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Laura’s presidential priorities

Today’s edition focuses on Laura’s priorities and goals as President of the college. The goal of this column is to provide the community with an understanding of the President, and I hope this edition can be a foundation for such an understanding. I would urge you to consider what you believe should be the goals of the administration this term as you read her response.

Luke: What are your biggest goals as President of the college for this term and moving forward?

Laura: Thank you, Luke. I have several major goals for this academic year. And these are goals that I think are shared by at least the whole senior staff. And I’ve shared these goals, actually with SEPC, and with several faculty, I think the whole faculty meeting, and the steering committee. 

My first goal is to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by prioritizing the safety of students and faculty and staff. And also at the same time, creating an excellent learning experience for students, both online and in person. That is obviously incredibly important. And I’m incredibly proud of this community, because we have zero COVID cases right now. And we are so far keeping very safe and healthy. I was walking around campus yesterday, and every person I saw was wearing a mask, everyone was really very respectful of each other. 

Doing the planning for COVID, as with anything that looks pretty successful, and that is this complex, it took a lot of planning on the part of everyone. From buildings and grounds, dining, certainly the faculty, and all the staff and including students at various parts along the way, looking at the commitment to shared responsibility, and helping to think and give us feedback all the time, and how can we make this better? A group of the staff meets twice a week to plan and we will continue to do so. So as we look at next term, we’re planning for the reentry process. With the same kind of level of testing, I think it’s worked very well. A similar process to coming back to campus, we won’t know all the details, of course, till we know what the state of Vermont is asking us to do and and where the COVID cases are, but we will use a similar process. 

It’s interesting, because I think in some ways, it’s been a great time to be introduced to the Bennington community. Because I’ve seen the compassion and the care people have for each other. I’ve seen how, when there’s anxiety, people circle round to take care of each other. And I see the creativity of the classroom from students singing outside of Jennings, to sending mail art as part of a class, to teaching Rilke by mail, and to holding up different signs on zoom as students are taking quizzes or answering questions, very creative stuff. 

Of course, we can’t let down our guard, we need to continue to maintain a safe and a healthy campus if we’re going to deliver on the promise of a rigorous and experiential and collaborative education. But so far, I’m very proud. 

Second is, for me as a new president and new to academia, it’s really important for me to listen and get to know the Bennington community. I fell in love with this college, I fell in love with the community. And I love the core promise of students developing their own path with their own burning questions. And I want to understand that core, what makes for when it works really well, a brilliant Bennington education, where students want to learn about the world and identify and explore their own questions, that wonderful sense of exploring through uncertainty, and getting to some shape and then reshaping and re experimenting with a group of faculty and other students that are helping each student think critically and collaboratively. 

But I am listening, holding office hours for students from 12-1 on Fridays, going to student and faculty meetings, meeting every faculty member. I have a wonderful 45 minute meeting with every faculty member. And it’s really been such an incredible experience to get to know people as human beings and to understand and see their passion for their subject. I’m visiting the exhibits, attending Music Mondays, meeting with fabulous members of the board last night, and going to the CAPA discussion with Governor Dukakis. And more informally, absorbing just by walking around, and which I’d like to do more of, I think social distancing requirements have made it complicated, of course. I feel like I don’t get a certain element. There’s always a little bit of a wall, you know, when you can’t be with people. I’ve never seen my senior staff all in one place. It’s odd. 

But one of the things I’ve just loved is watching how this community processes challenges and finds creative solutions. Like when Marta was protesting in Belarus and was detained and how the community came together, and how we now are learning about Belarus and other democracies in a pop up class. And that is just so Bennington to me, but I want to understand this, and I just need to take it in. And listen. 

The third is to make sure that we are putting students first. I’m committed to building a new level of trust with students, and developing new approaches, both formally and informally, to hear students’ voices. Of course, that starts with getting to know students individually, as well as collectively, and I feel like I’ve not had that ability so far. And so I’m thinking about ways to kind of get to know more students, individually, or in small groups. It means thinking together with students about the culture… how we can support students and how we can bring students more into the process. I want to make sure that when students come to me, or other people in the administration, the first question we ask is what is at the core of what they’re saying. And then to look for ways to work collaboratively to find solutions. I want to bring students more systematically into the policy decisions of the college. And I’m really, really heartened by the two things that I see students doing this term, which is, one is the newspaper, and two is the thinking about student governance. And I think that while these are not obviously things that we can do in the administration, I support them and want to figure out ways that, you know, we can do our part in making them successful. 

What I’m thinking about for the rest of this term, is I want to do three things, to visit some classes, because I haven’t really seen classes in action, to hold a town hall meeting in November, it’ll be after the election so that we can just get through that piece. And thirdly, to meet with small groups of students. And so I’m going to be thinking about ways to do that, but it’s also an invitation, frankly, to your readers, to help me think about ways that I can better understand and think about ways to bring students more into some of the policy decisions. 

Fourth, and this is really, really important to me, is to continue building an intentionally inclusive  and anti racist community. I think there’s some good work and good foundation, but we have work to do. And the President’s working group which we just announced the members of, I’m so delighted that 150 people came forward to say I want to be part of this. And I think that is such an incredible show of interest and commitment to this work. I want to have conversations with the whole community as part of this and to think together as a community about what is this culture and how do we work to improve both policies and practices around hiring, around issues of how we bring people into this community? How do we retain faculty, staff, people of color? How do we work with students of color about how to make this a more inclusive and successful relationship? 

I’ve read the Bennington College Experiences Instagram and it’s very painful to read. And we need to take that in. And we need to think both within the President’s working group and as a community about how we can create an even more inclusive community and one that is actively anti racist. And that means looking at systemic racism, it means looking at and understanding that systemic racism. 

Obviously concerns around COVID precautions require immediate prioritization, but there are many deep Bennington issues that also need attention, and COVID does provide a unique scenario where change feels possible.

The instagram account she is referring to is @benningtoncollege_experiences.

Please reach out to me if you have any questions you’d like asked in a future interview ( or 

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