Mariko Silver, who has worked in higher education and for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, has no immediate plans for big changes at the institution focused on the arts. But, she says she has discovered that more can be done to enhance the students' experiences in their field work to better prepare them for life in the outside world.
"I think I need to do a lot of listening ... in this first year. I'm not going to come in and say, well, these 17 things need to be turned on their heads. But we're taking a very close look at a number of different things - everything from student life to how we guide students through the academic process here. I think there's a lot that's already fairly well evolved and well on its way," she said.
She plans to ask faculty and students what's working and what does the school need more of and what are impediments to students' success.
Silver, 35, takes over for Elizabeth Coleman, who retired after 25 years. Coleman oversaw the college's largest growth period in its 80 years, during the school raised more $175 million, built six buildings and had a record high enrollment of nearly 700 undergraduate students.
"She brought the institution back from a very difficult place," Silver said. "She brought it back to a place of stability and I have incredible admiration for what she's accomplished and her smarts, her toughness, and her kindness. She maintained the course and built a strong vision for the college."
Silver wasn't looking for a new job when she was recruited for the opportunity, but said she was intrigued. After working on the research and economic development side of higher education, and for Arizona State University which has about 70,000 students, Silver said she wanted the chance to work in a tightknit, residential, liberal arts community. The region of the country also appealed to her and her husband, who have a young child and a second due in early September. Silver plans to take a short maternity leave, but because she's living on campus, she said she'll still be able to learn about the academics, culture and social life of the school.
The faculty is now starting to come back, and students return at the end of August, with school starting the day after Labor Day. Silver already is hearing from some individual students about their projects.
"I think one of the great things about being a student at Bennington is your ideas are weighed equally," she said.
Silver said she learned from both Napolitano and ASU President Michael Crow that you have to listen for good ideas - no matter where they come from. In a place like the Department of Homeland Security, where she served as Napolitano's deputy assistant secretary for international policy, and then acting assistant secretary for international affairs, there's a tendency to only listen to ideas that have been vetted by various people.
"But you miss out on a lot of things that way," Silver said. "You miss out on a lot of insights into how the organization works, and what's valuable, so it's nice to be in a place where that isn't the case and students feel really empowered."