The following is a conversation between Laura Walker, President of Bennington College, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Laura Walker, President of Bennington College

Denver: The first college to include visual and performing arts as an equal partner in the liberal arts curriculum was Bennington College in Vermont. Through its truly distinctive education, Bennington seeks to cultivate a mindset for change, a capacity to break new ground, and the conditions for progress. And here to discuss that with us, as well as the significant challenges facing the academy, is Laura Walker, the president of Bennington College.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Laura! 

Laura: Thank you. It’s great to be here. 

Denver: So Bennington College was founded back in 1932. You’re coming up on your 90th. Share with us some of the history of the institution. 

Laura: Well, as you said, Bennington has a distinctive educational philosophy and pedagogy, and that’s really what attracted me to Bennington – its philosophy, which is about self-directed learning, every student creating their own program. It’s about integrating the arts into every aspect of education. As you said, Bennington was the very first college to have arts at the center of the curriculum and as part of the curriculum. 

Denver: It is noteworthy.

Laura: Yes. And it’s retained a real strong focus on the arts. Also, one of the centerpieces of Bennington’s educational philosophy is that one learns through experience. And as part of that, from the very beginning, Bennington students have had to, every year, complete some kind of internship. 

And so, a Bennington student back in 1932, and then today as well, walks out of college having at least four different kinds of internship or work experiences. And that has proven to be a very effective way of learning and as a foundation for lifelong learning. And it is something that I think a lot of colleges, frankly, are copying now. But at Bennington, we’ve been doing it for almost 90 years 

Denver: With that said, Laura, you were the CEO of the New York Public Radio Station, WYNC for many years before you became the president of Bennington. What first attracted you to it? And when did you know, Laura, that you were really hooked? 

Laura: I have spent my career really in education, whether it’s public education, informal education, or now, formal education. And so, the mission of New York Public Radio, which was WNYC, WQXR, WNYC Studios, our performance space… was to make the mind more curious, the heart more open, and the soul more joyful through excellent audio programming that is deeply rooted in New York. That is a mission of education and of Bennington in many ways. 

The other thing that attracted me, in addition to the progress or the building and the foundation with commitment to education, is that I am a real believer and a student and executor of organizational change. And so, when I came to WYNC, it was two municipally-owned radio stations owned by the city of New York with a budget of $8 million. And when I left, it was an independent media organization that was in all sorts of media and had a budget of $100 million and reached 24 million people every month. 

Obviously, it’s not just about numbers; it’s about the kind of impact. And I love taking something that was so important and so worthy of not just being saved but creating it, evolving it as an organization that really had a stronger impact. And I saw that opportunity at Bennington. I saw both the opportunity and the passion that I had to take the educational aspects of Bennington that have been there from the very beginning and create something that had more impact. 

And I knew exactly when I fell in love was when I came up to Bennington in April of 2020. It was the middle of COVID. I was coming from New York City. Nobody wanted to see anyone from New York City in Vermont and I– 

Denver: How did you get in?

Laura: I didn’t get out– I didn’t get out of the car.  I came in. I stayed in my car. I came up to campus. I saw lots of smiling people and this incredible, incredible, beautiful campus that you could just feel the creative passion here.

Denver: It’s interesting that you say smiling people because I’ve always listened to the radio, and I remember it far, far better than when I watch TV for whatever reason. And sometimes not having that direct connection with people and talking to them about Bennington, but looking at faces – there’s a different part of the brain that goes, that connects in a way that probably would not have happened if you had gotten out of the car. So that is really interesting. 

Well, given that every institution is different, Laura, do you have a theory of change or a method that you try to apply to move the ball forward when you step into these situations? 

Laura: That’s an interesting question. I think number one is to create a shared vision around the strengths of the organization and the institution. So when I first went to New York Public Radio, what I discovered, along with the senior team as we kind of said “What is essential about New York Public Radio, about audio content?” and it was really about sharing not just information, but being a companion to people, being a place for free learning, and doing that in a way that you’re speaking in someone’s ear, and it’s very intimate. And that you’re also holding power to account. 

And so, from that, and based on experiences with 9/11 – which actually, COVID was Bennington’s 9/11 – when we came out of 9/11 as New York Public Radio, having been very much affected by it, we said, “We have to build a much stronger news focus here with journalists who were going to be covering New York and be the heart and the mind and the ears for New Yorkers.” When something like that happens to our city that experienced it in such a unique way and profound way, we really committed to a shared vision of a much stronger local newsgathering. And then also believing that New York had so much to share with the world, a much stronger national presence as well. So it’s about really being clear about what the values and the strengths are. It’s about sharing a vision, and then it’s about taking some risk. 

And what I did at New York Public Radio, and what I’m doing here at Bennington is to say: OK. How do we identify the brilliant people – the Jad Abumrads of Radiolab, the Stephen Dubner’s of Freakonomics – and give them something to start with and see what they do with it? And then get the board behind you to say, “Yeah. We want to build…” In the end, we experimented to the point that we built the largest at the time podcast studio with 12- or 14 different podcasts. And that was because we found really smart people, piloted, and then got out in front and took some risks to say, “This is important.” 

And that’s what I’m doing here at Bennington, too. What are those values? What are the values and the strengths of Bennington? It’s that critical inquiry. It’s the sense of the arts at the center. It’s that mentorship, that really strong mentorship. And it’s also saying we have to invest in telling our story better, which is what we’ve started to do. 

Denver: Well, you found your North Star, you simplify it, and you stick to that priority, and you don’t try to be everything to everybody. 

Laura: That’s right. 

Denver: Did I hear you right before about self-directed learning? Would I be right to assume then that there are no majors at Bennington? 

Laura: There are no majors, and everyone is interdisciplinary. And we have no department chairs. We have disciplines. So a student comes in, and with the strong mentorship of an advisor, looks at: What are their burning questions? What do they want to do? The advisor is helping them pick different kinds of courses and areas of interest. They’re pushing them to go out of their comfort zone. It’s not just about doing things that you are interested in. It’s about asking yourself – What do I need to learn?  Or what connections do I want to make? 

There’s a student that I’ve been kind of talking to who’s very interested in journalism and wants to tell the story of people whose voices are not heard. And so, she’s studying anthropology, and she’s studying sound, and she’s studying writing, and she’s studying science. And all of that is, to her, about telling a story and also giving voice to those that she’s interested in.

…they help students not just analyze things, but to come to insights that are truly life-changing and transformative, that they make connections between philosophy and science. And they learn through the humanities how to have empathy and how to ask the right questions. That is critical, critical. 

Denver: What I really find interesting about what you just said there, too, is the importance of organizational design. Because so often, you speak to university presidents or other institutions, and they want to break down the silos. Hard to break down the silos when you have department chairs. It just is. So when you don’t have them, that design allows all this other stuff that you just talked about to happen. 

Well, Laura, you know that when times get tough, colleges look to cut. And often, the direction of their gaze is towards humanities. How can higher education avoid leaving the humanities behind? 

Laura: I look at that trend, and it makes me very concerned. I look at that trend, and I say, “Bennington is not only going to not follow that trend. We are going to buck the trend. We are going to embrace the humanities for the right reason…” because they tell, they help students not just analyze things, but to come to insights that are truly life-changing and transformative, that they make connections between philosophy and science. And they learn through the humanities how to have empathy and how to ask the right questions. That is critical, critical. 

When you look at studies of what even the Googles and the Facebooks say they want, they want people who can participate as collaborators and as critical thinkers, and not just people who know programming code. So I believe in my heart that the humanities is truly, truly essential for students in the 21st century. 

So we’re also looking at ways that we can offer what we do in the humanities to others. So that maybe we can partner with those that have cut humanities, and also to be a proponent of the humanities and of our approach to education and getting that out there because we believe that it is so strong that it should be spread around.

History is the story that has been chosen to be told by those in power usually. And we have an opportunity and an imperative right now to look at every part of what history is and look at what that means for those who have not been in power necessarily.

Denver: Well, you’re living in this world right now with artificial intelligence and robotics. The humanities are really the only distinct thing that humans have that can differentiate them and connect those dots. So why, the one thing that makes us distinctly human, would we want to put that to the side? Because a lot of those other things are going to be replaced by machines. This… maybe someday, but it’s a hundred years off or something like that.

Let me ask you your opinion about something. About a year ago, Yale ended their Art History course because students believed it was so overwhelmingly white and straight and European and male in terms of the cadre of artists. What’s your take on something like that? 

Laura: I think we need to take a look at every part of history. And I was a history major, right? 

Denver: Yes. I saw that.

Laura: History is the story that has been chosen to be told by those in power usually. And we have an opportunity and an imperative right now to look at every part of what history is, and look at what that means for those who have not been in power necessarily.

And so, I’m not familiar with– even though I went to Yale, I’m not familiar with how they ended that very long Art History class. I can tell you that our art historian, Vanessa Lyon, looks at art history through a critical race theory and will take us like a painting by Rubens, and bring in stories of people of color.

Also, we as a nation need to take a look at, as we are coming to terms more with what it means to be anti-racist, to look at the 400 years of slavery… or the slavery starting 400 years ago and that terrible tradition, and come to terms with it, and reckon with it, and reimagine who we want to be. But we have to, in order to do that, we have to look at all the structures of racism that are in almost every organization, and so many of the policies and the practices that we have, and we have to be intentionally anti-racist. I believe that with my heart, and that is something that has been very important to my first year here at Bennington.

Denver: I do know that. And we’ll get to that. Let’s talk about a few of the issues and challenges facing college presidents across the country, starting with the cost of college. I saw a recent survey that’s – 51% of college graduates considered themselves to be underemployed; 42% of Americans from a Gallup poll say that you don’t really need college anymore to be successful. That’s down 13% from 2010. 

What is the case you would make – because you did say we have to get our story out there better – but looking at the macro story, what’s the case you would make for a liberal arts education in 2021? 

Laura: Well, from an economic standpoint, it is still very much proven that a college education results in better jobs and higher pay. So it is, if you just start with the financial piece, it is still a good investment. But more importantly, in some ways, it is a way to be a lifelong learner and to create a life and design a life that will make somebody feel fulfilled and also have an impact on this world; and to change the world… and to have the opportunity to not just learn books but to learn from books, but to really kind of discover oneself, one’s passion, and to figure out how are you going to change the world.

Denver: Much, much deeper than just a paycheck. That’s for sure. 

You’re making changes at Bennington. We’ve talked about those. But overall, I think many people would look at higher education and say: It really hasn’t changed all that much in the last 30- or 50- or 100 years despite the world changing dramatically and despite every other industry changing. Why do you think higher ed, if you agree with that, has been so resistant to change? 

Laura: Well, I would say I kind of came in with that sense, that point of view, and a combination of Bennington being Bennington, and also I think these times has convinced me that in fact, this is a time when higher education is evaluating itself and looking forward to how it can make changes to be both more responsive, but also more of a leader. 

So, at Bennington, faculty love teaching. And they are here in a way because they love that teaching, and because they will learn themselves through courses that they develop every semester. So this is… Bennington is not a place that would attract somebody who wants to teach Physics 101 every single year out of the same textbook. It is a place that will attract the professors and the students who want to look at astronomy and want to look at what’s happening in the world of how physics and art relate. 

And every semester, there are different classes that teachers are teaching. Nobody really teaches– they may teach the same class every two or three years, but they’re always coming up with new applications. So David Bond in Kappa is looking at using a class to look at: find data about environmental issues that he’s studying… that will go into a research paper that will change the course… that will make a case for environmental change. And so, I think we are more and more responding to both what the faculty is interested in, combined with what students are interested in, combined with what the world needs. And I think that that is actually fundamentally going to change. 

Secondly, I think technology is changing, and certainly, COVID has increased the speed with which colleges and universities have adopted technology. And I think this next piece will be really interesting to see how hybrid learning happens, but more importantly, how technology can be used by really smart colleges and universities in a way to advance the education – not just about a way of delivery but a way of advancing education. 

So how do you do project learning in a different way, where you can bring lots of people together from different locations and have them collaborate in new ways? And you can do that in Zoom or in other places. How do you flip the classroom and have students on their own kind of learning things and then coming together for in-person conversation?

Like we have a very long-standing and incredibly fast-growing popular program, a master’s program in writing, and it’s had a structure that has been, I think, enhanced in some ways by COVID and will never be totally the same again And forever, it’s had students and faculty work together on their writing, and then they come together for 10 days, twice a year, in a low residency program. Well, they did that on Zoom and then resumed being in person, but the in-between has been really, I think, strengthened. So I think now is the time that higher education is going to change in some fundamental ways. 

One of the things that’s so special about Bennington is where it has a really strong commitment to independent inquiry and to people following their individual interests, it also has a really strong community. And that combination is, I think, something incredibly distinctive in this world.

Denver: And picking up on your earlier point, no better teacher than one who is still interested in learning. And that is really inspirational. 

Let’s move on to mental health on campus. And we know that was a major concern before the pandemic and lockdown, and it has only been exacerbated since then. These young kids – they need social contact. They’ve been holed up. Now, they’re going to be coming back, we trust. What are some of the steps Bennington is taking to address these mental health issues? 

Laura: Well, first of all, we made a commitment to be on campus last year. And we were incredibly successful in creating that sense of community. So about 80% of our students were on campus in the fall, about 90% in the spring. And that was partially because our students so want that kind of community feeling. One of the things that’s so special about Bennington is where it has a really strong commitment to independent inquiry and to people following their individual interests, it also has a really strong community. And that combination is, I think, something incredibly distinctive in this world.

And so, we were very attentive to the mental health and the needs, but even more than that, a sense of creating a really strong sense of belonging and community. We, I think, took advantage, as many people did, of the kind of shared responsibility that everyone had – mask wearing and social distancing – to make sure that the community was feeling, for the right reasons, a sense of: I’m part of this larger whole, and what I do affects everyone, and what other people do affects me. And I think that does help to create a foundation for mental health, strong mental health. 

We’re also right now in the midst of stepping back, and we’re actually, this summer bringing in a bunch of experts and some of the cutting edge and really, really deep thinkers around mental health so that we can look at what our program… that it can continue to be a really strong program, not just for therapy, if you will, but for creating a sense of belonging.

And particularly, thinking about people of color and international students that come – How do we make sure that people feel like they’re part of this community? How do we create ways that people can do self-care – whether it’s yoga, or meditation, or healthy eating, or just opportunities to come together to talk about things that are of concern? 

And then offering a range of different kinds of therapies or other kinds of experiences that will help somebody with what they have, and to be informed by some of the thinking around trauma-informed care, around issues of what other kinds of modalities can we be using, of CBT or EMDR or other things. That’s what we’re looking at. And we will take that and evolve our program in a way. 

Also, we are a small school, and we know students and people know who’s maybe having trouble. And that’s why being in a community; we have houses where there are house chairs, and people look out for each other. And that’s also an important piece of it – that you have a community. So that you’re not having that isolation and that anxiety of feeling so alone. 

But I remember last fall seeing student after student get dropped off by their parents, and obviously the parents’ feeling like, “Oh my gosh. The freshmen… they’re going to college.” And the freshmen, who had been spending the last four months in their rooms on Zoom, were like, “Bye! Goodbye!”

Denver: So long!  Don’t call! 

Well, that sounds like a very, very comprehensive program because it’s not just the aftermath, but you’re doing everything to prevent it. And the importance of knowing everybody’s name sometimes makes such a difference. It was interesting. I had the woman on who won the $100 million from the MacArthur Foundation. 

Laura: Oh, Rosanne.

Denver: Yes, Rosanne. 

Laura: Yes, she’s coming to visit. She’s fabulous, isn’t she? 

Denver: Oh, she’s great! Well, she has a number of great approaches. One of those things that she had mentioned was that– they had done all this stuff with housing first, and they housed 105,000 people. But she said, “You know what? We were counting up, and the problem got worse. We needed to count down. because we want to deal with the issue.” But the other thing is,  in every community, they know every single person’s name. And they’re not a demographic, but they’re individuals. 

And this is even more pronounced with what you have there, that everybody knows who I am. And there’s a sense of value and community to that that gives you a sense that: I’m not alone and there’s people that I can turn to. There are people that I can lean on. There are people who may be going through the same thing that I can talk to. And that is a support system, which is next to none. 

We mentioned diversity, equity and inclusion, and education has got a ways to go. You have been working on that. I know you formed a working group, the president’s working group on anti-racism. And you got on that as soon as everybody got back in the fall of 2020. Tell us a little bit about that and some of the work that you’re doing there. 

Laura: So, I would say it’s characterized by three things. One is we brought people together from every single constituent – from students to faculty, staff, board members, alums – so that it was something that by putting people together from various constituents, I was saying, “This is really important.” And it’s also a community-wide kind of discussion and change that we need to make.

And secondly, we looked at several areas of, first, that sense of belonging and really heard some hard stories of students and alums who were experiencing and still are experiencing a sense that this is maybe not a place for me; or people of color, in particular; and faculty, at a faculty level, that that is also apparent. That we have issues around diversity of staff and faculty, and our student body is more diverse than either of the other constituents. We have about 18% domestic students of color and about 17% international students, of which many are people of color. And so our students are far ahead.

And so, we heard that. And we heard it also in a Bennington way. We had, for example, community-wide viewing of a play that was written by a Bennington alum. And it was a very thinly-veiled play about her experience as being Black in the Green Mountains. And it was really about an experience of her being Black at Bennington. And some of it was hard to hear, and some of it was joyful. And it was just–

But thirdly, then we picked very clear priorities from: How do we create a more diverse faculty staff in particular? How do we train people throughout the whole college to understand and be able to have difficult conversations, to self-reflect: what kind of training, what kind of community do we want to have? How do we do public education? Looking at policies and procedures that get in the way and that are racist, if they’re not anti-racist, and looking at questions about: How do we think about our curriculum? 

And so out of that, I made a commitment to do a cluster hire in the faculty of people of color. And the faculty is looking at that. I’m really proud that our new provost is someone who is a person of color, and the dean of the college is a person of color. And our new vice-president of diversity, equity, inclusion is a person of color. And so, we are… I want to, at the top level, practice what I am preaching. 

My approach is to, when there are those kinds of questions and issues that come up, to address everything as an educational moment and educational approach, where we embrace the values of inquiry; we embrace the values of talking across difference, of collaboration, and of really holding power to account. 

Denver: That’s right. We got too many words out there and not enough action. You’re basically having the two of them meet together. 

You’re talking about difficult conversations. There are no easy issues for college presidents these days, and one would be seeking the right balance between freedom of speech and concerns about inclusiveness that you just talked about. What do you think is the right tension to have those uncomfortable arguments go on, but also do it where people feel safe and are not needlessly being offended? 

Laura: Well, that is what education is about. And so, my approach is to, when there are those kinds of questions and issues that come up, to address everything as an educational moment and educational approach, where we embrace the values of inquiry; we embrace the values of talking across difference, of collaboration, and of really holding power to account. 

So for example, there was a petition that was signed by many students at the end of the year, asking that we join the boycott of Israel, and that we look at and– actually, the petition was to stop a partnership with a school in Israel. What I didn’t do was just say yes or no, or ignore it. I’ve put together a group, including the student leaders of that petition, along with several people within the community, the rabbi here. 

The group is led by somebody who’s a Middle East scholar, and they’re really going through a process. And it’s a process. It’s hard, but it’s also– I haven’t heard the results, but I’m hearing that there’s growing consensus, which is amazing because they started out in ways that were not together. So I think everything there… you’ve got to have freedom of speech. You’ve got to protect freedom of speech. That’s another similarity between journalists and faculty members. 

Denver: Yes. Well, that’d be close to your heart. 

Laura: Yes. 

Denver: But what’s good there is that you’re also making the point that these are complex issues.

Laura: That’s right. 

That is what a Bennington education is about. It’s about looking at the complexity and understanding it, and continuing to ask about the context, and keep asking the questions and finding some commonality.

Denver: And sometimes people want things too much “yes” or “no” very quickly. And often, that’s– I’ve always felt that the genius is in the gray. You really have to embrace the gray and dig in a little bit. Often, as a matter of fact, when I ask people something about their opinion, I’ll always ask them what percentage because I don’t want a yes or a no; I want them to say 70%. And I’ll say, “Well, why 70%?” and you get into the nuance then because it’s that complexity where the answer is, not in a sign saying “Stay or go.”

Laura: Exactly. And I love that. I’m going to take that. I’m going to steal that. 

But that is what a Bennington education is about. It’s about looking at the complexity and understanding it, and continuing to ask about the context, and keep asking the questions and finding some commonality

Denver: Bennington, Vermont–southern part of the state. Population – I don’t know – 15,000. It’s known for wood processing and the Bennington Battle Monument, which I’ve seen commemorating that war, that battle in the revolutionary war.

How would you describe the college’s relationship with the community? What are you most proud of, Laura?  And what would you like to see improved? 

Laura: I think that the college has had evolving and growing presence in the community, and one that is a partner, not a school on the hill. We are partners in a new project downtown, which is about the revitalization of downtown; that has just opened. We have office space down there. We have apartments down there that we’re both renting and using for staff. And we’re part of the governance of that new development. 

We have very strong relationships with the hospital and other kinds of community organizations. I am having my first cocktail party that I’m inviting all leaders of the community to–

Denver: Woohoo! 

Laura: Yes. I’m so excited – at the end of  July. I’ve been talking with them and Zooming with them. And we also have– our Center for the Advancement of Public Action has some very strong partnerships with members of the community where we do work… We’re doing a large project on food insecurity where we’re helping to design and implement systems for food distribution to people that need it, but also working with farmers. We are kind of the glue that is holding 30 different organizations around southern Vermont together in a kind of a joint effort to look at food throughout southern Vermont. 

And we’re also opening our doors and our Zooms to members of the community to join our lectures, to join classes. We opened up classes over Zoom; that was one of the things we can do over COVID. And also working with the indigenous tribes here, the Wabanaki, in particular, in our farm to kind of plant some heritage crops, and also to open the doors for education. So there’s more to do, but it’s a really exciting part of my job. 

Denver: Well, you’ve got a lot of parts of your job.  This is a faceted job, for sure. And in fact, I had someone on the program who said that running a college is somewhat akin to running a nation-state. And I know you’ve only been there about a year, and boy, this was kind of a weird and not a typical year. But I’d be curious, Laura, how you’re spending your time, and is it as you had imagined you would be?

Laura: Well, I laugh when I remember one of the questions that the search committee asked me, and I think it must’ve been April. They said, “When this pandemic is over, by the fall, what is your vision of the post-COVID Bennington… by the fall?” And so, I think even then, when I took the job, I had a sense that we were going to be starting a blank slate in September, and I’d be meeting with all these students and all these faculty members.

In some ways, I think COVID has been a little bit of a gift in the sense that I have focused internally because I haven’t had the opportunity to go out and travel a lot and meet people. So, I’ve been very much focused here. I have met every single faculty member, some by Zoom, some in person. We were outside in the fall and the spring. And that’s been just such a privilege and joy to get to know these really extraordinary thinkers and teachers. 

And I guess I expected I would spend my time that way. I didn’t expect to be so moved and just wow-ed. I expected to spend more time with students. That was the hardest thing for me, was not being able to just hang out with my students. Because I’m a parent. I know you can have these conversations where you’re asking questions and you’re doing things. But as my sister told me when my son was eight years old, she said, “You have the best conversations when you’re doing something with your son.” Like you’re in the car… or you’re taking a walk.

Denver: Right. Not when you’re looking at his report card or something like that.

Laura: Yes. Right. And not when you’re on Zoom, just like being the president to– you’re a position, not a person. And so, that’s the hardest thing, but I have to say that at the very end of the year, I was able to have a party outside for the house chairs. Those are the people that are… they’re like RAs, but they do a lot more. And they hadn’t even been together. And it was just such a joy. It was such a joy. 

And then to have graduation in person with incredible speakers – Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation spoke, and our amazing faculty member Michael Wimberley, who is a musician – and all the students and the parents. And it was just… it was way better than I ever could have imagined. 

Denver: Oh, that’s great. And I have a hunch. I’m not worried about you. You’re going to make up for some lost time with those students come 2021, 2022. 

Laura: Yes. I can’t wait. And I do have to say because this is The Business of Giving, I was able to raise some money and some pretty– we have an announcement that will come. But I’m very proud that even over Zoom and the telephone, I’ve been able to tell the story. 

The other thing I would just say, and I think this is like one of the proudest accomplishments is that just in this past year, we’ve had many more applicants than Bennington has ever had. We have the largest applicants, and we have the largest class coming in. And it is, I think… it’s several things. As I said, I think the pedagogy and the philosophy of Bennington is actually more relevant today, I think, than it ever has been. This sense of independent inquiry, of collaboration, of interdisciplinary mindset, of empathy, and of a global kind of perspective, and experiential learning. This is what I think students need. It’s also what they’re looking for. 

I think after COVID, students are like – “Look, I have to do what I think is right, not what somebody else is going to tell me. I don’t want to sit in a series of large lecture classes. I want to do something. And I want to be in a community of creative thinkers and individual thinkers. And also, being in Vermont and having the record we had with COVID. We had five student cases of COVID; four of them on arrival. And that is amazing. That’s the whole year. And also, Vermont has been and continues to be a leader in, and one of the safest. I think it is the most vaccinated and the safest place right now. And it has been pretty much the whole time of COVID. And so… 

Denver: You got a lot of things going for you. And to your point, this pause principle is what it really is, that I think that’s why a lot of people aren’t going back to their jobs. Because they’ve been on a treadmill, and they finally got off, and they’re saying, “Do I want to do this the rest of my life?” And you look at a lot of these high school kids… they were on that same treadmill. 

Laura: That’s right. 

Denver: You gave them a time to say: Do I want to sit in that large lecture hall? Or, who do I want to be? Or, where do we want to go? And that probably is to the benefit of a school like Bennington, where people say, “No. That is where I want to go.” So that application is incredible because I know the enrollments are down about 727,000 across the board from this spring’s enrollment from last spring. Not so bad for private nonprofits, but across the board, it’s… so you’re definitely bucking that trend. 

Let me close with this. I know you’re a long-term thinker, and you have long horizons in order to be able to achieve things. So we’re coming up on our 90th. What is your hope and aspiration for Bennington for its centennial in 2032?

Laura: 2032, right. My hope for Bennington is that I see a campus that is thriving with students who are college-age and students who are older, that are embracing and thriving in the Bennington way; that they are independent thinkers who are committed to both creativity of their own, and to social impact and social justice; that we are known for that, and that we continue to produce the Pulitzer Prize winners and the Peabody Award winners. But more importantly, that we are, through the Bennington education that never stops, that stays with you forever, that our students and our alums are making the world a better place. 

Denver: I love all of that, and particularly, the intergenerational vision that you have because I think that would be so healthy for society and would close a lot of the chasms that we have. Tell us about the Bennington College website and the kind of information that visitors will find if they stop by. 

Laura: So is our website, and we are constantly evolving it to tell the stories of Bennington alums and why Bennington is a special place. And you can find invitations to apply, invitations to learn more, and also showcase some of our wonderful alums and faculty. 

Denver: Good stuff. Well, thanks so much for being here today, Laura. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program. 

Laura: Thank you. Likewise. You’re a good interview.

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