Liz Coleman radically remade Bennington College in the mid-1990s, in pursuit of a new vision: higher education as a performing art.

Why you should listen

If you followed higher education news in the 1990s, you have an opinion on Liz Coleman. The president of what was once the most expensive college in America, Coleman made a radical, controversial plan to snap the college out of a budget and mission slump -- by ending the tenure system, abolishing academic divisions and yes, firing a lot of professors. It was not a period without drama. But fifteen years on, it appears that the move has paid off. Bennington's emphasis on cross-disciplinary, hands-on learning has attracted capacity classes to the small college, and has built a vibrant environment for a new kind of learning.

Coleman's idea is that higher education is an active pursuit -- a performing art. Her vision calls for lots of one-on-one interactions between professor and student, deep engagement with primary sources, highly individual majors, and the destruction of the traditional academic department. It's a lofty goal that takes plenty of hard work to keep on course.

What others say

“There’s a reason Liz Coleman likens science to a 'performing art' at Bennington. We need a context for what goes on in the classroom; otherwise there's no understanding of history, of how scientific fact emerges in the first place.” — Elizabeth Sherman, Bennington College faculty

Liz Coleman’s TED talk

Liz Coleman on the TED Blog


Embrace messiness: Liz Coleman on the next role of higher education

February 12, 2014

What’s the future of education? It’s a popular question right now, with answers ranging from online learning to charter schools. But Liz Coleman is focused on a more fundamental issue: what will schools teach? And what does that mean for the future of our society? In her eye-opening talk at TED2009, Coleman shared her hopes […]

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A call to reinvent liberal arts education: Liz Coleman on

June 1, 2009

Bennington president Liz Coleman delivers a call-to-arms for radical reform in higher education. Bucking the trend to push students toward increasingly narrow areas of study, she proposes a truly cross-disciplinary education — one that dynamically combines all areas of study to address the great problems of our day. (Recorded at TED2009, February 2009, in Long […]

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TED2009 minutes from Ethan Zuckerman: Engaging minds

February 7, 2009

Ethan Zuckerman is blogging live from TED2009, and has the latest from the very last session of the conference, “Engage.” In one entry, he shares his memory of being a student at Bennington College when Liz Coleman was appointed president, while she speaks on educational reform. Here’s an excerpt: “In 1993, Coleman eliminated presumptive tenure […]

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