Silver said she’s particularly proud of the college’s growing relationships with the community during her time in her position.
The most striking example of this, she said, is the college’s involvement as an investor in the Putnam Block redevelopment project in downtown Bennington.
“It’s very exciting, and I was just personally thrilled to see it come to this stage,” she said.
Another key development in the college’s efforts to partner with the community, she said, is a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced this spring. It will support a three-year effort between the college and local partners to address food insecurity in Bennington County.
“That feels like a really exciting capstone, if you will, to continue the momentum of relationships between the college and the community,” Silver said. “And obviously, there are many, many people who are involved in that.”
She said there were many engagements with the community before she began her tenure, and that the college would like students, faculty and staff to be even more involved in the local community.
“I think that is actually well under way, and moving pretty quickly,” she said. “And there’s a lot of enthusiasm.”
There’s educational value in students engaging with people who aren’t students — and the students have fresh and interesting ideas, she said.
“And I think it’s important to learn to listen to people who have different life experiences than you,” she said. “And I think that goes both directions. There are community members who have spent very little time with some of the people at the college, and vice versa. And I think that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
During Silver’s tenure, the college also undertook its largest-ever capital campaign of $150 million, which is ongoing. One of its focuses is financial aid.
“I think we have to recognize that the kind of education that we provide, that is very focused on student development and really helping students become quite extraordinary adults in the world — it’s not an inexpensive proposition,” Silver said. “And we want to do everything we can to make sure that money is not a barrier to this education, or really — it shouldn’t be a barrier to any education.”
During Silver’s time as president, the college also undertook an extensive renovation of the Commons building, its original classroom building, with a focus on historic preservation and updating the building.
The Commons is expected to open to undergraduates in the fall, with some use for summer programs this season.
“It’s really the heart of the campus,” Silver said. “So to have the heart of the campus totally refreshed in that way and revived is super-exciting.”
Besides keeping up involvement in the community, Silver said, her replacement will also have to continue to get the word out about what Bennington offers. Maybe 20 or 30 years ago, colleges each had their own brand, and knew who their students were, but that’s not so much the case anymore, she said.
“In part because of social media and just the way that young people consume information — we have to be in front of them all the time, to make sure they know and understand all that a Bennington education can make possible for them,” she said. “And I think that, for any college or university, is the big challenge.”
She said she’s also emphasize expanding the college’s networks, to make sure students have a range of opportunities to experience the world.
When asked if she had any regrets during her tenure, Silver said she wished there hadn’t been a fire at the Barn, the college’s historic administration building.
“But I didn’t do it,” she said, laughing.
The fire at the Barn on April 30 is believed to be accidental, caused either by the state of the aged wiring or by an errant nail from siding and trim work that had been ongoing. The building sustained an estimated $250,000 in damage in the fire, but is moving toward full use.
Silver said she defines her regrets in terms of wanting to do more of the good things that the college does — like providing more financial aid, which is why, she said, they’re raising money toward that goal.
The college has also had difficulty getting the word out for community members to come to the campus for events, she said.
“In my view, we don’t get enough community participation,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary benefit to any community to have world-famous thinkers coming, and be accessible. Because even at a big event, it’s still a very personal experience.”
To Silver, Bennington College represents where education should be headed.
“Doesn’t mean it’s perfect all the time,” she said. “But Bennington is an exemplar of what education ought to be, and needs to be.”
The way Bennington College approaches individualized learning and interweaving creative and other endeavors is at the core of what’s needed in education, she said.
“It’s very clear to me that when people kind of clear the decks and design the future, they come up with basically Bennington,” she said.
Information from: Bennington Banner, http://www.benningtonbanner.com