Bennington Remakes Itself Decisively

Vermont liberal-arts college tries to boost its appeal by reasserting its innovative roots

THE clapboard administrative offices and weathered classroom buildings of Bennington College blend easily into the wooded hills and broad meadows of southern Vermont. Nothing appears amiss here.

But the pastoral setting doesn't tell all. ``In my mind,'' says Bennington trustee Susan Borden, a 1969 alumna, ``something has been amiss for quite a while.'' And not just here, she observes, but in American higher education generally.

In one area particularly, this small school, a bastion of artistic freedom and creativity, is feeling the problems besetting all higher education: Enrollment falls while costs and tuitions soar. Bennington has scaled down fees a bit in recent years, but it's still among the most expensive colleges in the country at $25,800 a year.

Ms. Borden and her fellow trustees, together with college president Elizabeth Coleman, took decisive - many say revolutionary - action in June to change things. Their goal: to enhance the appeal of the school by returning forcefully to its roots as an institution committed to innovation.

Their means: jettisoning some organizational elements that are fixtures in nearly all colleges and universities, but which, in their view, stifled the educational effervescence Bennington needs. Gone, beginning this fall, are faculty tenure and academic departments or divisions.

Gone, also, are 20 faculty from a full- and part-time teaching staff of 80. That loss will be made up by new hires and new opportunities for visiting scholars under the trustees' plan. What can't be easily restored is a loss of academic continuity for Bennington's 480 or so students, including a small number doing graduate work.

The dismissal of some longtime popular teachers will be ``an unmitigatable loss,'' Borden says. And not just for students. ``There's no question about the wrench of this experience,'' says Sally Sugarman, a social-science professor who specializes in early childhood education. ``Here, we all know each other very well.''

Who got pink slips

The fired instructors were those judged to be out of step with the new plan's stress on ``teacher-practitioners,'' a concept honored at Bennington since its Depression-era inception. President Coleman, who has pushed for change during most of her seven-year stint at the college, speaks of a need to relate instruction to the outside world, get away from esoteric technical specialties (particularly in fields like literature), and break down ``cliques and clusters of power'' within academic departments.

But the teacher-practitioner standard is hotly disputed by ousted professors, who may take legal action against the school and ask not to be quoted by name. When it comes to ``practice,'' they ask, what's the distinction between instrumentalists (many of whom lost their jobs) and composers? Or between literary scholars writing in critical journals and creative writers aiming for a broader public?

Sarah Rutigliano, a literature major starting her senior year, sees gains and losses. ``It's good to have more writers,'' she says, ``but I've gained memorable things from scholars.... We may lose a degree of, not seriousness, but a way of learning to write from reading Joyce or Kafka with a scholar.''

One departing instructor, a 24-year veteran at Bennington, says it's clear to him that the administration simply decided to get rid of anyone who has openly criticized its reform agenda. He says that many of the teachers who were active on various faculty committees have been let go.

Board of trustees chairman John Barr, however, says there was never a blacklist. ``The personnel decisions followed the decisions regarding the educational redesign of the place,'' he says.

Flexible framework

Many of the ideas that coalesced in the final restructuring plan, after a year-long ``symposium'' to gather viewpoints, originated with faculty members, says Mr. Barr, a New York investment banker who also writes poetry. He emphasizes that the symposium report issued by the trustees in June was ``a framework, not a blueprint, that will allow the college to be a work in progress.''

Professor Sugarman puts it this way: ``We're in the position now of building the airplane while we're flying it.'' Part of the building involves overhauling faculty and student governance. Instead of the old departmental structure and academic-policy committees, a new ``core faculty'' will organize ``faculty program groups'' and invent new courses and projects. Students' ideas will feed into this process, too.

The ``core faculty'' will also decide how to spend an ``experiment and innovation'' budget for such things as bringing in visiting faculty. The trustees plan to devote 10 percent of tuition revenue to this new budget.

``We're being asked to become more truly collegial,'' says Betsy Sherman, a biologist with 16 years of experience on the faculty. She welcomes the changes. ``We had gotten increasingly turf-conscious, in an institution that prides itself on asking students to look at questions from different points of view.''

The college's old ``presumptive tenure'' system, with contracts reviewed every five years, functioned much like tenure anywhere, Ms. Sherman says. Rarely was anyone turned down. Under the new framework, contracts will be tied to faculty projects, and renewals will take into account whether such projects - say, the development of a new course - were fruitful.

Student responsibility

Issues of student governance revolve around efforts to get students to take more seriously their responsibilities toward each other and toward the campus community. Bennington has long been a pioneer in letting students design their own majors, and it has never used letter grades. Those practices will continue. But what's needed, says Sugarman, who chaired a committee recently that examined ``student life'' at the college, is ``clarity of expectations, both in the classroom and in residential life.''

Bennington students tend to be ``very involved'' in their intellectual interests and much less involved in campus government, Ms. Rutigliano says. She'd like to hear a ``more articulate student voice'' in decisionmaking at the college. At the same time, she worries about the administration inserting itself too directly into student residential life.

The only way to view the coming year, say many of the staff and continuing faculty, is as an ongoing experiment, with unpredictable results. ``I think there'll be a lot of skirmishes, but not an explosion,'' says college president Coleman. She sees ``an increase of morale ... and a sense of something exhilarating'' among the continuing faculty.

In their report on the symposium, the trustees welcome the experimentation, no matter how unsettling. ``The truth is,'' chairman Barr wrote, ``that this college gains stability not from motionlessness but from a blur of motion, not from states of rest but from unrelenting restlessness.''

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