Bennington College chooses media executive as new president

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Note: This story was updated at 7:45 p.m. on June 1, 2020.

BENNINGTON — Bennington College's board of trustees has appointed veteran media executive Laura R. Walker to be the school's next president. 

Walker served as president and chief executive officer of New York Public Radio for nearly two dozen years before stepping down last year. She currently serves on the President's Council at Wesleyan University and holds fellowships at the Yale School of Management. 

"I was looking for a place I would fall in love with — and I did," Walker said in an interview on Monday. The college's focus on student-driven inquiry and public action, among other factors, position the school to have an even greater impact on the world in the future, she said. 

Walker will succeed interim president Isabel Roche, who has served in the role following Mariko Silver's departure in July 2019. Walker will begin her term as president elect on July 1 and become president at the start of the following month, according to the college.

In a news release issued Monday afternoon, Nick Stephens, who chairs the college's board of trustees, described Walker as a "unique, emboldened leader who can serve as both a visionary and a change agent."

"Throughout her career, she has ignited profound innovation, paving new paths in journalism, public broadcasting and the arts, and her fresh ideas are complemented greatly by a demonstrable ability to lead through change," Stephens continued. “This trademark skill and style was most evident at New York Public Radio, where Laura took a small, local news station and turned it into a media powerhouse, changing the way news is consumed on local and national levels.

"We are thrilled to welcome her to Bennington in this moment of rapid cultural, economic, and educational change, to guide the college into the next chapter of its story as a fearless and innovative institution.”

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During her 23 years at the helm of NYPR, Walker oversaw considerable growth at the organization, including "the creation of one of the largest newsrooms in New York, the expansion of company holdings with a number of strategic acquisitions, and the launch of major programs and platforms that elevated the brand, including one of the first formal podcast divisions of its kind," WNYC Studios, according to the release. 

NYPR's audience expanded from 1 million monthly listeners to more than 25 million listeners during Walker's tenure, and its annual operating budget increased from $8 million to $97 million, according to the release.

Toward the end of Walker's tenure, in late 2017, accusations of inappropriate conduct surfaced against three WNYC hosts, one who had retired that summer and two who were later fired. John Hockenberry, the retired host, who was accused of sexual harassment and bullying, said his "behavior was not always appropriate" and apologized. The other two hosts, Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz, "denied behaving inappropriately," according to WNYC.

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report by an outside law firm at the request of NYPR's board of trustees that was publicized in April 2018 found "offensive and at times discriminatorily harassing conduct ... by a small number of individuals, including hosts of shows and administrative staff" but did not find evidence of "systemic discrimination," which it defined as "pervasive discrimination or discriminatory harassment that is known and tolerated by senior management."

It found no evidence that either senor management or human resources condoned discrimination or discriminatory harassment. "Significant and prompt disciplinary action was taken in most cases where violations were found," the report said. 

Staff told the law firm's investigators "that the departures of numerous women of color were attributable to race and/or gender discrimination or were in retaliation for their having made complaints. We did not find evidence sufficient to support these allegations," the report said. "Whatever its merits, this perception reflects a lack of confidence in the fairness of decision-making and the addressing of complaints."

Walker enacted recommendations from the report and implemented additional changes at the organization, considering it "a challenge and a necessity ... to look at the underlying issues and say we were going to get better," she said Monday. 

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In a statement at the time of the report's release, Walker acknowledged the "painful fact" that "some people experienced mistreatment and marginalization at an organization that prides itself on inclusivity and excellence," adding that "this happened on my watch, and I accept responsibility." 

Before her time with NYPR, Walker held positions with Sesame Workshop, then known as Children's Television Workshop, and Carnegie Hall. She holds a master's in business administration from the Yale School of Management and a bachelor's degree in history from Wesleyan University. 

Walker is an adviser to the nonprofit Springboard Enterprises and online education platform MasterClass, according to the release. She is married to lawyer Bert Wells and has two children. 

Walker's selection followed a search and interview process led by a committee made up of faculty, staff, and members of the board of trustees, according to the release. All faculty, staff and students "had several opportunities to hear from each candidate and to submit their feedback to the committee" this spring. 

Bennington College announced last month its plan for the fall semester, which allows for both in-person and remote learning. Walker said that "in this period of disruption" she will seek to work transparently with the Bennington community.

"It's still a hidden gem," Walker said of the college, "and I want the world to know more about it."

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