Bennington's New Chief Finds Strength in the Arts

Bennington College

Mariko Silver
August 12, 2013

Mariko Silver, who became Bennington College's president last month, says she hadn't planned to leave Arizona State University, where she was a senior adviser to the president, Michael M. Crow. Then recruiters from Bennington offered her an opportunity too good to pass up.

"Sometimes your gut just tells you it's the right thing," says Ms. Silver, who is 35 and has joined a cohort whose average age is 61. "Bennington's approach to individualized education is very compelling. For a large number of students, it's the right approach."

The small college has a mandatory fieldwork term, during which students spend seven weeks off campus every winter working in areas related to their field of study. That requirement gives students the broad outlook they need to compete in a global and interdisciplinary workplace, as well as to discover what best suits their interests and personal goals, Ms. Silver says.

Bennington's approach fits with her view that a true education consists of "passion-driven learning for a purpose-driven life."

Unlike many graduates from past generations who sought stability and a solid career, she says, graduates today should seek careers that are both intellectually and personally satisfying. Students should find out what excites them and keeps them up at night, she says.

Another aspect of Bennington that Ms. Silver found attractive was its emphasis on the liberal arts. Her late father, Tony Silver, a documentary filmmaker, and her mother, Joan Shigekawa, acting chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, instilled in her a deep appreciation for art and the value of an interdisciplinary education, she says. And she is married to a musician, Thom Loubet. (They are expecting their second child in September.)

The trajectory of Ms. Silver's career is a prime example of her own philosophy of leading a globally oriented, purpose-driven life. After completing a bachelor's degree in history at Yale University and a master's in science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, in England, she worked for a publishing company in Bangkok and then at Columbia University in the office of Mr. Crow, who was executive vice provost there. She later followed him to Arizona State. She has a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California at Los Angeles, which she earned while working at Arizona State.

She became a policy adviser to Janet Napolitano during Ms. Napolitano's time as governor of Arizona and was responsible for, among other things, the state's public and private universities, community colleges, and vocational institutions.

Ms. Silver moved to Washington to spend three years at the Department of Homeland Security, managing international engagements and working on various global efforts. In that job, she served again under Ms. Napolitano, who was recently appointed president of the University of California.

"Every move has been the clear thing to do because the opportunity presented to me with the move was so wonderful," Ms. Silver says. Those opportunities, especially under Mr. Crow and Ms. Napolitano, helped her learn how to be a leader, she says.

Mr. Crow, for his part, has high expectations of Ms. Silver, who succeeds Elizabeth Coleman, Bennington's president since 1987.

Ms. Silver "is a person who operates without the one thing that encumbers anyone, which is fear," Mr. Crow says. "She's fearless. She's very much able to get things done and build incentives among conflicting groups."

Mr. Crow notes that her path will be challenging. "She's got to take the great Bennington tradition and... get more people to invest in it and get more families to engage in the model that Bennington has," he says. "I think she will be outstanding with that."