Transcript of A conversation with president Laura R. Walker

Briee Della Rocca: Welcome President Laura Walker, 11th President of Bennington College. In the magazine there is typically a letter from the president, but we’re launching our first exclusively online magazine and given that you come from radio and we love radio, I figured this would be a nice way to introduce you to magazine readers. 

I am asking readers to share a response to the question of how do you keep on going and how do you keep on making when it feels like everything is ending? That seems particularly relevant to both of your leadership profiles, both when you were leading at New York Public Radio, and also now presiding at Bennington College. I’d like to start with Bennington College for obvious reasons. One that may not be obvious to readers who don’t follow higher ed news is the trend in college president searches. So this is a role that academics ascended. Provosts and deans were groomed for this position, sometimes political outsiders came in for these positions and they stayed for a while. Over the last 10 years, the tenure of a college president has gotten historically brief. The turnover rate is historically high and it’s harder to find leaders ready and willing to take on this role. This was all before the pandemic, all before the racial justice revolution and yet here you are President of Bennington College. What do you think is happening here? What are you seeing that you think other people might be missing in this whole scenario?

President Laura Walker: I’ve always been somebody who looks at a challenge and says, I am passionate about this and my passion and my perseverance is enough as a foundation. I fell in love with Bennington College. I was first attracted to Bennington because it had a huge embrace of the arts and it had this kind of intellectual kind of atmosphere and it had the sense of both independence and structure. Then I came here and I saw the campus, which has got to be one of the most beautiful campuses in America or in the world. Everyone I saw when I was in my car, driving through campus was smiling and was kind and you could tell, they were like waving at me. Now I was in my car because it was COVID and I was driving up from New York and I couldn’t get out of my car in Vermont, this was in the midst of the worst of pandemic in New York, but it also gave me this wonderful ability to take it in, my husband and I were together, to take it in and to not have to kind of see it through someone else’s eyes.

I fell in love with it. I think that in all respects in most leadership positions in this country, the tenure of the CEO or the president has gotten shorter. I don’t actually see this necessarily as what the conventional wisdom is, which is, oh, it’s such a hard job nobody wants it. I actually think that it is one of the most wonderful jobs, just to have a vision to see it through and be able to take something to the next level. Having said that I was in New York Public Radio for 23 years. I’m not a very good model for that, but I do think that for me, this is the challenge of coming to and the joy of coming to coming to Bennington and seeing how can I bring some of what I know about leading a creative institution to create a sustainable model where there’s greater impact and growth and more of Bennington in the world. That’s a huge privilege and it really is a joy. So I see it as not something to run away from, but something to run toward.

Briee Della Rocca: It’s interesting that you say that the tenure of leadership across institutions is abbreviated, and yet like you said, you led New York Public Radio for 23 years. What would you say long-term leadership of any institution offers and what are some of its drawbacks? Where is that of benefit and where is it difficult to be a long-term leader?

President Laura Walker:Somebody said to me, you either every five years have to reinvent the job, not just reinvent like a plan, but reinvent the job or you have to leave. I actually took that seriously and literally asked myself, am I the right leader for this next five years? Is there something I can do to transform something that needs to be transformed? When I got there we were two radio stations that were owned by the City of New York, and we ended up being a large, independent nonprofit that owned eight radio stations and 20 national programs. We had also transformed ourselves into a digital powerhouse in many ways. But what was interesting there was that the world was changing so much and I actually love that. 

I came in, in a period where radio was radio and the listening was kind of on a decline, although there was a huge amount of loyalty to WNYC for the small audience that it had. As time went on, and as I looked at say that first phase, which was 1996 to about 9/11 to 2001, we started by building up the news function and several key signature programs. By 2001 not only had the world totally changed, there was digital, it wasn’t yet podcasting, but it was kind of a digital delivery system. We knew we were going to have to figure out how we were going to compete for the audience, because there are 78 or 80 radio stations on the dial in New York and you’re competing for the attention, but it was a very different place in 2001, five years later.

It was to me about seeing the enormous need in New York for local reporting and for kind of not just the reporting, but a community that radio offers. It has that both intimacy of one-to-one and it has this kind of sense of you’re all listening all at the same time individually, but all listening all at the same time individually, but part of a larger community. And a community that is New York, it’s diverse, it’s throughout not just the five boroughs, it’s New Jersey and it’s New York. But there’s something so beautiful about the fact that there are people in their own homes, and in their own cars, and all kind of witnessing and experiencing a similar thing. And that sense of community around issues that are New York focused. That was what motivated a lot of that second five years. And that came out very, very clearly from our experience with 9/11. Obviously, New Yorkers needed something very different in that time. We needed information that was the truth. We needed solace. We needed to be together in a space that was really scary. And we found that when we opened the phones up on the radio, so many different people called in. And just listening to Mohammad from Brooklyn, or Bill from New Jersey, and people who were experiencing very different things, but very similar things that drove a lot of that next five years. We had started some national programs.

Also, I went to fund the local news and we went from, I think, about 10 people to by the time I left about 70 people, but every five years. Okay, there’s something called podcasting, let’s invest. Let’s invest and let’s be there for the long-term and let’s use it, not just as a distribution platform, let’s use it to kind of create a different way of producing, and a different way of formatting, and a different way of thinking. So, every five years, we had something. Until I got to the very end and I thought, “Oh, I’ve done what I can.”

Briee Della Rocca: You came into New York Public Radio with a very clear directive around your first year. You were hired to bring it into an independent media organization, and obviously, you did. Do you feel like you have a very clear directive right now in the same way? Or have you started to think about that first five years for Bennington? How do you decide where you’ll spend that time and what the critical variable?

President Laura Walker:The very first thing that I did at New York Public Radio and I’m doing at Bennington is to listen and find the magic and the deep, deep essence of what Bennington is about. And I told you I fell in love with Bennington. I fall in love each time as I’m meeting every single faculty member, talking to students, meeting with staff, and alums, and donors. And I think I’ve gotten… Every day, I get a slightly deeper and different kind of perspective on what it is that that is at the core of Bennington’s incredible ability to transform students from young freshmen to self-directed independent, creative graduates who have incredible confidence and tools to navigate the ambiguity to solve the world’s problems. And I see how that happens much more every day as I see that magic of what happens in the classroom between the faculty member and students, or the way the rigor of the academic process is evident in the planned process, the way students are supported and pushed at the same time.

That’s where I start. It is very important for me to understand that deeply first, because whatever we do in the future has to be about doing what only Bennington can do, and doing it even better, and doing it for more people. But if we don’t start there, at the core, then we can’t succeed. So, I think certainly, I have a very clear mandate to get through COVID to be able to make sure that people are safe and healthy. And at the same time, that we’re creating an environment and a culture that is kind of empathetic, and supportive, and also as special as it can be in a Bennington way. Another piece of this, obviously that I need to attend to is the sustainability of the college from a financial standpoint, and also from a standpoint of kind of bringing in new students every year and thinking about very deeply what is it, in this world, that only Bennington can do?

Similar to what I did at New York Public Radio, where we had a great and wonderful public radio approach to creating news and to creating a community around talk shows. What we did was we actually got better at that at the same time as we reached more people. With Bennington, whatever we do, we want to amplify the kind of connections between various different disciplines, the sense of self-direction, the kind of independent voice that has courage and boldness, the sense of how to get through a kind of ambiguity with a passion and a burning question, and to relate that to the work world. Whatever we do, we’re going to take that forward and do it with this amazing community, not just this on campus, but out there as alumns, but also fellow artists, and fellow thinkers, and fellow travelers.

So, my mandate is to get through COVID, to look at financial sustainability, to think about the future of how we’re going to not just survive, but how are we going to find our place in this world of higher education that was changing before COVID, but it’s changing even more rapidly now and where there is, not only the opportunity, but I think the mandate to kind of a reach even more diverse group of students including non-traditional students and others. We have an opportunity and a necessity to look at ourselves as a kind of a historically white institution and to think about how we can reflect our ourselves and become anti-racist.

To think about not just diversity, not just, inclusiveness, but inclusive excellence. And that is about a range of points of view and is about everyone reflecting on themselves, and their own privilege, and their own, their own part in holding up the structures that may not be the ones that we want to go forward with. And I think to do that in a way that is the kind of community conversation of Bennington, I think is really exciting. So, those are the key things. I am not someone who’s going to come in and immediately say, “This is where we’re going. And this is where we ha…” I don’t think that’s the right approach. I still have. And this is where we… I don’t think that’s the right approach. I still have to learn a lot and it will emerge through conversations and with the community that we will come up with a joint courageous and bold vision of the future.

Briee Della Rocca: So I heard that you used to bring the public radio staff together once a year to tell the story of the institution as well as the story of reporting during 9/11. Have you done that in some way at Bennington? What of the college’s history are you hearing now that you’re in, and how does that overlay with your understanding of the college and what you heard prior to being in Bennington?

President Laura Walker:Yeah, so I did bring people together every year and we would talk about that day, holding the station together and broadcasting even as we were in the midst of downtown to tell the story of a little engine that could, which is what we were. Radio was one of the few places, ways that people got their news and the reporters were extraordinary, but what I wanted to do was because it was so much in the DNA of who we were, and we got in the end, we got so much strength out of it that I thought it was important for people to come together and because everyone who was in the room had their own 9/11 experience, whether they were at WNYC at the time or they were somewhere else, and so it was a way of building a common history and a sense of celebration and a sense of resilience that out of deep tragedy, we found a purpose that we never could have found without having gone through that.

I think Bennington has places in its history that are like that, and I was a history major so I’ve been looking a lot at the original charter and the constitution and the Symposium Report and looking at, and talking to people about their recollections. I think what really strikes me is the enduring nature of what Bennington is about. I mean, it was founded with a sense that amidst these very other traditional schools for women, and in the broader world, for men and women, it was going to be different. It was going to be different. It was going to have its own kind of philosophy of education that was art centric and was around the connections between different disciplines. It was going to be about practitioners. It was going to be about having work experiences that are integrated into the independent inquiry of students. All of that is there.

That is amazing. It is astonishing that that pedagogy, that foundation has not only remained, it still feels new. It’s still an experiment and to me, I’d love to tell that story or some kind of defining events. I think I need to experience them and bring the community together, maybe not in a once a year thing, but around just noticing, hey, this is it. This is what makes Bennington Bennington, and this is what hasn’t changed in a hundred years, but how can we, over time, get even stronger at what we’re doing and just celebrate the amazing things and let the world know about it and use it to solve some of these problems. I mean, that we are facing environmental problems. There’s no one more prepared to kind of look at environmental issues than somebody who’s taken Judith Enck’s plastic class and Susan Sgorbati’s CAPA classes and the science classes that look at environment and had to kind of say to themselves, what do I want to achieve in this world?

How do we take those questions, the burning questions of our time and put the Bennington approach around it so that wonderful Bennington thing that gives you enough structure to pursue and rigor to define your question and define what you’re exploring and at the same time, this incredible freedom and independence to innovate and to kind of think like no one else has thought before, and to bring the worlds of environment or regenerative farming together with the visual arts and create something new? That’s what excites me about Bennington and that… is a similar thing of putting people together for every year and talking about what’s in the DNA is to say, what’s in our DNA at Bennington, and let’s celebrate it. Let’s deepen it. Let’s explore it.

It’s an experiment. It’s an ongoing experiment. It’s an amazing experiment because its values and its reason to be almost a hundred years ago is exactly what it is today, and that is just, that is amazing and it’s vibrant and it feels like it’s new. There’s something about it where it feels like it’s being invented every day and reinvented because it’s about intellectual inquiry and it’s about creativity and what could be better.

Briee Della Rocca: You’ve talked about the reason behind bringing people together around an institutional story, even those who are new to that institution and probably more importantly for them. I just recently read Ocean Vuong’s memoir, and this is something he deals with a lot in his work and talks about often the tradition of oral storytelling and how we adapt these stories as time goes on and small things change, but over time, you realize, Oh, that is a different tone or tenor of a story, or the emphasis is different when I tell it some other day. You refine it as you tell it over and over and over again, and as you’ve told your story and the New York Public Radio story, which are very intertwined, now, so many decades later, when you think about it, what has changed for you, if anything, over time? Now that you’ve left, how would you tell the story of your time there? Has the distance and space given you new perspective about your time there?

President Laura Walker: I wasn’t there to tell the story this year, but there’s a lot of connections and I was emailing the crew that was there that day, and one of the reporters had been carrying a microphone while the towers fell and she was talking into it kind of documenting what she was seeing. She said that some right wing group had gotten a hold of her tape and was using it to tell a different story. And she went On the Media to talk about it. I have not yet heard it, but she was telling me about it. That’s what’s different in a way, that is the world around us has gotten so much uglier or at least in media, the media world has gotten so much uglier with Twitter and with this incredible polarization. I think what I see is that we were not saving that station and deepening the impact of the work and creating stuff in the podcast age and reaching 23 million people, because we need this in our country. And it’s there as a voice of certainty, independence and search for the truth and bringing people together in a way that this country needs more than ever. That’s what I see a little bit more with a little more distance, how deeply needed this is. It’s so urgent to save that and have institutions like that. So it’s a huge privilege to have been there and had that opportunity. And I hope it can be strengthened.

I feel similarly about Bennington. I think that we’re almost at our hundredth, we’re going to be stronger at a hundred than we are now. And we are going to be there at a hundred and we’re going to look back and we’re going to look at what we’re doing then. And we’re going to have a similar thing. Bennington stands for something that this world needs. The impact is not about numbers of people like New York Public Radio in a way, it’s about the creative desire and need to make an impact and make the world a better place.

Briee Della Rocca: You had given an interview to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. They do a podcast, Our City, Our Voices. And you obviously talked about 9/11. I know we’re fresh off of 9/11, we’re recording this on September 15th. So it’s very fresh. And when I was listening to you talk and recall about that day and your time and work there, I just heard all these decision moments. But you weren’t talking about them necessarily in that way. It felt more like instinct and responses. So from seeing the first tower get hit and deciding you’re still going to vote in the primary. Then coming out and finding the second tower down and deciding to get on the subway and go towards all of this, because you were insisting that the station had to be up and be reporting on that time. Then you decided to open the lines and take calls and bring in reporters, like the one that you just referenced. You were reporting as the world around you is falling down and under attack. How relevant that feels to where we are now. I want to just end this interview by asking you what I’m asking readers this issue, how did you do it? How did you keep on going and keep on airing when it truly felt and looked like the world that you were in was ending? Do you see any parallels? What have you learned?

President Laura Walker: It’s interesting that you asked that question. I remember sitting in the newsroom on the 25th floor of the municipal building after the two towers had collapsed, and there was just debris and clouds and all this paper, even up there. I think it’s two things. I think it is the instinct of a journalist. I was a journalist and a journalist always goes for the story. You have to find what’s going on. I think that if I hadn’t been a journalist, I probably wouldn’t have said to the mayor’s representative, “I’m going up there to put the station back on the air.” And he said to me, “If the city still owned the radio station, I would order you off the air.” And I said, “Commissioner, I am so proud to say that we own the station. So I am going up and we’re going to broadcast.” And that just comes to you instinctively.

But the other piece that is I think something I call on even more and I find with COVID and here at Bennington, it sounds really trite, but it’s the empathy you have for each other and for the team that’s doing the work for the need to connect in the midst of a terrorizing situation where people are not just… I mean they’re fundamentally scared and there’s so much uncertainty that creating that bond and communicating with truth, with confidence, with a sense that it will be better and a creativity that says we’re going to come out of this. Not just stronger, because that sounds trite again, but we’re going to learn something. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but we’re going to learn something and it’s going to bring us together.

And for Bennington going through COVID, it is about that wonderful individualistic spirit, but it’s also about the community. And that at this time it is a time when people at Bennington need to instinctively say, “Okay, I’m an individual looking at what I’m going to do, but I’m part of a community. I’m wearing a mask not really just for myself, but for others. And I’m grateful to other people who are doing it.” So you can build a different sense of community in these situations. And also, the empathy and the teamwork. The fact that I’m still emailing with my team that was there almost 20 years later. It means so much to all of us because we were there together.

But also the listeners. Listeners would say, “I was listening.” And the other thing on 9/11 is that stations around the country basically turned off their air and they took us. They said, “We’re going to go to New York and we’re going to listen live to WNYC.” And so in California, they were listening. And they just made us their radio station. And you feel so incredibly honored to be the eyes and the ears of the nation.

And I think here, Bennington has something unique to say at this moment and unique to bring to these next really tough questions about social justice, about racism, about the environment, about what arts and artists have to say that are telling us I think something that we can’t just process intellectually. And it will be there. We’ll see what it is.

Briee Della Rocca: Thank you so much. Thank you