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Analysis Of Mark Edmundson 's New York Times Piece, Bennington Means Business

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Case Study #1: Bennington College
Mark Edmundson’s New York Times piece, Bennington Means Business, provides an alumnus’ narration of the overhaul of Bennington College in 1994. The piece also provides an ideal model of an organization in change, which elucidates the undercurrents of educational leadership theory that commonly materialize in more nuanced and less pronounced ways. First, attention will be paid to the symbolism of Bennington College, particularly as chronicled by Edmundson. Then, the natural selection view of organizations will be discussed in relation to Bennington’s decline. The intercession of Liz Coleman highlights themes of the political frame, organizational structure, and leadership styles to be analyzed further and
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The challenge to an institution or leader operating in the symbolic frame, though, is to create meaning, and this is where Bennington College has struggled. Edmundson (1994) admits that “it is mainly…for trying to sustain [its ideals] that the college has come to grief.” Even Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College (with whom Edmundson often seems to disagree), acknowledges the importance of symbolism to her institution. “‘Bennington,’ Coleman said, ‘has got to do something that no one else is doing,’” or, in other words, Bennington needs an image, it needs direction, and it needs symbolism (Edmundson, 1994). Although different individuals have different ideas about what that “something” ought to be, there seems to be consensus around the idea symbols lend value, foster an image, and bolster organizational mission. In short, symbols matter to institutions. Symbols, however, do not always suffice to keep organizations afloat. In 1993, Bennington College’s Board of Trustees began an organizational remodeling referred to as the Symposium Process. The energetic, artistic, and creative student body that had symbolized the Bennington culture for so long was in decline. According to Liz Coleman, Bennington “‘became mediocre over time,’” especially as other colleges and universities adopted the symbols that had previously brought Bennington such success (Edmundson, 1994). Edmundson (1994) makes clear, however, that it is not just
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