Leadership & Governance

A Young President Succeeds a Veteran Chief

Mariko Silver, Bennington College

February 20, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz

Mariko Silver, the new president of Bennington College, left Arizona State University last year to take the helm from Elizabeth Coleman, who had led Bennington for 25 years. In a recent conversation with The Chronicle, she talked about the challenges of following such a long-serving president, about how her age—she's just 36 years old—affected her reception, and about whether she will work to get the college taken off the American Association of University Professors' censure list.


SCOTT SMALLWOOD: I'm here with Mariko Silver, the president of Bennington College.

You just started this new job and you had the remarkable moment of needing to step in and fill in for somebody who'd been there for 25 years holding the job. What's been ? Elizabeth Coleman, who was the president there. What's been ? what's been the hardest part of that?

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MARIKO SILVER: Well, the hardest part. On one hand, I had a great advantage, I think, coming after someone who had been there for so long and is so knowledgeable about the institution. And I think the biggest challenge is that the institution inevitably becomes very much identified with that person. And so how do you move the institution into a place where it's not identified with that person? I had an advantage in that I was sort of twice the woman I am now when I came into the job because I was eight months pregnant, and so I ? (laughs) ? sort of cut quite a figure, I think.

MR. SMALLWOOD: And how was that an advantage?

MS. SILVER: I think it was an advantage in terms of how the community welcomed me, and it really drew a very bright line in a different sort of way between me and Liz that I think was helpful.

MR. SMALLWOOD: Right. You mentioned your pregnancy. You're 36 right now. There aren't a lot of 36-year-old pregnant presidents.

MS. SILVER: So I hear. I've looked for them. I have not found them.

MR. SMALLWOOD: (Laughs.) What ? how has the age come up? I'm sure it's come up in some way.

MS. SILVER: It actually has come up less than I thought until this moment. (Laughs.) It's come up less than I thought it would. It certainly hasn't been any kind of an impediment. I would have thought, for example, that when I was interviewing people would have asked me about it. They really didn't. They asked me about the things that I had done, but they didn't ask me about my age particularly. I think in some ways it's an advantage. It means that I can get a lot of other college presidents to mentor me; that's nice. But it also means that I have a very clear memory of what it is to be in the shoes of our students and in the shoes of some of our young faculty. It also means that I have a different kind of focus on things like family-friendly policies.

MR. SMALLWOOD: You mentioned mentors. You were at Arizona State, an adviser to Michael Crow. What did he tell you about being a president? What was his big advice for you?

MS. SILVER: I don't think I'm allowed to tell the Chronicle what he told me about being president.

He gave me a lot of great advice and has given me a lot of wonderful advice over the years. The first thing he told me was not to be cowed by the idea of being a college president, that I should continue to do the kinds of things that I've been doing and continue to do them in the ways that I've done them ? obviously not in a hardheaded way, in a way that's flexible and agile, but that being president and being the leader of an institution is in many ways an ongoing part of the trajectory that I've been on, and so it's nice to hear something like that from?

MR. SMALLWOOD: Right. So ASU and Bennington, I'm not sure that we can find two more different institutions in some way. Arizona State, 60,000 undergrads; Bennington, I think about 600 undergrads, right?

MS. SILVER: Yeah. I think we're both in the ? we're a little bit higher than that but ?

MR. SMALLWOOD: You're a little bit higher.

MS. SILVER: ? but both are. (Laughs.) The scale is right.

MR. SMALLWOOD: What is the experience of being at just a major, giant research university, how does that affect how you lead a small liberal arts college?

MS. SILVER: Well, I think the similarities ? as you can imagine, I've been asked this ? the similarities are actually more striking in some ways than the differences, because the differences are obvious.

MR. SMALLWOOD: And they are what? What jumps out?

MS. SILVER: Right, the differences are obvious. Public, private; large, small; access-driven, more selective. But in terms of similarities, the level of openness to innovation is quite remarkable, and Bennington was founded as an innovative school and it really ? its self-identity is as an innovative school. Michael really made ASU, in many ways, into an innovative school that's really open to different ways of learning and understanding everyone's ? every individual's path towards success within a higher education institution. Obviously, the way you do that at a very large institution is different than the way you do it at a very small institution that is built to be individually focused and inquiry-driven like Bennington. But it means that the educational philosophy, in many ways, is not so different.

MR. SMALLWOOD: It's been about 20 years since the dismissal of about two dozen professors at Bennington led to the college being placed AAUP's censure list. That whole case was very tightly connected to President Coleman at the time. What ? do you plan on working with AAUP on that censure?

MS. SILVER: I'm certainly open to it. We haven't had the opportunity to have a conversation yet, but what I will say is that we have not found it to be an impediment at all in hiring or in the satisfaction of our faculty. We have been actually quite successful in hiring faculty members who are on tenure track at other places or tenured in other places away to come teach at Bennington.

MR. SMALLWOOD: And you don't ? you haven't found it an impediment. Do you think it matters anymore in this time?

MS. SILVER: That's a much bigger question. I think there's a place for tenure. I absolutely do. I'm not an anti-tenure person. But of course, the national conversation is very much leaning towards, what is the next model, or what is an additional or supplementary model? And one of the things that certainly strikes me is that most other industries, if we can call higher education that, and some people certainly do, don't expect every entity within their industry to have exactly the same employment model. And yet we do in higher education. But we cheat it, because we cheat it with ? and not we, Bennington, but we, the industry cheat it with adjuncts, we cheat it with other ways of bringing people in, and what that creates is a really stratified system. What we have at Bennington is a much more integrated community, and I think it works really well.

MR. SMALLWOOD: Great. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

MS. SILVER: Thank you.

MR. SMALLWOOD: Thank you.