If you followed higher education news in the 1990s, you have an opinion on Liz Coleman. The president of what was once the most expensive college in America, Coleman made a radical, controversial plan to snap the college out of a budget and mission slump -- by ending the tenure system, abolishing academic divisions and yes, firing a lot of professors. It was not a period without drama. But fifteen years on, it appears that the move has paid off. Bennington's emphasis on cross-disciplinary, hands-on learning has attracted capacity classes to the small college, and has built a vibrant environment for a new kind of learning.
Coleman's idea is that higher education is an active pursuit -- a performing art. Her vision calls for lots of one-on-one interactions between professor and student, deep engagement with primary sources, highly individual majors, and the destruction of the traditional academic department. It's a lofty goal that takes plenty of hard work to keep on course.
In 1994, Coleman led Bennington College through an organizational restructuring initiated by the Board of Trustees to reanimate Bennington’s vanguard educational mission. Since then, the College has experienced record fiscal health and launched new pioneering curricular programs—among them a distinguished low-residency graduate program in writing and the ambitious Center for the Advancement of Public Action, which invites students to put the world’s most pressing problems at the center of their education.
CAPA is the latest incarnation of Bennington’s trailblazing spirit. “The College’s genius with regard to whatever is taught—its belief in learning as a task of discovery rather than ‘learning about’ and its readiness to invite students immediately and directly into their education—remains as distinctive, daring, and invaluable as ever.”
Coleman serves on the boards the Neurosciences Institute in California and the National Association of Independent Schools. She has served on the boards of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the Council for a Community of Democracies, the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, and the Committee for Economic Development, and has been consultant to the Annenberg Corporation.
A scholar of Shakespeare and Henry James, Coleman graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and received her PhD with distinction at Columbia University. She has received honorary degrees from the University of Vermont and Hofstra University.
In June 2013, Coleman will retire from the presidency of Bennington College after 25 years of leadership. She will serve as director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action through June 2015.
Call to Reinvent Liberal Arts Education, A New Liberal Arts Curriculum a speech delivered by Elizabeth Coleman on the celebration of Bennington College's 75thAnniversary.