Bennington is a college town that doesn’t feel like a college town.
With five colleges operating in town -- Bennington College, Southern Vermont College, Community College of Vermont, Northeastern Baptist College, and Vermont Tech -- you’d think there would be a resulting abundance of student foot traffic downtown, student dollars spent in local businesses, and a vitality that a youthful, diverse student population is known to bring to a community.
There hasn’t historically been a lot of college-community interaction in Bennington. It may have something to do with the fact that some of the campuses are somewhat removed from town, and transportation is not always at hand.
This weekend, during events for her inauguration celebration, Bennington College President Mariko Silver announced plans for the college to partner with the Bennington Museum as well as to build stronger community ties.
"We are going to create a number of ways to reach out to let all of you know of all of the wonderful things to which you are invited," Silver said. "It’s a moment of partnership between the college and the museum, and it’s a moment of partnership between the college and the community. This community created Bennington College."
True to that spirit, a score of events held at Bennington College throughout the weekend to celebrate Silver’s inauguration were free and open to the public.
"We will build on the partnerships we have and forge new ones just beyond the gates and around the globe," Silver said during her inaugural speech. "Now, more than ever, we must bring Bennington to the world and the world to Bennington."
While there is some interaction, in the recent past there has been discussion amongst town and college leaders about how students attending all of Bennington’s colleges can be made to feel welcome downtown and inspired to frequent downtown shops and restaurants. "The best town and gown relationships are where you see the president and the mayor side by side at welcome events for students, state of the university or state of the community," said Kim Griffo, executive director of the International Town and Gown Association, in a recent interview with HigherEdJobs.com. "Plus the presidents and the mayors need to support the troops that are doing the day-to-day work in serving in the community relations role."
In the past year there’s been discussion between the Bennington Select Board and leadership from area colleges on the possibility of starting a student-run bookstore/café in a downtown storefront so students would spend more time downtown. So far that idea hasn’t come to fruition.
There have also recently been some events to literally lead students to town. At the start of the academic year, more than 160 incoming Southern Vermont College freshmen and athletes were bused to town for a "Taste of Bennington" progressive dinner that encouraged them to visit a number of downtown restaurants on first day of their orientation. In hopes of bringing them back to town again, students were given goodie bags compiled by the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, the Town of Bennington, Better Bennington Corporation containing information, freebies and discounts from area businesses.
But a one-time push isn’t enough.
We hope that Silver will work to strengthen ties between Bennington College and the community, just as we look to the leaders of the other colleges in town to enhance bonds.
We recognize that the relationship between town and gown goes both ways: Community members could also endeavor to become more involved with what the area colleges have to offer: Be it a symphony performance at Bennington College, a film at CCV Bennington or a basketball game at SVC.
Just the simple act of opening Bennington College’s north gate, as Silver told those gathered at the Bennington Museum reception Friday the college plans to do, might open up the campus more to the community. And vice versa.
"A collaborative relationship between the community (town) and the local college or university (gown) contributes to an overall quality of life for everyone involved," according to the ITGA .
It would be beneficial for the Bennington business and academic communities to get a lot more ... collegial.