This essay is a part of the Student Government series, a weekly column from Thomas Finegar.
The current president of Bennington College, Laura Walker, was officially announced as such to the college community on June 1st, 2020. The announcement was accompanied by widespread dissent from many students and alumni due to her history as the CEO of WNYC (New York Public Radio) and community-wide discussion of the scandal that would eventually, some speculate, lead to Walker stepping down from her position.
Over the many years they worked for WNYC, Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, titular hosts of their respective shows, had been reported to HR multiple times by multiple employees for sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual behavior. The news that these reports — and the women who filed them — were neglected by upper-management spread around WNYC and was finally reported on by major news outlets, such as the New York Times.
In the aftermath of this publication, three co-hosts resigned and publicly accused Walker and WNYC HR of ignoring the claims. Walker then took the following actions in an attempt to respond. A Listening Tour was announced in which Walker would be reaching out to as many people affected by the situation in any capacity as possible. They implemented non-bias training and an independent audit of racial bias in the company as well as one for sexual descrimination and assault. After months of public appearances and interviews about the restorative work of WNYC (which had been generally well-received) Walker would not have her contract renewed by the board of WNYC.
The incident is, perhaps forever, fixed on Walker’s reputation, and has, since her appointment, become a present and tense topic of community discussion within oppositional contexts. Even since the student and faculty interviews in the hiring process, Walker has spoken to the community about this incident, opening herself to conversations about preventing such an event at Bennington. She has consistently welcomed questions about the controversy and has regularly responded actively and addressed proactively the questions from the student body. The hiring process that she went through, though, was in and of itself, historically significant and is the main reason that student government efforts on campus were sparked.
The presidential hiring process in 2020 was the least transparent and collaborative process of the likes that the college has gone through. Very little information was publicly available about the process and the information that was given was buried deep in the Bennington website. One student representative, who wished to remain unnamed, stated “the college asked us to interview the candidates, but never gave us information about them. We had to do all the research ourselves.”
The lack of transparency and student voice in this process, along with concerns about Walker’s appointment, have led many students to believe that Bennington should bring back a larger governing body run by the students. The purpose of which would be to demand, in a more broad scope, transparency and collaboration from the senior staff and administration.
The idea of instating a student government seems, coincidentally, to have been reached simultaneously by almost every representative group on campus and many independent students. The need for a student government has been mentioned at every action-based rally since the term began including the rally in support of Marta Shcharbakova during her political imprisonment in Belarus (she is now free) and the rally to held by the Black Student Union and other anti-racist groups on campus. A current Senior and student leader specifically stood up at the rally for Marta Shcharbakova and concluded that movements like these are a reason the student government will be necessary. As of the writing of this article, no public action has been taken to initiate this process but many student leaders have been organizing meetings to discuss how this may be done.
In conversation with these leaders, and in reference to previous successful rallies this term, it is likely that the first public step taken will be a town hall meeting of the student body to discuss what a student government may look like and what it’s functions would be. This effort is primarily being led by members of the major representative groups on campus though many of these leaders have stressed that this initiative is independent of their work with their respective groups.
Regardless of the outcome of these initiatives, the student body is claiming more visibility and is demanding transparency and accountability from the administration and from the president. This column will continue to track this progression and provide equal transparency and accountability from a potential student government.