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Education: The Bennington Couple

7 minute read

“Heaven for me is reading a long 19th century novel in a warm climate.”

—Gail Parker

There is not much time for heaven just now. It is late fall in Vermont, and the first wet snows have already fallen on the 500-acre campus of Bennington College. Coeds in fringed wool ponchos and muddy boots straggle along the paths to their classes. In Commons Theater, a lone dancer in a leotard is rehearsing her interpretation of Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In Studio 236 of a stone mansion called Jennings Hall, a violinist tirelessly polishes the opening of a Mozart quartet. Among them all walks Gail Parker, a handsome brunette of 29, who so little expected to become Bennington’s president that she laughed at the very prospect of her candidacy as “outrageous.”

Bennington opened its doors in 1932 as a college dedicated to the arts, and the emphasis is still in that direction, but over the past decade the school somehow lost its way. Originally, its faculty was composed largely of working artists who learned from each other and in turn passed on knowledge and technique to small groups of artistically minded students. Once a pioneer, Bennington began in the late ’60s to find itself outdone by imitators. “We haven’t got the money,” says Novelist Bernard Malamud, a Bennington faculty member for eleven years. “We are not enticing people as we used to.”

Although it remained small (595 students) and expensive ($5,075), the college tried to find a new role by broadening its curriculum. “We were becoming like a large college or university,” says Donald Brown, the dean of faculty who served as acting president for the 1970-71 year. “We were adding courses without a qualitative view of education.” Under President Edward Bloustein, a former law professor, Bennington spent $1.5 million on a new science building, added 50 new courses to the curriculum—about half in the sciences. Among the 20 new faculty members added in the mid-’60s were many younger teachers, and the growing unhappiness about Bennington’s new direction began to crystallize. Faculty and students (the college went coed in 1969) split into factions. Says Malamud: “It was in its way a revolutionary process.”

Cherchez La Femme. By 1970, when Bloustein left to become president of Rutgers, the need for reassessment had become apparent. An eleven-man committee (four trustees, three students, three faculty members and an independent chairman) began the search for a new president. By December 1971, a list of 250 prospects had been culled to a dozen, and by the following June, the search committee zeroed in on quiet, witty Gail Parker, a Harvard literature professor who specializes in the study of old-time feminists (her current research project: a critical biography of Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Why Mrs. Parker? Aside from the fact that the searchers had been urged to find a woman, an established scholar and an outsider for the post, she had particularly impressed the students during the two days that the three presidential finalists spent at Bennington the previous May. “She attempted to find an answer to exactly what the students asked,” said History Professor Rush Welter, a member of the search committee.

Another very real point in her favor, and one of the oddities about her current administration, was that she brought with her a bright, skilled administrator in the person of her husband Tom, 30, assistant to the dean of Harvard’s School of Education. Both Gail and Tom graduated from college in 1964; she summa cum laude from Radcliffe, he magna cum laude from Harvard. After their marriage that year, Tom taught high school for two years, then joined Harvard’s administration, while Gail went on to take a Ph.D. at Harvard in American history.

Husband-wife teams like the Parkers are unusual in U.S. college administrations, and a team with wife in the No. 1 spot is, as far as can be determined, unique. Does Tom resent being second? Gail doubts it, adding, “It isn’t everyone who gets to sleep with the president.” Once on the job, the Parkers divided up the work. As president, Gail supervises the faculty, the curriculum and the students; as vice president, Tom oversees fund raising, financial aid, admissions and the day-to-day operation of the college. “If someone else were vice president,” says Gail, “I know I’d feel competition. But it’s inconceivable to me that Tom would like me to look less than able. I know that when he gives advice I don’t have to second-guess his motives.”

Doing Well Together. He also keeps a professional eye on her in action. At one meeting with students Gail offered a vague answer to a sharp question. Tom, standing at the back of the room, said, “Gail, you haven’t answered the question yet.” “She smiled then,” a witness recalls. “She always smiles when she gets flustered.” Easy give-and-take is a Parker characteristic. “My theory for work and pleasure,” says Gail, “is that you should have 15 minutes of giggling a day at the office, and some office talk at home.” She adds: “We’ve been married for eight years and we do well at that. It’s a snap working together here.”

They have also divided up their domestic chores. Gail gets up their daughter Julia, 6, and gets her to school; Tom cleans up after the dinner and does the shopping because “he’s better at buying toothpaste.” No arguments? “Sure, I get mad at him sometimes, and he gets irritated when I mess things up. But we would be undone if one of us turned on the other.”

Neither of the Parkers has yet come out with any trumpeting of change: Gail, in fact, will not deliver her inaugural address until the end of the academic year. Among the students, there is some grumbling. “Sure you have control over your education,” says Senior Jim Bloom, “as long as you are doing what they want you to.” For Psychology Major Martha Mano, “Bennington’s education is too naive.” Criticism like this doesn’t faze Mrs. Parker. “At Bennington,” she says, “we have a fighting chance of exposing people to a broad range of things, so that by the time they have finished their formal education they’ll know what they really want to do.”

Improving that “fighting chance” is the Parkers’ task. Among Gail’s first steps, besides “just trying to cope,” will be a more integrated curriculum with renewed emphasis on the arts. “Bennington can probably do better,” she says mildly, “at once again thinking through a curriculum that allows faculty members to work with each other as they work with the students.” She also is encouraging plans to allow more student participation in decisions affecting college policy.

There is a clear sense at Bennington that considerably deeper change is coming. “She will take us along new and unforeseeable paths,” says Dr. Robert Morison, a trustee and chairman of the search committee. “I hope, though, that it’s done without a break from the past.” To Malamud, “Gail is the unabsorbed stranger. Her way of being absorbed is to create a situation in which people will trust her.” Thus far, he adds, she has not wanted to assume authority without the knowledge she feels she must have, and is now acquiring. “As the Parkers create themselves, they will re-create the college.”

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